Athy Urban District Council had a splendid celebration of its Centenary last weekend to coincide with its first ever meeting of the Council on the 2nd April 1900. The current Council Chairman and First Citizen of the town, Frank English did an excellent job of hosting the gathering, firstly in the Council’s Chamber and later in the Leinster Arms Hotel which had witnessed many previous events associated not only with the Urban Council but also with its predecessors Athy Town Commissioners and Athy Borough Council. I have to admit to some disappointment however with the performance of some elected representatives who, when their turn came to speak in the Council Chamber on this historic occasion, prefaced their perfunctory remarks with an apologetic disclaimer “I have nothing prepared.” This, despite having being told well in advance that each of the Councillors who were elected last year to represent their constituents would be asked to make a contribution on the occasion of the special meeting arranged for the Council’s Centenary Celebration.
You know nothing seems to change when it comes to the business of the local Council. That is your business and mine - our business which we entrust to the Councillor’s to deal with in our best interests. Little or no preparation is seemingly ever given by some Councillor’s to the matters they have to deal with at Council meetings. However, this does not deter them from saying their tuppence worth but as you can expect, its never likely to make any worthwhile contribution to the business in hand.
Really I should not cast aspersions on the good men whose job it is to guide the town’s destiny over the next five years or so but, their performance last weekend, with some exceptions, left me saddened. Even more so when I consider the shambles which has developed around the local demand for a plebiscite on the new road plans for the town. “No, you can’t have a plebiscite” So spoke the Council official who gave dire warning of surcharges to be imposed on any Councillors who had the temerity to stand up for the rights of the local people. We who live in Athy and whose future and indeed, whose past, are rooted in the bricks and mortar of this place, can only wonder at the power that officials can exercise over the rights of the natives. We may live in Athy, we may regard this historic town as our place but, our voices are silenced by the words of officials who, to paraphrase Robin Day’s famous description during John Knott’s interview some years ago “Are transient officials, here today, gone tomorrow”. Makes you wonder about the state of democracy in this little island of ours.
My support for the right of the local people to have a say in the future road development plans for the town by way of a plebiscite or referendum received a welcome boost when I recently perused the Urban District Council’s own records. The first Urban District Council under the Chairmanship of Matthew P. Minch of Rockfield House, held a referendum of the local people of Athy when plans were first mooted for the development of a water supply scheme for the town. One would have thought that the town people, whose only supply of water came from a number of contaminated public wells, would have eagerly seized the opportunity to ensure access to a healthy and wholesome water supply. Amongst the Urban Council of the day there was disagreement on this very important issue and the most vociferous opponent of the proposal was local publican and future author of “The Annals of Athy” Michael or “Crutch” Malone of Woodstock Street. His objection to the scheme would appear to have been based on the likely rates increase which would have resulted. The Council of the day in their wisdom, decided to have a referendum of the local rate payers and ballot papers were distributed on a Friday and collected the following Monday in which two questions were asked.
“1. Are you in favour of a water supply for the town of Athy?
2. If you are do you approve of Mr. Reades Modubeagh Water Scheme?”
The ballot papers, when collected and counted, showed that an overwhelming majority of the rate payers were not in favour of the Scheme. The result reviewed in hindsight was surprising but at least it was democratic and it recognised the right of the local people to participate in local government.
We have come a long way since but in some ways we have fossilised as today the elected representatives of our town spurn the request of the local people for a referendum on whether the Inner Relief Road proposal should go ahead. Their failure to accede to the legitimate and reasonable request clearly demonstrates that local government in Ireland, hyped by successive governments and ministers as based on democracy and partnership is nothing but a sham. The present Minister spoke last week of the need to strengthen the link between local government and local communities but, truly Athy stands as living proof that local government does not always serve the local community and that democracy and local government do not co-exist in our midst.
The Urban Council will have met to discuss yet again, the Town Development Plan with its Inner Relief Road proposal before this appears and may well have decided the issue in the same way as it was decided nine years and sixteen years ago. For you see the much vaunted hype about the Development Plan and the Inner Relief Road is an issue which comes up for review every five years or so and there is nothing to suggest that a decision by the Council to include the Inner Relief Road in the Development yet again will bring that particular piece of tarmacadamed lunacy any closer than it has been for the last twenty years.
The by-pass road for Athy has a better prospect of being put in place and much more quickly than the Inner Relief Road if only the town fathers would read the signs and follow the common sense route for the future development of the town. If some of them haven’t the time to prepare a few suitable words to celebrate the Centenary of local government in our town, then its hardly likely that they will have the foresight to look to the future and assess what needs to be done now to enable the commercial and residential elements of our town develop in a complementary and harmonious way.