You have been too long without any reference to the Inner Relief Road controversy in Athy. My apologies for my tardiness in bringing you all up to date on the issue but I had been awaiting with some interest the response of the Minister for the Environment to a letter sent to him last February by Frank English, Chairman of the Urban District Council. That letter read :-
“I am writing to you as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council and one of a number of Councillors elected last June to represent the people of Athy who have campaigned for the holding of a plebiscite on the proposed Athy Inner Relief Road. Athy Urban District Council in the mid-1970’s agreed to proceed with an Inner Relief Road to alleviate traffic congestion in the town. Since then and especially in recent years local people have pressed for a bypass of the town instead of the Inner Relief Road as originally suggested.
In October 1998 Athy Urban District Council adopted the European Urban Charter which formed part of a Programme of Urban Policies adopted by the standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. With regard to citizen participation the European Charter specifically declared that local representatives “are not given a detailed mandate covering all local affairs during their terms of office and must therefore return to the electorate at regular intervals for consultation on particular issues”. The Charter then declares that “the use of a Referendum is essential where elected local representatives while possessing a general mandate do not have one for a new particular problem or policy.”
Having adopted the European Charter it was felt that Athy Urban District Council would adhere to its terms. This was of particular relevance when five candidates who actively supported and canvassed for a plebiscite on the relief road issue were elected to the Council in June 1999. Following the election Kildare Co. Co. officials sought legal opinion on the right of the Council to hold a plebiscite and received two Opinions from Patrick Butler B.L. Mr. Butler concluded that there was no provision within the Planning Legislation for a plebiscite of the public. That opinion insofar as it went was correct. However, as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council I obtained a legal opinion from Edmund Honohan, S.C. which unequivocally stated that if the members of Athy UDC were of opinion that holding a plebiscite to ascertain the views of the local electorate on the Inner Relief Road “is likely to benefit the local community” then it was open to the Council to proceed on that basis and hold a plebiscite on the issue. In this opinion Mr. Honohan cited the provisions of Section 6 of the Local Government Act, 1991.
At a meeting of Athy Urban District Council held on 15th December, 1999 to consider a Motion on the holding of a plebiscite the Deputy County Manager circulated a Memo in which he claimed that the members would be acting ultra vires if they proceeded with the Motion. He also claimed in his Memo that members voting for a plebiscite would be liable to meet any charge or surcharge imposed on the Council.
Faced with this advice the Motion was lost, two members confirming in subsequent radio interviews that they had no alternative but to break their electoral committment and vote against the Motion.
I am now writing to you as Chairman of Athy Urban District Council to bring these matters to your attention and to seek clarification as to whether the advice proffered by the Deputy County Manager to the meeting of 15th December was correct having regard to the terms of Section 6 of the 1991 Local Government Act.
I am particularly concerned to ensure that community participation in Local Government in Athy is encouraged rather than hindered or obstructed, especially so if the rights of the Local Authority under the 1991 Act would allow the holding of a plebiscite or referendum.
As the Minister with overall responsibility for Local Government in Ireland I would hope you will review the advice and opinions offered to the Council members and uphold the right of the local people to a plebiscite.
If the community’s call for a plebiscite is not properly addressed at this stage inevitably difficulties will be encountered at future stages of the road development if and whenever it should obtain Ministerial or approval of the National Road Authority.
I am particularly anxious that this matter be reviewed as a matter of extreme urgency.”
The Minister recently replied to the Chairman of the Urban Council and what he has to say reaffirms the opinion expressed by Edmund Honohan, S.C. that the Urban District Council Members had the absolute right to hold a plebiscite on the Inner Relief Road. Specifically the Minister states :-
“The Local Government Act, 1991 provides that a Local Authority may represent the interests of the local community in such manner as they think is appropriate and for that purpose may promote, organise or assist the carrying out of research, surveys or studies with respect to the local community.”
The final line of the Minister’s letter indicates a course of action which the anti-Inner Relief Group must now consider if they wish to vindicate the rights of the local people to be consulted on the new road issue. Specifically the Minister refers to the Courts as the final interpreter of law in the event of any dispute. Alternatively of course the Members of Athy Urban District Council who rejected the call for a plebiscite on a vote of 5/4 might now reconsider that decision given that the advice which caused Councillors Reid and Lawler to change their views on the issue is shown to be incorrect.
Recent announcements from Kildare County Council and from the town’s Chamber of Commerce have sought to reassure the supporters of the Inner Relief Road that work on the Inner Relief Road will commence within two years. I can only smile at the barefaced buffoonery of Kildare County Council which would issue such an outlandish statement without reference to the many time consuming procedures which have yet to be gone through before a JCB tears up Emily Square. What about the Compulsory Purchase Orders required to secure lands over which any planned road must go? What about the Bridge Order which must be obtained and what about the Environmental Impact Assessment, all of which will require compliance with public display and consultation procedures?
Kildare County Council successfully inveigled the decision it wanted from the elected representatives of Athy Urban District Council as regards the plebiscite but never again will they be allowed to sweet talk their way by trampling over the rights of the local people.
The issue now is will Athy Urban District Council revisit the plebiscite issue, or will the local people of Athy who favour a plebiscite be forced to assert their rights through the Irish Courts?