Thursday, August 9, 2012

Athy Town Council celebrating 500 years of Local Government

I have been very surprised at the response to my article on the possible disbandment of Athy Town Council as part of the reorganisation of Local Government planned by the present Government.  The overwhelming view expressed by those who contacted me was extremely negative of the Town Council.  These views ranged from ‘the Council has done nothing for Athy’ to a more thoughtful assertion that Athy Town Council is powerless to make any contribution to the social or commercial life of the town.  Nobody, and I stress nobody, made any attempt to justify the continuance of the Council in its present format.  Only one person spoke of the need to give the Council more powers and greater access to finances to underpin the Council’s work.  That same person when questioned as to whether she supported the imposition of rates on private dwellings demurred at implementing what is conceivably the only sound financial basis for empowering local authorities.

One person, clearly dissatisfied with the alleged failure of County Council officials to reply to letters in a timely fashion, wanted the local Government reorganisation to include the disbandment of County Councils.  When I asked what should replace them there was a half hearted and clearly off the cuff observation that regional bodies comprising two or three counties might be formed in their place.  Visions of Health Boards which were constituted on a regional basis prior to the setting up of the soon to be disbanded H.S.E. dashed before me at the suggestion of regional bodies.  Pointing out the financial excesses and the failures attributed to the Health Boards of the past and the danger of the same problems infecting any new regional bodies prompted my friend to hastily withdraw her suggestion.  But she still stuck to her belief that the County Council should be replaced, even if she was not able to suggest what should replace the County bodies. 

One wonders if the Minister intends to consult with the people who are presently served by the current local Government system.  I would hope so as I am sure, given the response I received to my article, there are many individuals and groups who would want to make a contribution towards the public debate.

In three years time Athy will have the opportunity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the granting of the town’s first Charter by King Henry VIII.  The inhabitants of the town were licensed to ‘erect, construct, build and strengthen the town with fosses and walls of stone and lime’ and to elect a Provost ‘from amongst themselves on the feast of St. Michael to guard and govern the town.’  This Charter was followed by a further Charter granted by James I in 1611 and the Charter of James II of 1689.  This latter Charter, a copy of which is in the Public Record Office in Belfast, was not apparently acted upon. 

The operative Charters established the Borough Council which continued to govern the town of Athy until it was abolished in 1840.  It was one of a number of Irish boroughs deemed undemocratic as the local people had not been allowed to stand for election to the Borough Council, nor given the opportunity to vote for elections to those Councils.

Here in Athy membership of the Borough Council was in the gift of the Duke of Leinster who nominated its members and those nominated held office as Burgesses for as long as they wished.  In the light of recent disclosures regarding the fraudulent behaviour of some elected representatives in other parts of Ireland, it is interesting to note part of the Oath of an Athy Burgess who swore allegiance ‘to the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland’ as well as swearing ‘in all things belonging to the fellowship and Corporation of the town and Borough of Athy faithfully, honestly and indifferently behave myself for the most benefit worship and honesty of the said town and Borough and the inhabitants thereof.’

With what can be regarded as the first major review of Local Government in 1840 Athy Borough Council and many others were dissolved.  This led two years later to the setting up of Athy Town Commissioners.  The first Commissioners totalling 21 in numbers were sworn in on the 28th of February 1842.  Thereafter elections to the Borough Council were held periodically, even though voting rights were limited to persons owning property of a sizeable valuation.

The Town Commissioners petitioned the Local Government Board in 1898 to separate the town from the rural district of Athy and to constitute it as an urban sanitary authority.  As a result Athy was constituted an Urban District from 1st April 1900 and the first meeting of the Urban District Council was held on the following day under the Chairmanship of Matthew J. Minch.  The Urban District Council was renamed some years ago as the Town Council and it’s the Town Council which now faces into an uncertain future while it awaits the Minister’s decision on the latest round of Local Government reorganisation in Ireland.

No matter what happens we will continue to be served by some Local Government unit or other.  Hopefully then in 2015 we will be able to celebrate 500 years of local administration in the town of Athy. 

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