Ireland is a parliamentary democracy and a unitary state which became independent in 1921 and adopted its Constitution in 1937. The Irish Parliament is called the Oireachtas and consists of two Houses: the House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) and the Senate (Seanad Éireann).
The country is composed of 80 municipalities, 29 County Councils, five City Councils, eight Regional Authorities and two Regional Assemblies.
Since Ireland is a small and centralised state, regions play a very limited role. Local authorities provide local government services at county/city level. In this respect, local governments were formally recognised by way of an amendment to the Constitution in 1999. Eight regional authorities were established in 1991 and came into existence in 1994. In 1999, two regional assemblies were created for Structural Fund purposes: the Southern and Eastern Region and the Border, Midland and Western Region. Irish regions are not bestowed any legislative power, have very limited administrative competences and enjoy a low degree of autonomy.
There is no shared tax revenue for local government, since local tax revenue is derived solely from own-resources taxation and from only one tax, namely the commercial rates tax. Commercial rates brought in EUR 1 408 million in 2009. County council commercial rates revenue made up 55% of the total commercial rate revenue of local government. The city council share came to 33%, while town/borough councils raised 12% of total local government revenue from commercial rates. However, in 2010, a new tax on Non-Principal Private Residences was introduced, the entire proceeds of which go to local authorities. In 2012, a new household charge to make a contribution in respect of local authorities services has been introduced, which will be replaced by a property tax in 2013.
Proposals on the reform of the local government system in Ireland are currently being prepared (2012). The proposals will include the strengthening of structures at regional, county and sub-county levels, and the expansion of the role of these local authorities.
A decision has already been taken to merge the two authorities in both Limerick and Tipperary. The issue of whether Waterford City and County Councils should be unified is also being examined.
General division of powers
The central government has full legislative powers.
Moreover, it exercises the bulk of administrative powers due to the very low degree of autonomy enjoyed by the devolved authorities and the strict supervision of the lower tiers of government.
Proposals on reform of local and regional government structures are being prepared, with an underlying commitment to allow for much greater decision-making to local people.
Two structures represent the central State at regional level, namely the Regional Authorities and the Regional Assemblies.
The eight regional authorities are not devolved bodies and have the following competences:
Planning, i.e. coordination of public services at regional level and provision of guidelines for spatial planning;
Ensuring the communication of programmes and plans of the central government;
Managing regional programmes and reviewing the implementation of other Community programmes at the regional level, in particular the Structural Funds;
Planning, including reviewing the Development Plans of local authorities in their region and adjoining regions, and preparing Regional Planning Guidelines and Regional Economic and Social Strategies;
Coordinating public services and promoting cooperation and joint actions;
- Supervising and monitoring the implementation of the European Union Structural Funds.
The two Regional Assemblies have competences in:
Managing and monitoring the regional operational programmes;
Promoting the coordination of public services;
Monitoring the general impact of European Union funds and national programmes on the region.
Local level: Local authorities
The 29 County Councils and the five City Councils are entrusted the following competences:
Housing and building: the enforcement of minimum standards, assistance with provision of housing for those unable to house themselves;
Road transportation and safety, including the construction, improvement and maintenance of roads and other traffic functions;
Water supply and sewerage, including the provision of water supplies, sewerage and drainage. The Government has announced the establishment of a new national body to take over responsibility for the provision of water services. Arrangements in this regard will be put in place over the coming years;
Development incentives and controls, including preparing and implementing development plans for their areas, controlling development and preserving and improving amenities;
Environmental protection, including collection and disposal, street cleaning, water safety, pollution control, fire-fighting and promotion of environmental health;
Recreation and amenities, including the provision of swimming pools, parks, open space, library service and community centres;
Miscellaneous services, i.e. registers of voters and jurors and provision of courthouses and pounds;
- Agriculture, education, health and welfare (no longer a major function of local authorities, although they do provide higher education grants).
In addition to the functions outlined above, a fundamental role of democratically elected local government is the representation of local communities, voicing of local concerns and response to local needs.
The 80 municipalities, which include five Borough Councils and 75 Town Councils and are sub-divisions of the counties, have competences in the field of:
Housing , including building control;
Transport, including local road transport and safety;
Culture facilities, including library service, sports, and recreation;
Public areas, i.e. parks and open spaces;
Registration of voter and jurors.
Local authorities operate through Strategic Policy Committees. These committees are composed of elected members and nominated representatives from sectoral bodies, such as the social partners and non-government organisations. These committees make policy recommendations to the local authority. One of the key aims of these committees is to integrate more closely local development and local government.
While central government has encroached upon the powers of local authorities by establishing various agencies with supervisory and legislative powers, there has been an easing of central control in areas such as staffing, budget control and financial allocations. New systems for financing local government have also been introduced.