While it’d be easy to dismiss the people who sit in Dublin’s City Hall as just another layer of careerist politicians, councillors actually do it part-time.
A councillor’s salary is pegged at a quarter of a senator’s. That means a councillor gets, as a base salary, €16,565 per year.
“By implication, you could say that the powers that be have decided it’s a quarter-time role rather than a full-time role,” says Mark Callanan who lectures on public management and governance at the Institute of Public Administration in Dublin.
Extra duties councillors undertake get them more money: the councillor who serves as lord mayor gets an extra €60,000, and councillors who chair strategic policy committees (SPCs) get an extra €6,000 a year.
On top of this, there are expenses for travelling to meetings, phone bills, internet, and so on; things that help in the performance of their responsibilities as public representatives.
That isn’t bad for what’s envisaged as a part-time role, but many councillors on Dublin City Council think it isn’t enough.
In the wake of reforms in 2014, councillors are working as hard or harder than ever. Their political duties take up almost enough time to count as a full-time position.
“Our power has gone down, but our work has gone up,” says Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.
So should our councillors be employed full-time? Well, it depends who you ask.
A survey carried out by the Association of Irish Local Government last year found that, nationwide, councillors spend an average of just over 33 hours a week on their political duties. That translates to about €9.60 per hour worked, before factoring in expenses.
Add those 33 hours to their other jobs in the real world, and your councillors are putting in some lengthy work weeks.
Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe also works as a lecturer at Dublin Institute of Technology.
“I would say it [being a councillor] takes up to 30, if not 40 hours a week at the moment, for me,” Cuffe says. And I always try to claim that ‘Ah, sure it’s only 20 hours a week,’ but I just find myself doing emails late at night, early morning, then going to meetings.”
Cuffe says that his area, the North Inner City, has been “a very busy place over the last six months for all the wrong reasons”, but that 30 hours a week is by no means unusual for him.
It’s a common thing to hear. A quick look at the Register of Interest that councillors have to fill out shows the diversity of employment among them. There are a fair few barristers and parliamentary assistants.
Independent Councillor Ruairí McGinley is an accountant. Fine Gael’s Paddy McCartan is an optician. Others work in community roles, while quite a few – like 40 percent of councillors nationwide – already do it full-time.
Rebecca Moynihan of Labour is a teacher and the current deputy lord mayor. She says being a councillor is “far more difficult if you don’t have a flexible job”. As an example, she points to the last week.
“On Monday, I had my first meeting at 10 o’clock, and I finished up at 9 o’clock that night. There wasn’t really a break in between. On Tuesday I had my first meeting at 11 o’clock, and again there were things right up until the evening … I got out last night at about 10 o’clock,” she said.
Moynihan and others point to changes brought about by the Local Government Reform Act of 2014, which they say have increased the pressure on councillors.
The reforms, says independent Councillor Paul Hand, “made the wards bigger, made there more meetings to attend, so on average I’d put in 30 hours a week”.
Muiris MacCarthaigh, who lectures in public administration at Queen’s University Belfast sees both pros and cons in making councillors full-time.
On the plus side, it is a way of solving the “old problem of ‘how do you attract people into public office?’” he says. “The difficulty has traditionally been that the absence of full-time pay has disincentivised people from taking a career as a local elected politician as a career opportunity.”
Also, decently paid full-timers would hopefully be fully dedicated to the local authority, and it would lessen the potential for conflict of interest with their other jobs.
“Another big advantage of full-time councillors would be this long-standing issue in Irish public life around the presence of local authority issues in the national parliament. In theory you should have a greater shift towards more local issues being dealt with at the local level,” said MacCarthaigh. Fewer parliamentarians asking hundreds of questions around hospital appointments, for example.
On the other hand, making councillors full-time would be mean another layer of politicians that the public have to pay full-time salaries. And it might attract people who are just in it for the money.
“If you offer a salaried position and the salary is attractive then maybe you start attracting people in for the wrong reasons,” says MacCarthaigh.
The people who took those jobs might also be professional politicians without any outside experience. Fine Gael Councillor Paddy Smyth says having people in the council from a range of backgrounds has huge benefits.
Smyth, who is a GP, says that “for a large portion of our politicians to be career politicians without any real-world experience is an insidious thing”.
He points to ex-British Prime Minister David Cameron as someone who had little experience of life outside the Conservative Party bubble in the course of his journey from Oxford to Downing Street.
“Any visits to Leinster House, the first things you notice is, ‘Wow, this is really a bubble,’” Smyth said. It wouldn’t be too hard for that to develop in City Hall, he thinks.
More Hours, More Power?
There’s the question, too, of whether Irish councillors have the power to make full-time positions worth it.
“Local authorities don’t have the power that they should have. Too much is still centralised,” said Micheál MacDonnacha, a Sinn Féin councillor.“Even the most minor project has to be run through the Department of the Environment, which is crazy.”
Hand agrees. “The additional power would have to be delivered,” he says. “There isn’t enough power there at the moment.”
Many feel that moving to a full-time council would be largely pointless without a commensurate increase in the influence and power of the local authority.
However, Callanan argues that councillors already have a reasonably large amount of power, agreeing on budgets and appropriating money, building the Development Plan, and so on.
Of course, the most potentially significant change in generations to Dublin’s local politics was voted down in 2014 when the plan for a directly elected mayor was scuppered by the vote of Fingal County Council.
It’s in this context – of a more powerful regional authority with executive powers – that councillors and others see the possibility for change.
Callanan says one option would be for a more “cabinet-style approach, where instead of having one person having the representative role … you might have four or five people assigned responsibility for overseeing certain service areas for the council”. Beyond this, he says, you could have a “wider council”, made up of the current part-time councillors.
This kind of hybrid model seems to hold a certain appeal. Dermot Lacey of Labour says that the “solution” to the current problem is simple.
“You elect a full-time Dublin regional authority of about 20-25 members, relatively small,” he said. (For comparison, Dublin City Council now has 63 elected members.)
The members of the regional authority would be “full-time, and they would deal with the issues that affect the entire region; I think if you took those issues off the workload of the councillors, you could continue to have the part-time councillors,” Lacey said.
This leaves space for councillors who want to “make Ballymun better, make Donnybrook better”, while those with wider interests and more experience would eventually “graduate” to the wider council, which would operate on a full-time basis.
Paul Hand, and Paddy Smyth concur. “The only thing I think would justify me becoming a full-time councillor,” says Smyth, “would be if there was a directly elected mayor with executive functions and a cabinet and departmental responsibilities for certain councillors.”
And what hope of these changes eventually being implemented? “I reckon I’ll see a directly elected mayor in my lifetime,” says Smyth. “Maybe not my political lifetime, but during my lifetime.”