Local Government since 1800

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Local Government since 1800

The nineteenth century saw a dramatic expansion in the scope and authority of local government together with its gradual democratization. This process was reversed in the twentieth century, with power moving back to the center.

In the early nineteenth century responsibility for urban government was shared by municipal corporations (where they existed), parish vestries, and manor courts. These bodies paid little attention to the provision of local services, and in 1828 urban property holders were empowered by act of Parliament to elect commissioners to provide such basic services as street lighting and the construction of sewers. The powers and responsibilities of town commissioners were gradually increased over the course of the century. The vast majority of Irish municipal corporations were abolished in 1840, having developed into exclusive, self-perpetuating oligarchies. Only ten (with the later addition of Wexford) survived to become elected councils.

The primary organ of local administration in rural areas was the grand jury, which was empowered to raise money by means of local taxation to provide for the upkeep of roads, bridges, and public buildings such as jails and courthouses. Many of the grand jury's taxing powers, such as those relating to the provision of county infirmaries, were discretionary and rarely utilized. Growing concerns about poverty, ill health, and disorder in Ireland led to the imposition of statutory responsibilities on grand juries. For example, beginning in 1817 they could be required to build and maintain district lunatic asylums that were managed by centrally appointed boards of governors. The county constabulary established in 1822 was similarly funded by but not administered by grand juries. As the century proceeded, the grand jury thus became increasingly important as a taxing rather than an administrative authority. As expenditure levels rose, criticism of the grand-jury system increased: Not only were grand juries unrepresentative of the local community, but they were also alleged to be corrupt and inefficient. Grand jurors were nominated by the high sheriff from the leading property owners of the county, excluding nobles, and were widely believed to abuse the system for their own personal gains. Government ministers shared the popular dissatisfaction with the way in which grand-jury affairs were conducted, but they were reluctant to contemplate any major reform, believing that Ireland was not ready for local democracy in rural areas. Legislation passed in 1818, 1833, and 1836 did reduce the opportunities for abuse by introducing stricter accounting procedures and by giving ratepayers a limited role in authorizing expenditures. More significantly, however, the administrative power of the grand jury was increasingly eclipsed by the poor-law board, which was composed partly of guardians elected by the ratepayers and partly of local magistrates sitting ex officio.

First introduced in 1838, poor-law boards were entrusted with a wide range of responsibilities in addition to their primary tasks of managing workhouses and distributing relief to the poor. Administration of local dispensaries was transferred from grand juries to poor-law boards in the 1850s, and the boards became the administering authorities of the health and safety legislation of the 1860s and 1870s. Changes in local expenditures illustrate the increasing importance of the poor-law system: while the level of county taxation, which had risen steeply in the first half of the nineteenth century, remained fairly static in the second half of the century, poor-law expenditure doubled. In the early decades of the poor-law system, landowners or their agents dominated most boards of guardians, but this changed in the 1880s following the radicalization of rural politics that took place during the years of the Land War. Poor-law elections were increasingly contested as part of the national campaign for self-government, and elected guardians began to replace ex-officios as board officers. The shift in power on many poor-law boards produced a far more politicized and polarized system. In addition to serving as training grounds for nationalist politicians, poor-law boards gave women, who became eligible to serve as guardians in 1896, their first experiences in holding local government office.

The Local Government Act of 1898 established a comprehensive system of democratic local government in Ireland. Based on the English measure of 1888, the act introduced a two-tier system of county and district councils. The administrative responsibilities of grand juries were transferred to elected county councils. Rural district councils took on the functions of poor-law boards and also became the sanitary authorities for their areas. (In urban areas municipal corporations and town commissioners operated largely unchanged and separate boards of guardians were retained.) The local government board was given the task of supervising the activities of the new councils, and its approval was required for many of their acts, including appointments and dismissals. All councillors and poor-law guardians were elected by a householder franchise that, unlike the parliamentary franchise, included women and peers. Following vigorous lobbying by women's organizations, women obtained the right to run for election as district councillors, though not, until 1911, as county councillors. The most significant changes produced by the Local Government Act were not to the structure of local administration, but in the composition of its constituent bodies: In contrast to unionist-dominated grand juries, county councils were, in most cases, nationalist-dominated.

As the campaign for national self-government gathered momentum in the early decades of the twentieth century, relations between central and local governments deteriorated. After the establishment of the Dáil government in 1919 many local councils refused to recognize British authority and declared their allegiance to Dáil Éireann. Irish republicans regarded both the local-government system and its practitioners with suspicion, seeing the former as extravagant and expensive and the latter as inefficient and corrupt. While the basic structures remained in place in both parts of Ireland following independence, local government in the Free State lost many of its functions, including health and welfare administration, either to central government or to national or regional administrative boards. (Poor-law boards were abolished in 1923 and rural-district councils in 1925.) The establishment in the 1930s of the city-and county-manager system, whereby council services are administered not by committees of elected councillors but under the direction of an appointed manager, and the replacement of local property taxation with block grants from central government, further weakened the power and authority of local representatives. Since 1935 a universal adult franchise has operated in local elections.

In Northern Ireland, local government became the focus of allegations of gerrymandering and discrimination, primarily against Catholics. Proportional representation in local elections, intended to ensure minority representation, was abolished in 1922, and the retention of property and businessmen's votes, long after these had been abandoned in Britain and independent Ireland, gave unionists a significant electoral advantage. Universal adult suffrage was introduced for local elections in 1969. In the following year the Stormont government accepted the report of a review body chaired by Sir Patrick Macrory recommending the reorganization of local government. This led to the establishment in 1973 of twenty-six district councils responsible for services such as refuse disposal and environmental health, and area boards, whose members were nominated by government, to control health, education, and library services. Macrory had intended that this system would work in tandem with the Northern Ireland Assembly; the absence of this top tier of local government, often referred to as the "Macrory gap," resulted in a significant democratic deficit at the local level.

SEE ALSO Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Primary Documents: Letter Advocating Federalism as an Alternative to Repeal (November 1844)


Aughey, Arthur, and Duncan Morrow, eds. Northern Ireland Politics. 1996.

Chubb, Basil. The Government and Politics of Ireland. 3d edition, 1992.

Crossman, Virginia. Local Government in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. 1994.

Feingold, W. L. The Revolt of the Tenantry: The Transformation of Local Government in Ireland, 1872–86. 1984.

Virginia Crossman