keywords: Politics Clientelism Irish clientelist political Urban Ireland information reputation brokerage Irish county council administration government planning brokers clients Dublin bribery county councillors TDs planning rezoning development plan illegal housing corruption influence information patrons political local city corporation

Politics and Clientelism in Urban Ireland:
information, reputation, and brokerage

(c)Lee Komito 1985
University Microfilms International 8603660

The conversion of the original typescript has resulted in some errors in formatting.

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III. Government and Administration

This chapter outlines the formal structure of government and administration in Ireland. Ireland had been subject to British rule for many centuries and, since 1800, had been an administrative part of Great Britain. It is not surprising, then, that the new Irish state maintained the British structure of government and administration. As one writer commented, Ireland's "political values -- as well as its political structures -- were not merely modern but were articulated in a distinctively British way" (Farrell 1971a:xv). Although political power shifted from London to Dublin after independence, nationalist groups maintained their commitment to the pre-independence structures of government. There was very little alteration made by Irish politicians or desired by Irish citizens. These structures define the context within which political clientelism exists; they are structural "givens" which constrain individuals' actions, and are resources used in clientelist and factional exchanges.


Ireland is a parliamentary democracy; the executive is selected by, and accountable to, the legislature. The Oireachtas (parliament) consists of two houses: Dail Eireann and Seanad Eireann. The executive consists of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), those Ministers whom he appoints (up to 15), and up to 15 junior Ministers. In addition, the President is the ceremonial Head of State, and is elected directly by the people.

The Seanad (Senate) plays only a minor role in legislation; at best, it can only delay the passage of Dail bills. It was designed to provide a forum for various interest groups and be a counter balance to the partisan politics of the Dail. For this reason, elections to the Senate involve a complicated process. Six senators are elected by Irish graduates of national universities. Forty-three are elected by members of parliament and local government representatives (themselves elected by popular vote); the candidates are nominated by bodies representing five groups of interests (education and culture, agriculture, industry and commerce, labor, and public administration and social services) as well as by parliament. Finally, eleven are nominated by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), partly to ensure that the government of the day has a majority in the Senate.

In theory, Senators represent different interest groups instead of different political parties, and are able to examine legislative proposals from a broader perspective. In practice, the Senate is dominated completely by party politics, since the local councillors who vote on Senate candidates are themselves party politicians. Election to the Senate is either a stepping stone to a Dail seat for ambitious politicians, or as a sinecure for retired or defeated ones. It plays no part in selecting the government.

The other house of parliament (the Dail) is the more powerful body. After a general election, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is elected by the Dail, who then nominates other members of the Government, who are also approved by the Dail. Members of the Government are usually (although not necessarily) assigned responsibilities for particular government departments. Members of the Cabinet are thus usually members of the Government and also Ministers responsible for particular departments. As members of the Government, they are collectively responsible for government decisions; but as Ministers, they are accountable to the Dail for the operations of their Department. Members of the Dail (Teachtai Dala, commonly abbreviated as TD) can ask Ministers to account for any department decisions.

In addition to Ministers, the Taoiseach can also appoint up to fifteen junior Ministers, to be attached to various departments. Originally called Parliamentary Secretaries, their title was changed, in 1977, to Ministers of State, and their number increased from ten to fifteen. Each assist the Minister in carrying out his duties, by standing in for him in the Dail or at public functions. A Minister of State has many of the trappings of political office (such as a State car), which bolsters the TD's position vis-a-vis other rivals in his constituency. Such appointments are thus a useful patronage resource for the Taoiseach, who may want to reward faithful supporters.

Although the Dail is more powerful than the Senate, it is still relatively uninvolved in formulating policy. Party loyalty ensures the inevitable passage of Government legislation; the Government dictates to the Dail and the Dail acquiesses. Until recently, there were no committees to examine particular aspects of government activity, and, even now, only a few committees exist. TDs must accept, by and large, whatever Ministers say; they do not have the independent expertise to question government explanations.

Earlier, TDs were expected to be part-time rather than full-time politicians; they were not paid enough to exist on a their salary alone. Until recently, there was one secretary for about seven TDs, which forced the TD to do much secretarial and constituency work himself, leaving little time for policy discussions. Pay, working conditions, and support facilities have all improved in the last few years; many TDs are now full-time politicians with their own secretary. They remain, none-the-less, in the same subordinate position to the Government. It is accepted, by both TDs and voters, that TDs are not in the Dail to legislate or make policy decisions. TDs spend most of their time keeping the local voters happy and the local political machine under firm control. As far as most TDs are concerned, government can make policy, as long as it would not hinder the TD's re-election chances.

The Constitution requires that the total number of Teachtai Dala (members of the Dail) "shall not be fixed at less than one for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population" (Article 16.2.2). In practice, the number of TDs has always been about one per 20,000 (Chubb 1982:145). Governments have always opted for as many TDs as constitutionally possible, and Ireland would seem to suffer from political over-representation. The constitution requires that representation, numerically, "shall so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country" (Article 16.2.3). For a time, this was rather loosely interpreted, especially by Fianna Fail governments; they prefered to over-represent the West, where population was declining but Fianna Fail party support was high. A court case forced the government to reallocate seats, and it is now accepted that after every census, the number of Dail seats and their allocation to constituencies should be recalculated.

Ireland has multi-seat, rather than single-seat, constituencies. A constituency may elect from three to five TDs, as determined by the size of the constituency. Multi-seat constituencies were to ensure that minority parties would be represented in the Dail; parties that would be unlikely to have majority support in any one constituency could still, in a multi-seat election, obtain enough votes to win one seat out of four or five. This was to reassure the Protestant minority that they would not be swamped by the Catholic majority. In practice, this provision has had a keen impact on the nature of intra-party rivalries, as will be shown later.

General elections are held at least once every five years, or if the President dissolves the Dail on the advice of the Taoiseach. In the past, it has been rare for the Government to lose a vote and go out of office unwillingly; a strong party whip ensures that all members of the government party vote with the party. When the government comes near the end of its five year term, it will call a new election, at a time most advantageous to itself. In recent years, however, large parties have been in government only through the support of independent or fringe politicians, and have lost important Dail votes through the defection of such supporters. In these cases, it was impossible to form a new government, and a new election was necessary. Of the three elections in the two years 1982 and 1983, two were caused by such defections. It is quite unusual, however, for a government to be dependent on fringe TDs in this way; stability has been the norm.

Voting is on the basis of proportional representation, using a single transferable vote; citizens rank order their vote, indicating first preference, second preference, and so on. If the voter's first preference candidate does not obtain enough votes to be elected, the vote is transfered to the voter's second preference candidate, and, if that candidate is not elected, on to the third preference, and so on.4 For a full description of the Irish voting system, see Chubb (1982:350-53). A party many nominate as many candidates as it wishes; careful calculation is required to obtain the maximum vote. Usually, the main parties nominate nearly as many candidates as there are seats (e.g., four candidates in a five-seat constituency). Each candidate will be from a different part of the constituency and will, hopefully, pull in local votes that will then transfer back to the main party contenders. Although each candidate runs as an individual, rather than as a nominee of the party,5 nomination is, in practice, by political parties, and is decided by local party branches. The system has, in Ireland, created intra-party conflict as party candidates battle over first and second preference votes from loyal party voters.

Local Councils

In addition to a national government, Ireland also has a local government tier. Local councils are elected every five years, also using proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies. The local election constituencies are usually wards within the national constituencies. Councillors receive expenses but no salary, and little secretarial support; councillors must not only have income from another source (whether full-time employment or pension), they must often use that income to pay for their political activities.

An individual may be a TD and an elected member of a County Council simultaneously, and many politicians hold both national and local office. For many politicians, access to national office was through previous service as a local councillor. In 1977, 77 percent of TDs and 53 percent of Senators had been local councillors (Chubb 1982:223, see also Garvin 1972; Farrell 1971b; Nealon 1974, 1977). Local office gives politicians a chance to build up a power base, and eventually challenge the TD at an election. With a good local base, the challenger may receive more first preference votes and so unseat the incumbent. Not surprisingly, national politicians often remain on local councils in order to service their constituency and also to stop potential rivals from developing a power base.

There is no rule as to the number of councillors for a particular area, and wide variation is possible. Urban areas tend to have fewer councillors than rural ones; the ratio in County Dublin was, in 1980, 1:7,151 voters and in Dublin City 1:8,088 voters. At the same time, there was a ratio of 1:942 in Leitrim and 1:1,875 in Clare (Roche, D., 1982:312-320). This means there is closer contact between councillors and voters in rural areas. In urban areas, politicians are less likely to have social, economic, or kinship contacts with voters; exchanges between voters and politicians are likely to be less diffuse and multiplex than in rural areas. The relationship between councillors and TDs also varies from rural to urban settings. Rural counties have a large number of councillors relative to TDs while urban ones have a small number. In 1980, there were 806 city and county councillors and 166 TDs, or a ratio of 4.86:1; yet, in the Greater Dublin area the ratio was less than 1.7:1. Since most TDs remain councillors, urban rivals of TDs can be denied the stepping stone of local elected office. The nature of urban political competition inevitably differs from rural competition where the TD must tolerate councillors who are simultaneously his helpers and also potential rivals.


The Irish administrative system is based on a division between central government and local government. Central government is responsible to parliament through ministers, each controlling departments staffed by professional civil servants. Local government is a subordinate system; although administered by locally elected councils, councils are under central government control and have limited autonomy. This model had been introduced during British rule, and while the new Irish government rationalized the various departments, it retained the double-tiered administration.

Central Government

After Independence, existing civil service personnel were encouraged to stay on and 21,000 of the 28,000 previously employed did so (Chubb 1982:249). Inevitably, British attitudes concerning the role of the civil service and the role of government in general were carried over into the new Irish civil service. The size of the new Irish civil service stayed relatively static for decades, so the existing civil service, with its old attitudes, remained undiluted by new personnel during the crucial early years.

The new state quickly made the civil service independent of any direct Ministerial control. A Civil Service Commission was created in 1923, followed shortly thereafter by a Revenue Commission and a Local Appointments Commission. Staffing and procedures for most local and national bureaucracies, including those concerned with taxation, were quickly made immune from political pressure, and continuity with pre-independence practices was maintained. The Final Report on the Commission of Inquiry into the Civil Service 1932-35 was able to conclude that, in the post-1922 civil service, "the same main tasks of administration continued to be performed by the same staffs on the same general line of organisation and procedure" (from Dooney 1976:1).

In many post-colonial states, the civil service can become politicized, as bureaucratic decisions and staffing become targets of political influence. The Irish administration clearly pre-dated the political system in both structure and personnel, and remained isolated from politics. If anything, the history of Irish administration suggests increasing bureaucratic autonomy rather than politicization. By European standards, the Irish administration is very centralized (PSORG 1969:48; Barrington 1980:39-49), and there is little scope for local decisions. The power of local elected politicians and local authorities in general has continuously decreased as central government takes responsibility for ever more local decisions.

Although the authority of central government has increased, there has not been a corresponding increase in the influence of national politicians. Central government decisions are rarely examined by the Dail in any meaningful way; party politics always prevails. In addition, increased central government activity has also led to increased bureaucratic buffers between politician and decision maker. One example is the semi-state body. Semi-state bodies act like private companies, although the state is the major shareholder and Ministerial nominees sit on the Board of Directors. They are only indirectly accountable to politicians however, as they are not actually government departments.

The isolation of the civil service from political pressures has led to an isolation of the civil service from society. Politicians, at least, are forced to change as the social views of voters change; the civil service can remain immune from social pressures and untouched by social changes. This isolation is increased by civil service recruitment policies. The pre-independence civil service had been dominated by those whose families had been able to afford private schools and Universities (Chubb 1982:264); the post-independence civil service was recruited directly from secondary school. With the exception of poorer rural families (who could not afford the fees for secondary school), this meant that a civil service career was open to anyone whose school training enabled them to pass the civil service exams. Many civil servants were products of Christian Brothers schools, a Catholic order set up to provide education for all, but especially the poor. It has been suggested that while Christian Brothers schools emphasized academic subjects, they neglected everything outside the narrow confines of an examination oriented education. Although the civil service thus created was relatively classless, it may have encouraged an unimaginative, conservative, and narrowly practical approach to administration and policy (Chubb 1982:265-267).

Until very recently, those who went to University were, by the time of graduation, effectively disbarred from a civil service career. Although there is now a special entry level for University graduates, and civil servants are encouraged to pursue advanced degrees through in-house schemes, many civil service personnel are still recruited out of secondary school. The result, as one study noted, was that "top jobs were not only open to people recruited at secondary-school level but largely filled by them" (Chubb 1982:262). Although society may have changed by the time a civil servant reaches senior or even intermediate levels, his attitudes may remain as they were when he entered the civil service twenty to forty years ago, and he will have no colleagues with more recent experience outside the civil service.6 Attempts to recruit personnel for top level appointments from outside the civil service have never proven successful.

A study of the Irish civil service by the Public Services Organisation Review Group (hereafter referred to as PSORG, and sometimes known as the Devlin Report, after its chairman) noted the lack of interchange of personnel between the civil service and other sectors. In addition, civil service promotions are usually from within, and only rarely do outsiders enter the civil service at intermediate or higher levels (PSORG 1969:65, 85-98, 141). Outsiders would face resistance and resentment from those who saw their own promotional chances threatened. Even the appointment of political advisors to Ministers has met with resistance from civil service unions for this reason. Furthermore, civil servants tend to stay within the same department for their entire career; each department is a self-contained unit, with promotion largely an internal matter. There is little horizontal mobility between departments, and little interchange of ideas. Departments tend to regard themselves as autonomous, and resist any attempts to make them accountable to politicians or citizens.7

With no motive for change from without or within, the civil service has long appeared old-fashioned and archaic in its attitudes and procedures. This was perceived to be a problem when, especially after 1957, the state began to intervene to provide services which were too costly or unprofitable for private enterprise. The civil service was seen as unsuited to "risk taking" and unable to adjust to changing circumstances. In order to emulate the flexibility and adaptability of private enterprise, semi-state bodies were set up to achieve specific government economic objectives. Although the state was the main shareholder, employees of the semi-state bodies were free of civil service restrictions. The negative consequence was the employee's loss of civil service job security, but the semi-state bodies seemed to represent the adjustment to modern conditions which the civil service was not able to make.

The civil service is accountable to TDs via a Minister. As members of the Government, Ministers are collectively responsible for government policy; but as Ministers, they are accountable to the Dail for the operations of their individual Departments. Although civil servants make all but the most sensitive of the decisions, they are doing so, legally, in the name of the Minister. As Minister, a person is responsible for all the decisions made in his department. Politicians are able, during Question Time, to ask the Minister to explain and justify both policy and individual decisions made, under the Minister's authority, by civil servants. Therefore, above all, a civil servant's decisions should not cause Ministerial embarrassment. TDs go through the process of asking Ministers about particular decisions, partly to correct wrong decisions but, largely, hoping to embarrass the Minister. Civil servants, in making their decisions and then providing explanations for Ministers to use in response to TD's questions, are aware that any decision could, potentially, attract unwelcome publicity and embarrass the Minister in the Dail.

Not only can a civil servant not be sure what decision might cause problems, he cannot even be sure what policy guidelines can be used to defend his action in the event of problems. Ministers change, and even the same Minister may change policy depending on various political changes in the wind. The result is inefficiency:

   Paperwork is to a large extent the consequence of responsibility to the Dail. The observance of this consistency of treatment impedes the expeditious clearance of work. This derives largely from the direct appeal to Parliament, even on matters of small importance. (PSORG:125)

The report went on to remark on the "large expenditure of the time of higher staff in going over relatively minor pieces of executive work done by juniors" (PSORG:128). In order to decrease the chances of Ministerial displeasure, civil servants take the safe, bureaucratically defensible option whenever possible. Often, this means doing nothing innovative, unless it is approved by one's superiors (who are also not anxious to take risks and harm their career). Small wonder that the introduction of semi-state bodies, with clearly spelled out priorities, were an improvement. Clear priorities can be used to justify decisions and thus protect bureaucrats against political backlash.

Central government departments are responsible for a variety of functions. From the beginning, there have been separate Ministries for finance, foreign affairs, defence, local government and public health, industry and commerce, and agriculture. In addition, many local services are administered and operated centrally. For instance, education has also always been a national, rather than local, concern. Although each school is operated by local management, educational guidelines and specific course requirements are determined by central government. The examinations which determine entrance to University courses and scholarships are set and corrected by the Department of Education; local flexibility is thus quite limited.

The police have also been organized on a national rather than local basis. An unarmed police force was set up after Independence, consciously different in style from the Royal Irish Constabulary which had been the para-military arm of British occupation. Although police are well integrated into local communities, staffing, promotions, work conditions, and so forth are still centrally determined. Promotions are under the control of the police hierarchy, except at the higher levels where the Minister, after advice from his officials, makes the final decisions.

A number of services are operated by the semi-state bodies, and these are also operated as national rather than local organizations. Trains and buses are operated by C.I.E., electricity is provided by the Electrical Supply Board (E.S.B.), and medical services are provided by Health Boards. The regional Health Boards have a provision for local council representation, as this was a local authority function until the Boards were set up in 1970. The other agencies, providing important local services (including unemployment assistance and job training schemes), have no provision for input from local councils regarding local problems. Each agency operates independently, under the general over-sight of some central government department.

Local Government

More and more services have been transferred to central government. For each service, there is usually no parallel local elected council for the local units which administer the service. Given the number of activities which are organized on a national basis, one might wonder what is left for local councils to do. "Less and less", is the answer which many would give. Local authorities were originally intended to operate as local governments; that is, they were to have the scope and autonomy of a government, but as applied to a local area. Local representatives had the discretion to make their own decisions and spend local revenues as desired. However, even those services still provided by local authorities are subject to the scrutiny and control of central government; the Public Services Organisation Review Group commented that the "striking feature of the Irish system of local government . . . is the degree and extent of the controls exercised over it" (PSORG 1969:48).

Until 1977, local services were funded by local taxes; each council thus had some discretion as to how much money it raised, as well as how the money was allocated. Then, the tax on residential property was abolished; although the tax was still calculated, it was paid by central government directly to each council. Prior to this, rates constituted about forty percent of local authority revenue, and central government grants about forty-three percent. Since then, rates has dropped to twenty-one percent, and central government grants has increased to sixty-one percent (Chubb 1982:298).

It was not long before central government was determining what rate of tax the local councils could set, and thus could limit the amount to be paid to local councils. Now, local government finance is largely provided by central government; there is little discretion regarding the amount of money provided or how the money will be allocated. In addition, funds for capital investment programs are obtained by borrowing; borrowing has to be approved by central government and most borrowing is from a special central government fund anyway. As the PSORG noted, regarding engineering, construction and planning schemes, supervision by central government is very close:

There is extremely close financial and technical control . . . through inspection and financial sanction. Although overall approval is obtained . . . for the annual programme of schemes, each individual scheme requires separate approval at various stages. Financial sanction for each project must be obtained from the relevant Department. The amount of reference back involved in considerable. . . . There is considerable duplication and delay. (PSORG 1969:271)

Local authorities are responsible for such services as water, sewage, roads, libraries, and housing. Under the 1963 Planning and Development Act, they are also responsible for overall planning policy in their area, although their decisions may be appealed. Since major financial decisions are made by central government, local councils have little power even over the services which they administer. Their decisions largely pertain to administrative detail: who will get the construction contract, who will get the state funded house, what area will receive traffic lights. Although central government provides specific criteria by which decisions will be made, the the local authority inevitably has influence over the specific decisions.

The local authority is divided between elected representatives and local officials. At first, the elected representatives (County or County Borough Councillors) had substantial power over administrative decisions. However, under the County Management Act, 1940, the functions of local authorities were divided into reserved and executive functions. The reserved functions were performed directly by elected members of the local authority, while all other functions were executive functions and were performed by the County Manager. Policy and financial decisions (such as local taxation policy, and borrowing money) were left to the councillors, while everything else (including day to day administration, collection of taxes, and employment of staff) were allocated to the County Manager. This took many decisions out of the hands of local politicians and so reduced the politician's patronage resources. The local politician's patronage extended to relatively few jobs, such as road worker or rent collector, but, in times of scarce economic resources, the provision of any small measure of assistance provided great electoral advantage. It was precisely to remove such local patronage that the County Manager, as an independent official, was introduced. As one specialist on Irish local government law recently remarked,

it was recognized that entrusting the elected representatives with responsibilities now exercised by managers would have encouraged the bringing to bear of pressures of every kind of councillors. (Keane, R., 1982:x)

The implication of his remarks are that councillors could not be trusted to be impartial; if they had too much power, the people that elected them would expect them to make decisions on a partisan basis. By giving power to local officials, the councillors were saved from having to resist temptation. Whether local politicians desired to be saved from being the subject of such pressures is another matter; it certainly reduced the amount of patronage at their disposal.

Staffing of local authorities has long been in the hands of an independent Local Appointments Commission. It advertises vacant posts, and then selects an interview panel to rank the short-listed applicants. Only those posts not covered by the Commission (such as casual laborers and, until recently, rates collectors) are appointed by local Councils. 8 One study of rural Irish politics (Bax 1976:74-76) suggested that these "impartial" interview boards are commonly "fixed" by politicians. However, the accuracy of this study has been criticized, and there seems little empirical support for the claim.9 Political influence over personnel hiring and promotion is a crucial patronage resource for clientelist exchanges, and it will be examined in further detail in a later chapter.


The structure of Irish government has inevitable implications for political clientelism. Politicians have little impact on policy at either local or national levels; major decisions are made by senior politicians and senior civil servants. Administration is centralized and bureaucratized, so there is little scope for elected officials to secure patronage at local levels. Therefore, politicians have few resources to offer interest groups in exchange for their support. In so far as politicians need personal support from outside their own party, they must look to individuals within their constituency, and they have relatively few resources at their disposal to attract them. Consequently, local-level politicians are more likely to be brokers rather than patrons. Administration is isolated from politics, and it is difficult for politicians to contact directly, much less influence, the civil servants who actually allocate most state resources. If politicians want to assist an individual to obtain a state benefit, the matter must first ascend the political hierarchy of councillor, TD, Minister and then cross over and descend the administrative hierarchy. Access to civil servants must be through the Minister who is responsible for the government department.

Another implication concerns rural/urban differences. Although administrative structures are uniform throughout the country, there exist significant differences in the local elected councils. In rural areas, there are more local councillors per head of population than in urban areas; urban councillors are thus more distant from voters. On the other hand, since the number of national politicians per head of population remains constant, it also means that there are also fewer councillors per TD in urban areas. An urban challenger is less likely to be able to build up a local power base through the county council because there are fewer county councillors in urban areas. Urban and rural political rivalries reflect these structural differences.

Irish government and administration reflects Ireland's history of British domination; it is a continuation of British administrative structures. The formal structure of government is, of course, only part of the political system; complementary to it is the party system. It is in the party system that differences between Irish politics and British politics appear, and clientelism emerges as an important facet of politics.

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