Governing Austerity in Dublin

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This post outlines the main findings from the first round of research carried out by Dr Niamh Gaynor and Dr Eamonn McConnon in Dublin as part of the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project. It forms part of a series of blogs from the eight comparator cities in the project.

Situated at the centre of Ireland’s booming ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy from the late 1990s to 2007 and home to a quarter of the country’s population, Dublin has experienced a sharp contraction and decline since the rupture of the property bubble and associated banking crisis of 2008 onward.  The resultant austerity policies – adopted as a condition of an IMF/European Commission and European Central Bank bailout package in 2010 – have impacted significantly on the city at a number of levels.

Socio-economically, austerity has hit the poorest and most marginalised in the North and Inner City severely.  It has also impacted on a newly squeezed middle class, many of whom live in younger suburbs to the West of the city.  There has been a drop of 21 per cent in mean disposable income across the city and the drop in the income of the unemployed is reported to stand at 22 per cent.   Correspondingly, the rate of unemployment rose from 38,000 in 2006 to a high of 90,000 in 2012.  Although this figure dropped to 75,000 in 2015, interview respondents highlight consistent difficulties in meeting debt and bill payments, and poverty and inequality appear widespread and pervasive.  Political discourse and action on this has coalesced around the city’s massive housing crisis which is affecting working-class and middle-class families alike.  The combination of unemployment and escalating costs and taxes associated with austerity have led to widespread mortgage arrears and dispossession.  Homelessness is now a major issue across the city, most particularly in West Dublin.  With its roots in the city’s previous austerity cuts of the 1980s when the shift from local authority to public-private partnership management and provision began, the current housing situation is perhaps a harbinger of some of the more long-term impacts of austerity’s neoliberal prescriptions more broadly.

Administratively, the austerity-driven public recruitment embargo combined with a downsizing of the public sector has resulted in a 13 per cent reduction in staffing in local authorities across the country.  There have been significant attendant cuts to frontline services and supports.  According to one senior Council official interviewed for this research, Dublin City Council has suffered a 20-25 per cent cut to its overall budget and has gone from a personnel of 6,800 in 2010 to 5,000 today.  Other interviewees point to the ageing and somewhat fatigued workforce within the Council, suggesting there is little capacity or appetite for innovative governance within the city at this time of crisis.  Yet, somewhat paradoxically, many of the city’s institutions of collaborative governance – celebrated for their flexibility and innovativeness in the 1990s – have now been subsumed within the Council.  Notwithstanding these developments, there appears widespread agreement that the much touted opportunities for local government reform which formed part of the austerity package have been lost, and interviewees point to an ongoing torpidity and ineffectiveness within Dublin City Council.

Politically, a number of interviewees suggest that austerity has made a significant mark within the city due to the significant increase in the number of left wing ‘anti-austerity’ Councillors on the City Council following the last (2014) local elections.  While some interviewees see this as a positive development for the city, others bemoan the lack of experience of many of these new incumbents.  Others again point to their lack of power in any case as national political authorities continue to wield significant influence on the traditionally weak and powerless local council through both party allegiances and the central figure of the City Manager – a political appointee.  While the formal institutions of Council politics remain a focal point for interviewees and critics of austerity more broadly, interesting things are happening across a variety of more disparate sites within the city which point to a range of new political actors, new political alliances and new ways of doing politics.  Most noteworthy among these is the so-called ‘right to water’ movement – a national movement which is particularly active in coalescing around the newly introduced (2015) and much contested water charges.  Survey findings which show that over 50 per cent of those involved are first-time activists concerned with austerity more broadly rather than water charges per se, point to significant developments across the city’s broader public sphere.  And the fact that the water charges constituted the ‘red line issue’ in coalition negotiations between the two main political parties following the February 2016 elections attest to the political potency of this public sphere.

So what does all this mean for our overall research question – what happens to collaborative governance under austerity?  In Dublin our findings to date point to two things.  On the one hand, collaborative governance is continuing, albeit in a retrenched, rationalised and bureaucratised form which is now solely focused on coping with, surviving and managing the social fallout of austerity. The role for policy making and the flexibility and innovation associated with collaborative governance arrangements and configurations of the past is now gone and competition, rather than collaborative relationship-building and networking appears to be its overriding characteristic.  On the other, new sites of more radical, direct resistance are evident which, through many of the newly elected ‘anti-austerity’ City Councillors, are forming new alliances and coalitions.  Could we view these as new sites and forms of collaborative governance with new norms and practices, allowing for contestation and debate?  Or does this signal the demise of collaborative governance in Dublin?  Our next phase of research will focus on the two questions of a) if and how traditional collaborative governance actors and institutions interact with these new coalitions and interests and b) what the motivations, aspirations, plans and strategies of these new political actors and coalitions are.

Dr Niamh Gaynor is Lecturer in Development Studies and Dr Eamonn McConnon a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City Univesrity

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