August 10 - Judging local candidates on national issues

EVERY scandal has its expiry date. In Irish politics, the ill-advised quote and the inappropriate gesture typically burn themselves out within a month, as a suspicious and entertained public move on and digest a new outrage. Whether the matter is serious or comedic, the rule generally remains the same.

EVERY scandal has its expiry date. In Irish politics, the ill-advised quote and the inappropriate gesture typically burn themselves out within a month, as a suspicious and entertained public move on and digest a new outrage. Whether the matter is serious or comedic, the rule generally remains the same.

This may seem cold comfort for Fianna Fail’s Joe Crowley, a city area representative who was forced onto the defensive last week before his campaign had even begun, following controversial comments about Chinese fishing for “crispy duck” in the Westfield wetlands.

Ben Bradlee, the legendary executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, used a phrase to put trivial matters in their place: “when the history of the world is written, this will not be in it”.

But for Mr Crowley and the dozens of other men and women who are already strategising how to win a historic place on Limerick’s first ever joint city and county council, the margins for error are dwindling.

One by one, the obstacles of time and space between them and the ballot in May 2014 are falling. In a hyper-local contest that will be laced with a once-in-a-generation sense of prestige, each slip could have politically fatal consequences.

By the early autumn each of the main parties will have completed the bulk of their candidate selection processes. Ten years have passed since the dual mandate was abolished, but local elections and the candidates who contest them still find themselves at the mercy of the national political agenda.

In 2009, Fianna Fail was decimated in a local election that was, for all intents and purposes, a referendum on the disastrous Cowen government. Five years later Fine Gael – and particularly Labour – are anxiously attempting to avoid a repeat appearance of that the same typhoon.

But in Limerick, Tipperary and the other counties that have undergone historic changes following Environment Minister Phil Hogan’s dramatic reform of local government, voters need to avoid the temptation to turn May 2014 into another referendum on the national question.

The merger of Limerick’s city and county councils into a 40 seat joint authority will bring with it no shortage of problems, many of them stemming from simple geography. How will limited resources be spread between the new, enlarged city and county electoral areas? How willing will county councillors be to push for investment in Limerick’s imperilled city centre if it means that Kilmallock, Newcastle West and Cappamore are neglected? Who are the men and women that will ensure the merged council works in an efficient, coherent way for the entire county, rather than descending into a parochial talking shop?

Last week Kilfinane’s Senator James Heffernan, a former Labour Party member who resigned the party whip last year and refused to support the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, expressed his hope that voters would use the upcoming referendum on Seanad abolition as a chance to give the Government “a bloody nose”. Mr Heffernan, a man who came within a whisker of claiming an unprecedented Dail seat for Labour in county Limerick in 2011, has no shortage of ire for the senior figures in his former party.

But the temptation to use every vote, particularly the local elections, as an opportunity to wound the government of the day should be resisted. In Limerick, much more than this is at stake.