The recent announcement by the Minister of the Environment, as reported in this newspaper, that the administrative areas of the North and South Ridings of Tipperary are to be amalgamated, does not seem to have excited the ordinary electorate of the county. Perhaps 2014, the year of its proposed implementation is too far in the future of a currently depressed Ireland. We have more pressing issues on our mind, and like Scarlett O’Hara, we’ll think about it tomorrow.
The merging of the two authorities is part of a programme of achieving efficiency and the more prudent use of resources, specifically money. It should, in theory, cost considerably less to service one complex of buildings rather than the two now located in Clonmel and Nenagh. It should, in theory, provide a more efficient service to the public by less duplication and a containment of bureaucracy.
Those are the theories. The actualities are likely to be far more interesting.
At present 47 councillors are elected to serve on the two councils. Based on a survey of population, this number is likely to be reduced. Then there is the re-deployment of council workers. The much vaunted decentralisation of government departments proved to be a very expensive fiasco because of the reluctance of department employees to relocation.
And the burning question! Will the combined offices be located in Clonmel, the current headquarters of the South Riding? Or Nenagh the current headquarters of the North Riding. Or a completely new location and a new complex of offices, in say, Thurles - the centre of the county?
Look forward to a bumpy ride!
The facts are that Tipperary has already had this debate in the past: 173 years ago in 1838, when the county was originally divided into two separate administrative areas - North and South Ridings. (The derivation of “riding” comes from an old Saxon word meaning a “third”). The story of this administrative division is told in a most readable study by Donal A. Murphy in “The Two Tipperarys,” published in 1994. (It should be required reading for those commissioned to put the two areas together again!).
It is a story which traces the growth of local government in the county from the Butler medieval hegemony to the declaration in 1713 that “Tipperary to be one county forever,” to the campaign of the northern Grand Jurors (1828-1836) to seek the division of the county because, amongst several reasons, the twice yearly travel to Clonmel for the assizes was “arduous and involved lengthy stays there.”
That problem of arduousness and long stays belonged to the period of the horse and carriage, when a journey from the north of the county to the south could take a day. Now, in the era of fast cars, in one of the two comments made to “The Nationalist” (issue 28 July), Councillor Sean Lonergan (Labour, Cahir) is quoted as saying that he did not believe the merger “will save much money..... councillors will have to travel further distances for council business which will incur expenses.”
But even back in 1838, distance was not the real issue. The perks that went with the institution were. And so were the fiefdoms of the landed gentry of the time and their domination of the Grand Juries - the precursors of the County Councils. It was a period of very limited franchise and it is doubtful if the ordinary people were concerned with administrative divisions.
The location and occasions of the assizes courts were significant perks in the prosperity of a town, and in this Clonmel had a head start on Nenagh. It had been the location of the Palatinate Courts for Tipperary. The supporting institutions, the gaol, military barracks, Corporation headquarters, all brought people into the town, and people spent money.
The early 19th century was, too, a period of reform and re-thinking. There was more widespread access to education. The developing railway system made travel and communication more widely accessible. Nenagh’s time as a centre of executive power had come, and Donal Murphy traces the influences of the north’s lobbyists - the Barons Bloomfield and Dunalley, and the advocates of the south in the persons of the Earls of Glengall and Donoughmore, while Viscount Hawarden of Dundrum was influential in defining the border between the North Riding and the South Riding.
And while many of us might think that “strokes” were a peculiar feature of our own political times, they were alive and well and fully employed in the administrative break-up of Tipperary.
In the process, Nenagh inherited what Donal Murphy calls “an impressive legacy in stone”: a new and splendid courthouse (which has been refurbished in recent years), a jail, a military barracks, and later a workhouse, which transformed Nenagh “from a simple market town to an important centre.” But, most importantly, it became the headquarters of the County Council of the North Riding.
And now, the two parts of Tipperary, the Siamese twins of the north and south (as Murphy calls them), torn apart nearly two centuries ago, are to be joined together again. Will the re-joining be trouble-free, or has the bureaucratic red tape become so entrenched, so knotted, that the surgery is likely to be painful and complicated?
We live in interesting times!