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Simon Coveney: Directly elected mayor will have the clout of 40,000 votes

Cork is buzzing at the moment and for the next 20 years has the potential to be the fastest growing city in Ireland, says Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

This is essential to overturn the dominance of Dublin and the east coast.

At the end of next week the people of the city are going to be asked a question; do you want the power to directly elect the first citizen of Cork and give them real powers to make big decisions for Cork?

In my view, Cork city being the first in the country to say ‘Yes’ to a directly elected lord mayor will create the most powerful politician in Ireland outside the Cabinet.

This why I am asking people to give that question a resounding ‘Yes’. Here’s why it is such an opportunity.

Central government serves all the people regardless of where ministers are from but local knowledge and demand is still key for getting things done. In the last 50 years, Cork has been served in cabinet by strong ministers from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour but did you know that over those 50 years Ireland has only had one minister for transport from Cork, one minister for finance from Cork and no ministers for justice.

Now imagine a political office with the power to walk into any government department, meet the minister of the day and, with the clout of 30,000 or 40,000 votes, say to the minister or the taoiseach that Cork needs more funding or a specific issue addressed in a specific way.

That is what we are proposing with a directly elected lord mayor. This is the power we are trying to give to Cork’s first citizen. It will empower a champion for Cork and will be a vital tool to break the dominance of Dublin, where central government sits.

There are those who want to see a directly elected lord mayor and have said as much for the last 20 years. However, they have sat on their hands and done nothing about it despite this being their opportunity.

There are those who do not want to see the people of Cork directly elect their lord mayor. They have not come out to directly say so, instead they have put out red herring stories about footpaths and roads budgets being cut to pay for the new office. This is complete nonsense.

However, there are people with legitimate reservations and lingering questions about directly electing the lord mayor. I would like to address the questions of these people and ask them to vote Yes.

1) The lord mayor’s salary is too high

The Cabinet carefully considered the job we are envisaging and agreed that directly elected mayors should have the same salary as a junior minister, €130,000. This job will be a tough one for the man or woman who is elected.

They will have major responsibility and expectations on their shoulders and there are checks and balances to ensure that he/she performs.

There will be a deputy mayor elected from the ranks of the council and the lord mayor will have to pass his or her programme for office and budget with the council’s permission.

Working together, the council and a directly elected lord mayor will be a powerhouse for Cork’s priorities. He/she will ultimately be responsible for a budget of more than €160m per year, that’s on par with some government departments.

I believe we are proposing a professional and demanding political office and it is justified to pay that person the same salary as a junior minister.

2) If we directly elect the lord mayor, why do we need the city council’s chief executive?

This question is an understandable one and I would like to answer it through my experience working as a government minister for the last eight years.

In a government department, there is the minister and the secretary general, who is the most senior civil servant. They work together towards the same goals of delivering things but they have very different jobs, one is the department’s chief executive, the other is the people’s chief executive. Believe me, when the people aren’t happy with the minister, you know about it.

The directly elected lord mayor will be akin to a minister for Cork. There will be more than enough work for the lord mayor and chief executive to tackle together but the major difference will be that the lord mayor will get his or her mandate directly from the people, they will have to face the media and they will have promises and projects to deliver on.

If you vote No you will be voting to keep the city council’s chief executive alone with no direct accountability to the people of Cork.

3) Directly elected Lord Mayor, good idea, but the Dublin government wants it so there must be a catch that takes power from Cork?

I heard this one on the radio while I was driving last week from a broadcaster. It simply doesn’t stack up. Look at what a person will have to do to become the directly elected lord mayor.

Firstly, they will need to compete for a party nomination or make their name as a credible independent. Then they will need to announce policies, proposals and defend what they stand for.

Forget Prime Time, imagine the fiery and competitive debates amongst the candidates.

Finally, the ultimate test will be putting their faces on a ballot for the people of Cork to say Yes or No. All of the power will rest with the electorate in Cork.

However, before any of that can happen you need to say Yes on May 24.

This is a unique and once-off opportunity for Cork, let’s not throw it away.

Simon Coveney is Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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