Election 2019 home

Local democracy has been diluted: Elected mayors can help restore it

Phil Hogan. Picture: Conor Healy Photography.

Phil Hogan, as minister for the environment and local government, just about destroyed local democracy in the run-up to his Local Government Act of 2014 and I took no notice.

I might have heard something on the airwaves about “cost savings”. I might have briefly imagined rafts of useless councillors, who were costing us money we could ill-afford, being put out to grass. How stupid of me. How irresponsible.

Fine Gael’s rampage through local government has been a massive power grab for central government, which has all but annihilated accountability in local politics. The sop for abolishing 80 town councils and amalgamating city and county councils was always the opportunity to directly elect mayors in the cities.

Whether by intention or by accident, the reform of local government, which has spatch-cocked together the city and county councils of Waterford and Limerick, threatens the cities’ ability to elect their own mayors.

Why would a person from Mungret vote to provide the citizens of Limerick with more democracy and more resources, in the form of a directly-elected mayor? Why would a person in Ardmore vote for a directly elected mayor for Waterford City?

As the rationale behind Ireland 2040 makes plain, a thriving city is pretty much essential to a thriving county. This argument is not well-understood, however, and it is not being made by either of the big parties that are running the country.

Fine Gael has wrecked local democracy and if the plebiscites in Waterford and Limerick result in a no for a directly elected mayor, it will be their doing. I really hope this isn’t going to happen.

Liveable Limerick, chaired by the same John Moran who was recently appointed chair of the new Land Agency, is staging a magnificent campaign. On Tuesday, the Limerick Post published Moran’s pitch for a yes vote in the plebiscite tomorrow as a chance for the people of Limerick to take back control of their city.

He accuses the vast majority of politicians and political parties of self-interest in preferring “silence or weak support” on this issue.

Indeed, the Mayor of Waterford, Cllr Declan Doocey, of Lismore, claimed the proposal for his city implied “a criticism of us and of our system” and added, “I don’t see any bit of Waterford falling into the

Atlantic or the Suir.” Local councillors do not want to lose the positions they have, including the chance of the €50,000-a-year ceremonial role enjoyed by the mayors, whom they can choose from among themselves.

Nor does central government want to lose the control it exercises through councils bereft of real power.

Moran quotes a former mayor with a doctorate in political science, Diarmuid Scully, who said on the Live 95 radio station that “massive vested interests” are opposed to a directly-elected mayor for Limerick and “civil servants are terrified by the idea of devolving power to the cities and counties.”

Judging from the way the Government has gone at local government reform, it’s hard to disagree with him. Just look at the wonderful city of Galway, which is not even having a plebiscite tomorrow on directly elected mayors.

This is because the Government is forcing together the city and county councils, and will use their “reserved powers” to do so if it is not agreed by 2021. How can Inishbofin be adequately served by a council that also represents Eyre Square, or vice versa?

Does nobody in government understand what a city is and what it needs and what it has needed since Western civilisation took root in the cities of Greece and Rome? It seems they don’t.

Minister of state Sean Kyne defended the amalgamation by citing “the existing co-operation between city and county, including libraries and fire services, and there is potential to be realised on roads and the arts”.

“Roads and the arts”: Consider that phrase in the context of Galway, a city that has been rebuilt since the 1970s by the arts and artists. Dublin, the city for which a directly-elected mayor was first conceived back in 2000, has still not had the opportunity to state her preference for the creation of the office.

Research in Dublin, in 2013, saw support of 78% for a directly-elected mayor. The Government put in place a process by which all four Dublin local authorities would have to approve the idea, and while three did, Fingal said no.

At the time, then-minister Phil Hogan said: “It appears that it is down to me to come with a fresh initiative” on the issue, but if you were holding your breath, you’d be long gone. Dublin is now promised a citizens’ assembly to consider the issue this year, while, inexplicably, three smaller cities were given the go-head for plebiscites before the capital.

Tomorrow, Cork City gets the chance to move ahead of Dublin and say yes to a directly-elected mayor. But if the Government had had its way, the city would no longer be capable of voting on its own future.

Cork City, the second city of the Republic, and its county, the largest in Ireland, were to be served by one super-council, as recommended by our old friend, an expert advisory group, in 2015.

These experts wanted Cork City to become a mere “metropolitan division” of the super-council, an entity described by UCC’s Dermot Keogh and Theresa Reidy in their minority report for the expert group as nothing more than a municipal district with no budgetary powers.

This appalling suggestion, which would have rendered tomorrow’s plebiscite pointless, was only thrown out following the threat of a High Court action by the city council against the Government’s plan.

The boundary extension approved this year will quadruple the city council area, which risks diluting the city vote, though it is arguable that the new areas included are essentially suburbs. Tomorrow, Cork City has a rare opportunity to start the process of giving the city back control over its own fate.

The campaign points to issues as obvious as the OPW’s plan to wall in the River Lee in a destructive, expensive, and temporary attempt to save the city from flooding, a proposal rejected by 14,000 public submissions.

It was presented to city councillors by the executive as a fait accompli, but would surely never be allowed by a representative elected by the people.

Having a directly-elected mayor will not in itself reform local government, but it could start a powerful movement to do just that. Cork deserves that. So do Limerick and Waterford. So do Galway and Dublin. And our towns need their councils.

Fight back for local democracy by voting yes to a directly-elected mayor tomorrow.

More on this topic

Call to introduce local election gender quotas

Sinn Féin ard chomhairle meets for 'very honest conversation' after disastrous election performance

Green Party spearheads five-year deal to move Dublin towards 'zero-carbon' status

Opposition to have a say in when Dáil by-elections held