Direct elections for lord mayors: Job pointless without real authority

Too many of the reactions to the latest round of discussions on the idea of directly-elected mayors for some cities were sadly indicative of how the trust, the mutual sense of participation, between citizens and elected representatives has become so very stretched.

The most strident responses came from those who were outraged,or at least pretended to be outraged,by the idea that an elected lord mayor might be paid €130,000 a year — a fraction of what some of RTÉ’s “talent” is paid, even though the responsibilities involved are not comparable. In the grand scheme of things, the rate for the job is the least important element of the idea under consideration.

Any discussion on whether the idea was a good one or just the imposition of another layer of under-funded, frustrated and frustrating faux authority — and all the red tape it might generate — came a distant second. Like so many ideas that are airily advanced as “good things”, any real consideration of the proposal leaves as many questions as it answers. The idea of votes for emigrants, though widely-established, seems to fall into this category too.

In Cork, the office of lord mayor represents a continuum that began in 1199 with the appointment of the Provost of Cork which was followed in 1273 by the office of the Mayor of Cork and, in 1900, the establishment of the office of Lord Mayor. The office has existed, in one form or another for over 800 years. If the office was filled by direct elections, it is likely that we would have to wait as long again for an Independent to be so honoured. The incumbents in Dublin and Cork are, however, Independents. Independent councillor Nial Ring is Lord Mayor of Dublin and Independent councillor Mick Finn holds the office in Cork.

They are in office because of a long-standing, cross-party practice on reaching an agreement on who would, in turn, fill the office during the lifetime of a city council.

That process, one that is an exemplary celebration of the spirit of democracy, would be lost if a direct election became the path to the lord mayor’s chair. Like the winner-takes-all Dáil, we might have elections but power or position could only be reached through well-defined, well-managed and very well-guarded pathways. That would hardly enhance citizens’ faith in the process. Power would be concentrated in the hands of traditional parties of government, and the inclusivity celebrated by current arrangements would be lost to history.

The real question is would the office have any real power or a meaningful budget? Could a directly-elected lord mayor order, say, the OPW to change Cork’s flood prevention proposals or, say again, make a decisive intervention in the events centre saga? If not, what’s the point of direct elections? We hardly need supersized ribbon-cutting, sod-turning cheerleaders for our cities.

John Paul Phelan, the minister of state for local government, has brought forward detailed proposals, and these are being considered by the Oireachtas. We may be asked to vote on the idea so anyone who cares for the integrity and effectiveness of local democracy should take a close look at what is proposed, lest we get yet another sheep in wolf’s clothing.

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