In a little over a month almost 400,000 voters in Cork, Limerick, and Waterford will decide on a proposal to have directly elected mayors run their city. That idea is one of four to be determined on May 24. Local and European elections, and a referendum on our divorce legislation, are also scheduled.
The Government is encouraging the idea of directly elected mayors. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar argues that it will strengthen the regions’ hand in the never-ending knock-and-drag with central government over envied but scarce resources. The shabby, duck-and-dodge decision by Mr Varadkar’s cabinet to defer a review of property tax rates (one that ignored attorney general, Seamus Woulfe’s advice) until well beyond any timeframe an election might impose suggests that those resources will even more hard-won. The first directly-elected mayors might find themselves, like General Friedrich Paulus during the terrible last days at Stalingrad, expected to deliver results with non-existent resources.
The scale of the challenge facing any directly-elected mayor should not be underestimated. Experience suggests, indeed demands, that any hope that the innovation would lead to a revolution in local democracy should be held in check. Could, for instance, a partnership between directly-elected mayors in Limerick and Cork expedite the preposterously overdue M20, which will eventually link the cites?
Could a directly-elected mayor in Cork, say, order the Office of Public Works to drop their sticking-plaster, destructive flood plans for the city but prepare for the world predicted by climate scientists? If not, the office seems another shinguard suzerainty, a new buffer zone between government and local development. Another is hardly necessary.
The scale of any challenge for regional management and development was underlined again yesterday, by new figures from the Central Statistics Office. The CSO recorded that in the fourth quarter of 2018, over 8.4m passengers passed through Irish airports, an increase of 6.9% over the same period in 2017. Passenger numbers increased in Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Knock, and Shannon and the five main airports accounted for 99.8% of passengers. Dublin accounted for 85.6%, but Cork carried a crumbs-from-the-table 7.7%. Shannon, despite American troops in transit, catered for only 5.9%.
It is unreasonable to expect regional airports to have passenger numbers comparable to the country’s main airport, but it is hardly reasonable, either, to suggest that neither Cork or Shannon can reach 10% of Dublin’s numbers. The combined population of the two catchments suggests that the regional airports are underperforming — as does the almost hourly convoy of private buses taking people from Munster directly to Dublin Airport.
The centralistation of power has another consequence, one every bit as damning. It perpetuates cap-in-hand gombeenism in public life and, despite immediate appearances, it is a real barrier to regional development. So, too, is the fact that after all these years Cork Airport remains under the wing of the Dublin Airport Authority. Maybe the 7.7% figure just confirms that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.