A rift is threatening to engulf the Labour Party over the proposed merger of Cork’s city and county councils with two party ministers divided on the issue.
Environment Minister Alan Kelly defended the plan last night, claiming a unified authority would strengthen local governance, improve services and save money.
Rejecting criticism from the opposition and a bitter row in Cork over the issue, he told the Dáil he would shortly bring proposals for the merger to Government.
Earlier though, Labour colleague Kathleen Lynch expressed her reservation about the Cork Local Government Review Group’s recommendations.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, the junior health minister said she believed there had not been enough consultation on the proposed merger and that “jumping into implementation” would be a mistake.
She said there had been a “constant cry” for several years for extending the city boundaries bringing more parts of the county under the remit of Cork City Council.
“The city has to remain at the heart of, not just the county, but the commercial activity as well,” said Ms Lynch. “There has to be something that draws people to the region. If that is not the city, then what is it?”
Ms Lynch’s call for a boundary extension mirrors that of her brother-in-law and fellow senior Labour TD Ciaran Lynch, who last week also accused Mr Kelly of rushing to accept the findings of the review group.
A poll of Cork’s 19 TDs carried out by the Irish Examiner found that eight were for a merger, seven against, and two had not decided their position. Two did not respond. Of the seven against, three are in Fianna Fáil, two are in Labour, one in Sinn Féin, and one in Fine Gael.
In August, Mr Lynch carried out a survey of his own constituents in Cork South Central, who would be affected by a merger or city boundary extension. Of the 244 people who responded, 77% said they supported a boundary extension.
Mr Kelly said a unified authority would mean “more effective” local government.
The new model though would require more than just a merger, as had happened in Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford, he said.
There was a strong case to be made for a “major devolution of powers” for Cork and to address concerns about “weak” governing structures. Mr Kelly also said he saw a continued role for the mayor of Cork.
The deputy Labour leader faced criticism from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who said the two separate authorities for decades had worked “exceptionally well”.
Mr Martin said cities drive regions and the amalgamation could impact on investment in Cork.
Sinn Féin’s Jonathan O’Brien said Mr Kelly was engaging “in falsehoods and a misrepresentation of the facts” in his efforts to avoid a real debate in the Dáil.
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