THAT the report from a five-person committee asked to consider the amalgamation of Cork city and county councils submitted to Environment Minister Alan Kelly last week was adopted by the narrowest possible margin is not at all surprising. Indeed, any other outcome would have been entirely unexpected.
Three members of the committee — chairman Alf Smiddy, Tom Curran and John Lucey — supported the idea of a single authority, but their colleagues — Dermot Keogh and Theresa Reidy — opposed it.
The issue is very divisive and has raised a great number of deeply felt concerns that must be resolved before any change can be proposed seriously much less finalised. In that context, the proposal in the Smiddy report that “the appointment of a chief executive for the new authority is a priority issue and should be progressed as soon as possible,” is dangerously presumptuous and premature.
The report must be regarded as no more than a preliminary step in what must be a long, carefully considered process, involving far greater public consultation than that provided for in the preparation of this report. Local democracy must prevail on what is a defining issue for everyone living in Cork City or county; top-down autocracy is unacceptable on a issue as pivotal as this.
If the process is to continue, it must be based only on evidence rather than the wishful thinking of those in favour of change or the entrenched views of those determined to maintain the status quo. Emotion, bias or petty parochialism cannot be allowed influence the process. Fact-based evidence — like that offered by academics that showed amalgamations like this rarely if ever save money — cannot be ignored and must be the only influence on decision making. In that regard it is important too that Mr Kelly distance himself from the process because his declaration that he favoured an amalgamation before the Smiddy group had even begun its work was entirely inappropriate and, like it or not, compromised the independence and value, maybe even the integrity, of the process.
Implementing the changes so narrowly endorsed would require significant changes to legislation and it is very difficult to see how the necessary amendments might make their way through the Dáil before a general election is called.
Like so many other reform-driven issues, this one seems set to be part of this Government’s legacy rather than one of its achievements. As the cliche has it, change is the only constant in our world and local authorities set up decades if not centuries ago cannot expect to remain untouched.
Reform is essential if optimal administration, and value for money, is to be achieved. Cork City has outgrown its boundaries but the county is reluctant to cede what it regards as some of its fiefdom. Balancing those positions is the central issue if both are to thrive as one or independently. How that is achieved is almost secondary but, at this point, all options must be considered in an honest way and decisions must be based on evidence rather than politics or emotion.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved