That old Irish joke, that the first item on any agenda is ‘the split’, has been superseded by the never-ending debate around the wisdom of amalgamating Cork city and county councils or of extending city boundaries to encompass growing dormitory towns and villages.
In this debate, it seems that ‘the split’ is the only item on the agenda and the ultimate objective — improved local government for the county — has been lost in a fog of acrimony and dead-hand intransigence.
Positions have hardened. The strident rejection of the report of former chief planner for Scotland, Jim Mackinnon, who recommended new city boundaries, by the author of an earlier, shelved report, as a “cobbled together work of fiction”, is unlikely to advance matters. Alf Smiddy, who was chairman of the LGR group that split 3-2 in 2015 in favour of the creation of a single super-council, described the contribution to the debate as “a compromise solution, but, in fact, it has all the hallmarks of a cobbled-together, unstructured reverse takeover of the county by the city”. Hardly the words of a peacemaker disposed to compromise.
Some of those opposed to Mr Smiddy’s position have expressed themselves as stridently, and little or no progress is being made in advancing an inevitable evolution. Significant, region-defining opportunities are being lost. Poor decisions are being made, because both authorities are handcuffed to anachronistic fiefdoms defined in another time. Might, for instance, the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh have been built in a more suitable, less bottlenecked location, if more options had been available to the city? Might the long-promised direct link from the western side of the city to the Cork-to-Dublin N8 have been realised by now, if a single authority had put its weight behind the project? The same question can be asked in many ways — about the delays around the Macroom bypass or about the struggles faced by Cork Airport.
The only certainty in this sorry knock-and-drag is that the status quo is no longer equal to today’s needs. Cork city hasn’t had a boundary extension for more than half a century, but the county council is dependent on revenue from the city’s satellite towns. The relationship between those two facts is only important if one group or the other wants to preserve the authority of a particular bureaucracy — bureaucracies which, unless their priorities are utterly skewed, should have the same public-service objectives.
While he was local government minister, Simon Coveney set up — you’ve guessed it — a review group to try to resolve the impasse, but now that he has moved on it is unlikely any politician with similar clout will risk involving themselves in what is a local squabble. It may offend those in the vanguard in either camp to point out that far more people in Cork are worried about Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, and CJ Stander not returning to the Munster fold in rude health after the Lions’ tour than they are about what their local authority is called. The game-playing has gone on for far too long; it has become an embarrassment. It’s time to resolve this parish-pump catfight, which is undermining local democracy. We have far greater challenges to deal with.
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