This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on May 21st, just a few days before Limerick, Waterford and Cork cities voted on having directly elected mayors. Only Limerick voted in favour.
On Thursday voters in Northern Ireland go to the polls to elect three members of the European Parliament. Given the dominance of Sinn Féin and the DUP the focus will be on the contest for the last seat between the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood and Alliance’s Naomi Long. While a win for either will be a win for progressive politics, many at the top of Sinn Féin are hoping Long makes it, though their voters may not agree.
On Friday, voters down here will find themselves confronted by three ballot papers when they get to the polling station.
Not only do we get to choose Ireland’s 13 MEPs (two of whom will sit on the reserve bench until Brexit is resolved) we also get to elect 949 City and County Councillors from the almost 2,000 candidates on offer across the State.
And, as if all that responsibility was not heady enough, most voters (i.e. Irish citizens) will also get a third ballot paper, asking them to approve or reject two specific changes to the constitutional provisions on divorce.
But wait, there’s more.
Some very lucky voters will get a fourth ballot paper. These are the voters residing in Limerick, Cork and Waterford, who are eligible to vote in the local elections. They will get to vote in local plebiscites on whether those cities should have directly elected mayors from 2022.
My column from today’s Herald on the current discussions to have directly elected mayors for Dublin in the future.
Should Dublin have its own version of Boris Johnson?
That is the question a Forum of 22 Dublin councillors will consider between now and September. But there is good news: Dubliners will get a say on it in May.
While the forum, drawn from the four Dublin Councils, started its deliberations at the end of July, the idea of Dublin having a directly elected Mayor goes back much further.
According to the Lord Mayor of Dublin website it goes back to Chapter 11 of Minister Phil Hogan’s June 2012 local government reform: Putting People First. It actually goes back to Noel Dempsey’s 2001 Local Government Act.
In case my Boris Johnson reference hasn’t given it away, I am not a fan of the idea. I wasn’t a fan of it in 2000, nor when John Gormley resurrected it in 2008.
Like most Dubliners, I want to see decisions made about Dublin being made by people who are answerable to Dubliners, but I am not persuaded that directly electing a mayor is the way.
My biggest worry is that an office supposedly created to give leadership to Dublin would descend into de-facto focus of attention for opposition to the government of the day.
A directly elected Mayor of Dublin would, after the President, have the biggest electoral mandate in the State, but without the constitutional prohibitions on politicking.
Boris Johnson’s mayoralty has become a focus for those unhappy with David Cameron’s leadership. Given the scale here: a mayor of the greater Dublin area would potentially be elected by up to a third of the total electorate, imagine how much more pronounced those clashes would be, particularly when the Taoiseach and Mayor were from opposing parties?
The potential for political gridlock is huge, especially where the Mayor has no real powers or responsibilities, just what Teddy Roosevelt called “a bully pulpit”. Instead of leadership we would just be getting a personality with a shiny office and access to a microphone.
The use of the London Mayor template only adds to this concern. Chapter 11 of Putting People First, which the Forum is using as its starting point, makes no fewer that six references to London.
It does not mention the directly elected mayors in Berlin, Budapest or Paris, or the strong systems of city governance in Helsinki, or Copenhagen.
This Ministerial and Departmental infatuation with London is hard to understand. I can only imagine that it is because they have never seen the legislation establishing the London Mayoralty and Authority: The Greater London Authority Act 1999.
At almost 500 pages it is the longest piece of legislation passed at Westminster since the Government of India Act. More importantly it does something almost unheard of in Irish public administration: it takes power away from central government.
Not that it took enough powers. Earlier this year Johnson was again calling for London to have the power to raise property and new tourism taxes. In May last year 8 out of the 10 UK cities asked if they wanted a directly elected Mayor said: no.
Do we really see the Phil Hogan’s Department of Environment ceding power and controls to anyone?
This is the Minister who, in the same Putting People First document, has slashed the number of local authorities from 114 to 31 and the total number of City, County and Town councillors from 1,627 to 949.
Do we really think he is ready to chop off a large section of his Budget and power to keep us happy?
With most decisions regarding Dublin’s present and future being made by unaccountable and disconnected State bodies and departments, the case for giving more power to Dublin is clear.
What is almost just as clear is that instead of being given viable city government with a budget and authority the most that will really be on offer is a city personality with a big desk, a press officer and an electric car.