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Explainer: Does Dublin need a directly-elected mayor and how likely is it?

It has been suggested for years, it even came close to happening two years ago but what chance a Boris Johnson or a Micheal Bloomberg for Dublin and Ireland’s other cities. TheJournal.ie investigates…

Image: Rui Vieira/PA Archive/Press Association Images

FOR MANY YEARS it has been suggested the Dublin needs an elected mayor.

Just as London has Boris Johnson and New York has Michael Bloomberg, our own capital should have a figurehead who could have control over the city’s affairs.

“It is required. All great cities have a mayor,” environment minister John Gormley declared in early 2010, promising an election for a mayor of Dublin in the autumn of that year. But come the autumn, and then the winter of 2010, Ireland had far bigger concerns than an elected mayor for its capital. A bailout was on the cards.

Though legislation got before the Dáil and indeed all the way to committee stage in November of 2010 – the same month that the bailout was agreed – the Local Government (Mayor and Regional Authority of Dublin) Bill 2010 was scrapped by the current government when it came to power in March 2011 and since then we have heard little of the possibility of it happening.

But does Dublin need an elected mayor? If it does, what kind of powers would one have? Could Ireland’s other cities have such a figurehead? And what hope for any legislation that would provide for one being resurrected? TheJournal.ie explores…

Why does Dublin need an elected mayor?

Various public figures including the last environment minister and former Green Party leader John Gormley believed it was an idea that would have a very practical benefit for the people of Dublin if it were to happen.

Back when the legislation was in the offing in early 2010, the government at the time felt that schemes that Dubliners enjoy now, such as Bike to Work or Dublin Bikes, would have come on-stream – to use the jargon – more quickly had there been an elected mayor.

Systems such as the Dublin Bus app or the Real Time Information Service at bus stops would also have been more quickly and more efficiently set up. Rather than such issues being controlled by central government they would be the responsibility of a directly-elected mayor who would have the power to prioritise funding and push an agenda for the benefit of the city.

Current Lord Mayor of Dublin and prominent supporter of the elected mayor idea, Andrew Montague, explains: “Our current system is so cumbersome that people disengage from local politics, it’s very hard for them to influence what’s going on.

Councillors have very little executive power. They have influence but no executive power and city managers aren’t elected so it’s very difficult for public to have an influence. It’s poor democracy. At the moment the vast majority of people don’t have a clue who I am, they don’t know who they’re city manager is either.

“With a new system, you would have a directly-elected mayor every five years and if the public don’t like him or her they can vote him or her out of office or they can vote to keep him in if he or she is doing a good job.”

Montague believes that if the city had a figurehead – a Boris or a Bloomberg – it would also be beneficial in areas such as planning across the Dublin region, not just at a local council level where decisions can be taken to the detriment of other areas of the city. He cited the construction of Dundrum Town Centre as being detrimental to the city centre, particularly areas like Grafton Street.

An elected-mayor could also promote the city to outside organisations who want to host events in the city or to promote the city to tourists, Montague believes. A mayor needs to be in place for longer than the current one-year term, argues the Labour Party councillor: “You need to build up relationships. We’re not getting maximum value in terms of promoting our city.”

What kind of powers would they have?

The current programme for government makes no specific commitment to establishing an elected mayoral system in Dublin but does include a pledge to reform and develop local government which includes the merging of authorities in Limerick and Tipperary, and the merging of Waterford City and County councils – proposals that are both well under way.

The only solid proposal to actually establish the office of an elected mayor in Dublin was contained in the Fianna Fáil/Green Party programme for government hammered out in 2007 which committed to holding an election for such an office. This commitment was maintained in the renewed programme for government in October 2009 which said that an election would be held the following year.

The idea was seen as a particular pet project of Gormley who eventually brought forward legislation to provide for an elected mayor in the capital in 2010. The law as drafted provides the clearest indication of what kind of powers the office would have. The mayor would hold some executive powers in areas such as housing, waste management and water services, they would also chair the Dublin Transport Authority.

In January 2010, Environment Minister John Gormley said that the mayoral election would take place within six months, a measure which would “raise the profile of Dublin, enhance local democracy and accountability, and lead the provision of a more effective and integrated public service across the city and region”.

The Labour Party councillor Dermot Looney has done an excellent job in summarising just what an elected mayor for Dublin would do in this post on DublinObserver.com in September 2010, a recommended read for anyone who is really interested in the nitty gritty of the role.

But broadly, the law provided for the establishment of a Regional Authority of Dublin (RAD) which would have 16 members including the Mayor who would act as its chair. Also on the authority would be the four chairs of the local authorities i.e. the Lord Mayor of Dublin City Council, the Mayors of South Dublin and Fingal County Councils, and the Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. There would be five other members of the RAD who would be appointed from Dublin City Council, and two each from South Dublin, Fingal and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County councils.

The RAD and therefore its chair, the elected mayor, would have influence in five main areas including the general functions of the office, planning guidelines, waste management services, water services and housing. There would also be some control over aspects of transport and enterprise in the region.

Unlike, for example the Mayor of London, there was no provision for the mayor’s involvement in areas such as policing, health, and education and there would be no independent budget. A mayor would operate under existing budgets that current councils operate under but it was envisioned that the overall budget would be increased with the implementation of property and water charges. Most important, it was the belief that an elected mayor could prioritise funding where it was needed.

As well as this, a chief executive would be appointed who would act as a ‘super manager’ that could be hired and, if necessary, fired by the mayor. But this would only be with the consent of the Minister of Environment.

What about our other cities? Limerick, Galway, Waterford and Cork?

Though the proposed legislation only provided for a mayor in Dublin, it was Gormley’s hope that such an idea could also work in Limerick, his party colleague Dan Boyle went further in 2009 suggesting that such an office could be set up in the country’s four other cities.

“I am open to contesting any future elections that might happen in the cities of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, which will follow under subsequent legislation,” he told the Seanad, appearing to throw his hat in the ring for any future elections in other parts of the country. What chance that now, we wonder?

It’s unlikely we’d have a mayor in Limerick for example before there would be one in Dublin. Ultimately, it would most likely be a case of seeing whether the experiment worked in the capital before allowing for it to set up in other cities.

Lord Mayor Montague believes that the issue of planning in and around cities makes an elected mayor just as appropriate in other parts of the country: “There is a need for stronger regional planning, he said. “Limerick would be a great example of where a mayor could have a powerful role and work well.”

But, presumably not everyone thinks this is a great idea?

Certainly not. The specific legislation came at time when the country was in great economic turmoil in the aftermath of the bank guarantee and austerity budgets. It’s fair to say the vocal Fine Gael and Labour opposition did not think that the unpopular government of the day should be prioritising the election of a mayor in Dublin when there were more pressing matters.

“This Bill is a sham and a distraction brought into the House at this time to distract people from other issues and direct them to something which they can say is wonderful and could be good for the country,” Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan told the Dáil in November 2010 as the legislation was being debated.

“It is not good if this Bill is going to be railroaded through just to keep the Green Party in the Government and at the expense of local democracy,” Joanna Tuffy, Labour, said during the same debate.

Legitimate concerns were raised about the bill, it was not just obstructed because of the unpopularity of the government. On the face of it some would say this proposed law did not go far enough in giving real power to a mayor, equally at the other end of the spectrum some argued that it was just another layer of bureaucracy in already bloated local authority.

Fundamentally, it would have been another politician and politicians aren’t popular. This was about creating another position for a politician and that undoubtedly was one barrier to it happening particularly at that time when the government’s popularity was as low as it was.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie former environment minister John Gormley outlined another reason: “I don’t think they (Labour and Fine Gael) were enthusiastic about. It wasn’t going to cost the money they claimed. It was about €5 million or €6 million, so it was a relatively small amount of money but they had already made out that this was going to cost the taxpayer a fortune.”

There were also indications that Fianna Fáil were not full on board with the idea. This was very much a Green Party proposal, a concession perhaps to the junior coalition partner. Polls apparently showed no Fianna Fáil candidate could win any election leading the party to never really consider the idea before it went into government with the Greens.

Gormley’s bill got to committee stage but in the same month as it was being debated in the Dáil, the government was dealing with the ongoing talk that the country would need a bailout and so it transpired before the month was out. The Bill was put on hold as the Greens pulled out of government and the current administration scrapped it when they came to power in March 2011.

So what hope for having an elected mayor now?

As mentioned, there are no firm proposals for a law to bring about an elected mayor in Dublin or any other city at present. Last month, Environment Minister Phil Hogan told the Dáil that directly elected mayors would be considered in the context of the reform of local government but no conclusions had yet been reached.

Montague hopes that the Minister will make his intentions clear before the summer recess in mid-July: “I hope directly elected mayors is part of what he is proposing but it remains to be seen,” he said, adding that he would be “very interested” in running for the position.

For Gormley, he is in no doubt that one is needed and thinks that eventually the city of Dublin and possibly the country’s other cities will have a directly-elected mayor.

“Cities that work well have got mayors,” he told TheJournal.ie this week. “This city is just lacking coordination in so many areas. It is just mind boggling at times, the two Luas lines are not connected, the sewage treatment plant debacle, the incinerator contract debacle…

“There is no political oversight in this city. The way it is structured you’ve got a city manager who is accountable to nobody. We’ve got a major problem. Until the whole issue of accountability and responsibility is sorted we’re going to have a city that doesn’t work.”

Poll: Do you want to have directly-elected mayors in Ireland?


Poll Results:

No, not at all (155)
Yes, in all Ireland's cities (150)
Yes, in Dublin only (131)
Don't know (23)




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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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