L ast November, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party each proposed draft legislation aiming to revive the prospect of a powerful, directly elected mayor in Dublin, coordinating city government across the four local-authority areas.
For a time, it seemed as though having a directly elected mayor was a real possibility – down to a timetable that aimed to hold a plebiscite before May 2018 and a first mayoral election alongside the local and European elections in spring 2019.
The conditions agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for support of the latter’s minority government included a commitment to consider “directly elected mayors in cities” alongside a range of other measures that would have seen power devolved to local authorities.
The government just had to agree to discuss the mayor proposal with the opposition parties by the end of June. But it didn’t.
Instead, John-Paul Phelan, the newly appointed minister of state with special responsibility for local-government reform, stole a march.
A week before the deadline, he told the Sunday Business Post that instead of one directly elected mayor in Dublin, he wanted to appoint four – one for each of the local authorities.
“In the greater Dublin area, there are 1.5 million people. So if you create a mayor’s office in Dublin, you are creating a super mayor – it’s almost a rival to government in a sense,” he said. Asked to clarify the situation in the Dáil recently, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Green Party spokesperson on local government Eamon Ryan there was no legislation being planned, and that a wider programme of local government reforms would take priority.
The opposition’s prime movers in the legislative push for a mayor were not pleased. Eamon Ryan said: “The government has made a holy mess of this.” John Lahart, Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on Dublin, said the government had “reneged” on its commitment.
“If the Taoiseach thinks that you need a leader with greater powers well then he could propose that rather than scuppering the whole project,” Ryan said, recently. “It’s just an excuse to kill something they want to kill anyway, and it’s not even a valid excuse.
“Going back to the legislation we had going through the Dáil seven years ago, it was for a fully formed mayoral position with real powers, but Fine Gael have stymied it at every turn,” he added.
Details of the new proposals are sketchy. A Department of Housing spokesman said a report on a reform programme was being drawn up “on potential measures to boost local government leadership and accountability, among them metropolitan governance and possible directly elected mayors for cities.”
“While it would not be appropriate to pre-empt this report, the proposals to be developed for directly elected mayors for cities will be predicated on metropolitan governance structures which have significant functions and decision-making powers,” he added.
The report won’t be made public until after the government has returned from the Dáil summer recess in September, but the chances of Dubliners voting on a single mayor next spring seem remote.
For supporters of a strongwoman mayor, the arguments are largely the same as they were a decade ago. “We need to get coordinating the development of the city, rather than having a continuation of what we’ve seen for the last 20 years: the councils competing with each other for development, and no coordinated planning,” said Ryan.
“The latest is that we’ve a new minister for local government reform and he seems to be indicating a preference for having four directly elected mayors in Dublin so there would be one for each of the local authorities. That undermines the fundamental point,” he said.
At the moment, the four local authorities in the Dublin area are working on their own, not really talking to one another, said Graeme McQueen, public affairs officer with Dublin Chamber. “If you look at a project like Metro North, which would go through three local authority areas, it just makes sense that we would have someone coordinating things.”
McQueen said that “[Dublin is] in real danger of grinding to a halt. Congestion is growing all the time, there’s obviously a big cost of that on the economy, and it hugely affects people’s quality of life, and obviously our attractiveness to companies and workers to come and work and base themselves in Dublin.”
False starts are starting to become a habit on this issue. Coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour had agreed in their 2011 programme for government that they would hold a vote on having an elected mayor, and in 2014, environment minister Phil Hogan agreed to hold it on the same day as the local elections that year – if each of the four local authorities voted for it.
The Irish Times ran an editorial in which it branded the council veto powers a “shameless ruse” – and if that’s what it was, it worked.
Fingal includes a large urban population contiguous with the rest of Dublin city in Blanchardstown, but with its county seat north of the airport in Swords, its ethic is distinctly rural. Of the four counties making up Dublin, it can be the most competitive when it comes to attracting investment – lots of empty development land, cheaper housing, and better transport links than the rest of the city.
That has given it a lucrative commercial rates base in the business parks fed by the M1 and M50 motorways, and at Dublin Airport, and fewer spending commitments – in fact, the county was able to freeze its rates for businesses for the seventh year in a row in its last budget. In other words, it had the most to lose from a metropolitan super-mayor.
Dublin’s three other councils voted in favour of the proposal, but a majority in Fingal secured the county’s veto, and the mayoral plan was dead in the water. Kieran Dennison of Fine Gael was mayor of Fingal when councillors voted down the plebiscite.
“There was a reason why Dublin county was split into three back in the early ’90s – because it was just too big to run,” he said. “So I would certainly have concerns about having one person, as you say, effectively the second or third most powerful person in the country, running Dublin and the taoiseach then running the rest of the country.”
At the time of the vote in 2014, he says, many council officials across Dublin had concerns about the plan.
“One official described it as almost like setting up another Irish Water,” Dennison said. “There was going to be a mayor, a cabinet, an assembly, and lots of state agencies were going to be split in two – this individual was going to have more power than the Northern Ireland Assembly had in the North at the time.”
Chairwoman or Chief?
The government says that local government will be given far greater power in future – and the proposal to extend the oversight of the Comptroller and Auditor General to council funds is a strong signal that it’s serious about devolution. What powers the leaders of the new “metropolitan governance structures” will have, and how they get them, remains to be seen.
Dublin Chamber was a key supporter of the campaign for a single mayor, but their view has shifted at least a little. They agree that there’s a major need for coordination across the Dublin region, but don’t necessarily think it needs to be democratically elected.
“Where we’re at is whether it’s a directly elected mayor or a CEO of some sort, Dublin is absolutely crying out for someone or something to oversee us,” said McQueen. “It’s very much about the function as opposed to the title. I think we need to decide on the areas that we need someone or some type of body to look after us in Dublin.”
Dennison expects the role of a directly elected mayor won’t change much, whatever shape local government takes in the future. “I presume – now I don’t know what sort of powers those mayors would have but I suspect that they would be more or less the ceremonial role they have at the moment,” he said.
“From what I gather from what the minister seems to be doing now is, I suppose, dipping a toe in the water and instead of going for one directly elected mayor for the whole of Dublin, going for four directly elected mayors.
“If you’re looking for a champion for Dublin, that might be a matter of electing a lord mayor for all of Dublin rather than just for the city. That person could be the champion or the promoter for all of Dublin to sell the city abroad. That’s something to be considered.”
Eamon Ryan is sceptical of the government’s commitment to empowering local government. “Dublin is competing with Manchester, Amsterdam, Vienna – Dublin is not competing with Cork. It suits Dublin for Cork to grow and to prosper. Dublin’s going to grow anyway, but the question is whether we can grow it in a really clever way, and in the absence of any real political leadership, that is really undermined.”
“There is an instinct from the permanent government, the central civil servants, that they hold onto power, and part of that has been the undermining of the powers of local government for decades,” he said.