To be or not to be directly elected?

Senator Maria Byrne with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the public meeting on the plebicite for a directly elected Mayor of Limerick. Photo: Cian Reinhardt
Senator Maria Byrne with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the public meeting on the plebicite for a directly elected Mayor of Limerick in May, 2019. Photo: Cian Reinhardt

SHOULD Limerick have a directly elected mayor?

This question is proving a dilemma of Shakespearean proportions as voters weigh up their options before going to the polls on May 24.

“To be or not to be directly elected, that is the question,” said LiveableLimerick chairman John Moran in his address at Thomond Park last Thursday.

“For me, the answer quite clearly has to be – to be,” he declared.

“The new Mayor, directly elected, will be a more powerful catalyst and leader as he or she will hold a direct democratic mandate from the citizens but also as the holder of a full time position will have the time and proximity to interact closely with residents each day to listen to them directly. Those dual aspects are what makes the new job so special a role.

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But as this new role would carry a “heavy responsibility”, Mr Moran also believes it deserves a more robust democratic selection process.

“A mayor has two tasks – to change what they can change themselves and then influence others to change the stuff outside of the mayor’s control. For me, the transformation to a multi-year and directly elected mandate are the key aspects to make these tasks more achievable. Firstly, five years give sufficient time to make bold changes oneself. But also in parallel to have the time to build the necessary relationships to influence other policy makers views too. Equally importantly, by having voter approval for a plan, fine-tuned over an election campaign, the mayor has much more credibility to make and recommend bold changes than either the current chief executive or mayor – no matter how talented they might be,” Mr Moran argued.

However, some think that ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.

Solidarity councillor Paul Keller is supporting a no vote in the upcoming plebiscite on whether to support the creation of a directly elected Mayor position for Limerick.

And as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar travelled to the city last week to promote the call for a yes vote in the plebiscite, Solidarity picketed the event at Thomond Park in protest at conditions in University Hospital Limerick (UHL).

Cllr Keller takes the view that more democracy at local level is sorely needed, but the proposal for a Mayor with wages of €130,000 plus expenses does not deal with the real democratic deficit in City Hall. He argues that an elected mayor is likely to end up taking more powers away from democratically-elected councillors than he or she would from an unelected Council chief executive.

“If a newly elected Mayor comes from the political establishment, then €130,000 a year plus expenses represents a ride on the gravy train for an insider. If a newly elected Mayor comes from outside the political establishment, €130,000 a year plus €170,000 for staff and a driver represents an attempt from day one to co-opt that individual into the political establishment and the establishment way of life.

“Either way, the rules of the game are being set up in such a way as to suit the wealthy and the powerful in this city,” Cllr Keller declared. Meanwhile, Limerick  Labour Party TD Jan O’Sullivan is calling for a review of the salary and cost of the office of the directly elected mayors of Limerick, Waterford and Cork.

“The total cost of the office is €450,000 for the mayor and two special advisors. I am calling on the Minister to clarify why the office will cost nearly half a million euro a year? There is a real risk that the cost of the office could become the focal point of the plebiscite and this is due to the Government’s failure to meaningfully engage with the public about this proposal,” Deputy O’Sullivan warned.

“A directly elected Mayor is an exciting opportunity to strengthen local democracy in Ireland and will remove some of the democratic deficit at local authority level as we have one of the weakest systems of local government in Europe. However the ham-fisted way the Government are communicating the proposal is putting it in jeopardy.”

Under the Government’s proposals, a directly elected mayor with executive functions would perform a significant amount of the executive functions currently performed by local authority chief executives, giving the mayoral role substantial powers, and helping to encourage the growth and development of Limerick, Cork and Waterford. The Mayor would prepare and oversee implementation of a programme of office, similar to a programme for government. They would also ensure that the chief executive performs the functions of the local authority in accordance with the mayor and elected council’s policies.

Limerick Fine Gael Senator Maria Byrne considers the plebiscite to be about the people of Limerick giving a mandate to a political leader, enabling them to create new vibrant Limerick.

“All the key ingredients will soon be in place – a deep sea port, an international airport on our doorstep, and a motorway link to Dublin and Cork.

“Having previously served as a Councillor on Limerick City and County Council from 1999 up until my election to Seanad Éireann, I know how fundamentally important it is for joined up thinking at local government level.

“I genuinely believe that the beefed-up role of directly elected mayor will benefit the city, the county and the Mid-West region,” Senator Byrne added.