DEM proposals are a long way from real DEMocracy

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John Moran, social entrepreneur and founder of financial advisory group RHH International. He is chair of LivableLimerick and former Secretary General of the Department of Finance.

by John Moran

I CAN still remember the excitement of May, 2019, when the people of Limerick voted to have a Directly Elected Mayor (DEM) to pioneer a new way to self-govern our regions.

First came the vote for a more empowered locally chosen leader to drive Limerick forward and operate to its full potential. The people of Limerick then participated in a government-led consultation to define the details on how the DEM should work.

The results were captured in an Implementation Advisory Report and the Government was to deliver the legislation to make those ideas a reality.

Those expectations, which were legitimately raised, are now at risk of being dashed.

The proposed new legislation is a far cry from the promises made in 2019. A climb down is happening before our eyes. Clearly, hidden vested interests have pushed hard to oppose real reform and resist the promised transfer of power to the regions.

The Government is dodging the tough decisions needed for real reform. The result is clear – the democratic choice made by the people of Limerick is being frustrated.

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New powers were promised to Limerick, like fixing its broken transport system. The DEM was to be the key actor guiding those powers. Now all we are getting are vague promises of transfers of powers sometime in the future.

Limerick is not trusted enough by our centralised Dublin government to have greater powers.

Power to make decisions about the funding needed to build a new Limerick were promised. They are not being delivered either to the new mayor and council.

So, why are our local leaders not trusted to make wise spending decisions on housing, transport, SME supports, infrastructure and other matters? Why do they have to still go to “adults” in Dublin for money or permission each time it is needed?

Most worryingly, with all of the likely confusion about what powers and money the mayor will or might actually have, we risk a very dangerous election of seductive unrealistic promises.

You can hear the candidates already. “Pick me and I will solving our housing crisis in rapid quick time”. “I’ll have flights from Shannon airport to every European capital”. “I’ll make the train journey to Dublin be less than 60 minutes”. “I’ll abolish local property tax.”.

When confusion reigns, there is a risk that the candidate promising to win miracles from Dublin will be elected, however unrealistic those promises are.

Remember Brexit and the NHS bus. Remember the declaration that ‘Mexico will pay for the Wall’ – need I go on?

Responsible candidates grounded in reality risk being dismissed as not wanting enough for Limerick or being unwilling to try hard enough.

If the current proposals are all Limerick gets, the DEM will have less power than what was promised back in 2019; less power than the current council chief executive; no allocated budget and more hoops to jump through than is the case today.

What we will not be getting is a strong executive mayor of the type we were promised and voted for. Instead we will have one of the most expensive taxpayer funded lobbyists in the country – a first citizen to keep going to Dublin with a begging bowl all the time.

It is time to call out the timidity of the government and resist the efforts of the vested interests who are unlikely to be putting Limerick’s interest first.

When the Government set out its plans in March 2019, it promised that the office of DEM should “add value” and that the government should not be taking actions where those action could just as effectively be taken at regional or local level. The plans also highlighted the need for “empowerment” – meaning the DEM should be as empowered as possible to perform their functions while remaining appropriately accountable.

The legislation fails to deliver all three of those objectives.

With almost 400 pages, it looks deceptively impressive. But look at the real numbers. 222 pages set out how the election will procedurally work on election day. Only 12 pages set out the powers of the DEM for the five years of the term.

At last week’s Oireachtas committee, analysing the legislation, I was invited to represent the views of LiveableLimerick. Together with Dee Ryan for Limerick Chamber, we pointed out a lot more needed to be done.

It is now time for central government to finally recognise that 100 years after Independence, Limerick and other cities are capable of managing their own affairs.

We need and are ready for a new local government structure that can deliver for Limerick.

The Implementation Advisory Report chaired by Tim O’Connor examined the detail of how that could and should work. Their ambitious proposals are a reasonable and workable description of what needs to happen.

The legislation should adopt them. Why ask for opinions to produce a report which is then ignored because you do not like the conclusions?

What we need now is for our TDs and Senators to stand up for this reform.

Two years should have been long enough for the government to confirm that the people of Limerick can be trusted with real power transfer within national policy frameworks.

I am hopeful that the Oireachtas Committee can agree on the need for amendments to deliver on the promises made in 2019 for true reform.

This is our best chance for real change, we cannot sit back and allow the transfer to be deferred and denied us again. There is still time to get the right result.

But as ever, it will not happen unless we stand up for what we were promised and deserve. If not, we will fail Limerick. We will fail all the regions hoping to follow.

We will allow a failure of as Pat Carroll coined it  #DEMocracy!

John Moran is a social entrepreneur and founder of financial advisory group RHH International. He is chair of LivableLimerick and former Secretary General of the Department of Finance.