It looks this week like Limerick’s time has finally come. First, our world beating hurlers deliver a historic four in a row. Then, we get the very welcome (if long awaited) announcement that the Government has committed to have an election by June of next year for Limerick’s first Directly Elected Mayor (DEM).
The local government reform train has finally left Dublin with Minister O’Donnell driving it to Limerick, but it is not yet here.
We now have to make sure that the blockers cannot slow it down again or, at worst, divert it into a siding in Limerick Junction to lie there forgotten until after the General Election and we have to start the campaign all over again.
With a mayor and electoral vision chosen by Limerick people themselves, the city can properly take control and ramp up implementation of key decisions like:
- How to make the Shannon Estuary become Ireland’s first carbon net zero region by 2035
- How to generate enough green energy off the coast from Foynes to power not just two million homes in Ireland annually, but 50 million other homes across the EU
- How to build a more resilient and fair Limerick
- How to build much more affordable and student housing than is being delivered now
- How to deliver a countywide modern public transport system
- How to deliver better medical and social services for all of Limerick’s residents, not just those who can afford private care or insurance and
- How to see 50,000 new green jobs created over the next decade
We can finally become a key part of a Western counterbalance to stop forced economic migration from Limerick to Dublin or even abroad, like when I was leaving school in the 1980s.
The new system here in Limerick will broadly retain the two current pillars of elected local councillors and unelected CEO and local government officials that every other local authority has.
But it will also pioneer a third pillar unique to Limerick of a mayor elected for a five-year term with a strong electoral mandate with responsibility and budget to deliver a manifesto chosen directly by the people of Limerick in 2024. The sort of mayors who have built some of the best communities in the world.
The mayor must be able to put Limerick’s interest first and cannot be a puppet of Dublin. They have to be able to represent all communities and work with all stakeholders.
We do not have the detail yet to know if the Government has accepted all of the sensible recommendations of the cross-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government, and Heritage.
But one thing is clear, the era of mainly ceremonial mayors chosen by a pre-arranged annual rotation among the majority clique in the council chamber without the people of Limerick having any real say in the choice is finally almost over on Shannonside.
That is not to say that we have not had dedicated and good mayors. But the reality is that no matter how good they have been or how hard they work, those mayors did not have enough power and authority to get the tough stuff done.
A twelve-month mandate starting just before the summer break is simply not long enough to deliver important change. When you know someone is gone within a year, it is easy to block them.
From what I have seen working in Irish government circles, one needs a couple of years to build the right alliances and credibility so that Dublin-based decisionmakers who will remain important realise that they have no option but to deliver for Limerick.
This very wait of five years for what we voted for in 2019 or the debacle of poor delivery on projects like affordable and student housing, medical services, or new neighbourhoods like Colbert Quarter being perfect examples of how impossible it is for the current system to deliver for Limerick.
It is easy to see how different and better things could be when we have our own directly chosen mayor. Someone who speaks directly for all the people of Limerick and will not be disappearing from their job within a year.
I strongly believe in the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. good government requires that central governments should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more local level. Just as the EU sets a common framework for decisions made locally by national governments, national governments should have the job of setting a common framework for more decisions making by locally elected mayors and councillors.
Who still remembers the programme for government and Minister Peter Burke promising that the legislation will be advanced as quickly as possible with the aim of an election taking place before the end of 2021?
Or the #WeWantOurVote campaign in 2022, which gathered 1,000 petition signatures calling for the legislation and highlighting that Limerick had been waiting over 1,000 days for this?
Or even the promises as late as in January of this year that the legislation would be published no later than the end of April and again by the Tánaiste in early June that we’d see it during June itself?
All broken promises for Limerick. It is clear that, up to now, the people who want to deny Limerick what the people voted for have been winning.
Maybe it was the realisation that Dublin now wants this too and it would be electoral suicide in Limerick with a General Election coming to give a plebiscite to Dublin in June of next year without delivering for Limerick.
Maybe it was just strong leadership from Minister O’Donnell and the Taoiseach that this had to happen.
Whatever the reason, it is hugely exciting to me that now, 100 or so years after the State itself got independence from Britain, after our locally led campaign, Limerick is the first local authority area trusted to pioneer Ireland’s first devolved local government with a DEM and a local council chamber working together.
The Government and Minister O’Donnell now have no further excuse to break this latest promise to Limerick.