Debate over directly elected Dublin mayor heats up

Councils to vote on whether to put issue to citizens

 Oisín Quinn of Labour:  “There’s a huge number of things that a lot of cities do themselves and the time I think has come for Dublin to be given the opportunity to take a leap forward in terms of how it is run.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Oisín Quinn of Labour: “There’s a huge number of things that a lot of cities do themselves and the time I think has come for Dublin to be given the opportunity to take a leap forward in terms of how it is run.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


The current phase of the debate on a directly elected mayor for Dublin is coming rapidly to a head. At issue right now is whether Dubliners get to vote in three months on the principle of establishing such an office. This must be decided next month by the four local councils in Dublin.

The public vote would take place on May 23rd, the same day as the local and European elections. The notion of giving the people their say has many supporters but this is far from a done deal. A majority of the total membership of Dublin City, Fingal, South Dublin and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councils would be required. This is quite a high threshold in the scheme of things, and the councils would cede significant responsibilities to a new mayor.

The actual executive powers of such an office are also under discussion. These would not be settled for some time, even if the vote goes ahead and the broad proposal is passed.

Yet friction is inevitable. Government too would lose power to a new mayor. Already there is talk of resistance to the notion of giving a new Dublin mayor powers that would easily trump those of Ministers. Quite how that plays out will be pivotal, even if detailed public discussion has been minimal thus far.

The basic aim, however, is to improve how the city is run. In essence, command of important services like transport would go a new figurehead with executive authority who is directly accountable to the people.

This is in vogue internationally. The most obvious examples are Boris Johnson in the relatively new office of London mayor and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who brought verve to that longer-established position.

There are degrees of power, of course, and that scope of any new mayoralty in Dublin would be central to its success or otherwise. But with cities and the metropolitan areas around them the main engine for growth in modern economies, the basic idea to achieve greater coherence over the running of the capital city.

‘Leap forward’
For advocates, this is an idea whose moment has come. “There’s a huge number of things that a lot of cities do themselves and the time I think has come for Dublin to be given the opportunity to take a leap forward in terms of how it is run,” says Dublin lord mayor Oisín Quinn, a Labour councillor.

“We have a very complicated decision-making structure for a lot of things that are very important to Dublin. Promoting Dublin from a tourist point of view isn’t done by any Dublin-focussed entity. Promoting Dublin from an economic-trade point of view isn’t done by any Dublin-focussed entity. Transport isn’t done by a Dublin entity.”

Quinn was the prime figure on a forum of the Dublin authorities which submitted an ambitious outline plan in December to Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan on a new mayoralty. The powers set out in this plan would be greater than those of the London mayor but less than those of the New York mayor. Whereas the office of the Dublin lord mayor is largely a ceremonial one, the proposal to Mr Hogan would see a huge swathe of executive responsibilities transferred to a new office.

These are: transport and traffic; parks and playgrounds; environment and waste management; tourism and heritage; arts and culture; planning; economic development; housing; drainage and flood protection; traffic and community policing; and fire services.

Sweeping changes
This list does not include key services like health and education but it is sweeping nonetheless, and raises a myriad of political and practical questions.

For one thing, the vicissitudes of the electoral cycle are such that a mayor taking office after local elections could very well be opposed to the government of the day. This carries obvious potential for political fireworks.

Then there are the detailed policy questions. If a major part of IDA Ireland were to be chiselled out for Dublin particularly, how would that go down with Merrion Street? Not well, apparently.

Other practical questions are tackled in a “pros and cons” report to Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar, who is considered to be a potential candidate for a new mayoralty.

Much remains be teased out thoroughly.

Minister has leeway under Act
The debate on an elected mayor for Dublin is framed by the Local Government Reform Act, newly-enacted laws to overhauls local government generally. The legislation means the Government is the driving seat when it comes to the eventual powers of a new mayoralty in the capital.

If the four Dublin councils vote next month to allow a plebiscite on May 23rd and if Dubliners accept the notion, the Minister for the Environment will be obliged within two years to submit proposals to the Oireachtas to establish the new office.

Even though the Minister’s plan must have “regard” to the proposal on which people vote, the Act gives leeway for the Minister to give the Oireachtas reasons “for not making proposals” related to the plebiscite. Although the current proposal from the four councils is for an elected mayor with very wide-ranging powers, this provides great freedom to the Government when the debate comes to be settled.

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