Celebrities would make a ‘dog’s dinner’ of being Dublin mayor, Ahern says

‘Every week would be a PR exercise’: Former taoiseach told Citizens’ Assembly directly-elected mayor ‘wouldn’t do much for city’

Publicity-obsessed celebrities who “wouldn’t care two damns” about Dublin would make a “dog’s dinner” of being a directly-elected city mayor, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said.

Speaking at a meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly, which is considering whether a citywide poll should elect a mayor, Mr Ahern said Fianna Fáil legislated for this around 20 years ago but did a U-turn after thinking more about it.

Mr Ahern, who served as lord mayor through the local authority system, said he was “very enthusiastic” at the time about having an “elected official, somebody who would be Mr or Ms Dublin” and that he believed it “would have a huge impact”.

“Then, quite frankly, the more we discussed it, there were two issues,” he told the Assembly.

“One, we decided, is you would get a whole lot celebs who would run for it and when they got elected, they wouldn’t care to two damns about the city and county too much. Every week would be a PR exercise — what do we say this week to make the Sunday Indo or RTÉ happy. That wouldn’t do much for the city.”

Secondly, Fianna Fáil decided to pull the provision of a directly-elected mayor from legislation after some reflection on how Ireland works compared to the “great grandiose systems around the world, where directly elected mayors have control of everything”.

“They have control of the police, teaching, all the facilities in the city. That is just so far removed from the system we have. I cannot envisage us having that kind of a system in this country...I just don’t see it,” he said.

‘Friction’

Mr Ahern suggested “friction” between a directly-elected mayor’s office, mayoral advisers, staff, government departments and State agencies would stymie efforts towards progress.

Recalling the start of the Luas project, he said it was “like pulling elephants teeth trying to get the thing going”.

A directly-elected mayor would see “friction between Custom House (Department for Local Government) and the ministry, between agencies and the ministry, between the Taoiseach’s office and the city council”.

“To be honest with you, in my personal view, it would make a dog’s dinner of the system,” he added.

Mr Ahern said the existing four local authorities in Dublin — Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Fingal County Council — run services like parks, libraries, waterworks, waste and housing maintenance “very well”.

However, he said Dublin now needs a system of local government that is “fit for purpose” with some devolved powers so a citywide authority “could make decisions quicker”.

“Dublin is a serious capital, with some of the biggest companies in the world now, more and more European headquarters...about 50 international companies have their European headquarters here...to run that kind of city we need a fit for purpose system.”

The capital “can’t go on with four local authorities”, he said.

Mr Ahern attacked the current planning system as too slow, adding that “one body” would be the “best way” to streamline development decisions.

“In the past you got into all kinds of difficulties with politicians having too much involvement in planning,” he said. “That created all types of scandals and difficulties. So you don’t want to go back to that.”

Currently, a council makes a planning decision, which goes to An Bord Pleanála, then a legal challenge is mounted, said Mr Ahern. “That doesn’t happen in other countries. There is a far more streamlined system.”

Stronger councillors

Rather than focusing on a directly-elected mayor, priority should be given to “stronger councillors” with “more powers, more resources”, Mr Ahern said, adding that there is “an appetite there for a federal system in Dublin.”

Ireland and Dublin’s mushrooming population has transformed it into a “far more sophisticated, complicated county” requiring a new system of local government in the capital, he said.

“A mayor on its own won’t do it,” Mr Ahern told the Assembly. “A figurehead who gets elected every few years will always be looking at short-sighted issues — that is the problem with democratic politics. I’m not sure that will help us.”

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor