Talk of a directly-elected mayor for Dublin has often seemed like a road to nowhere. The debate has gone on and on, seemingly forever, yet the promise of a powerful figurehead to take command of the city has never been realised. Now a Citizens’ Assembly is set to revive the question. But will it ever happen?
The assembly of 67 randomly-selected people from the Dublin region and 12 councillors is set to start its discussions next month, the aim being to make formal proposals to the Oireachtas within nine months "and sooner if possible". With registrations set to close on Monday, almost 1,000 people had signalled their interest in joining the assembly as of last week. But whether its work is enough to provide the impetus to finally settle the matter is anyone's guess.
A law was passed as far back as 2001 to allow direct elections in 2004 but that never happened. Similar moves by the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition in 2010 came to nothing. Yet another effort came a cropper in 2014 when Fingal county council vetoed the notion.
"One of the recurring themes here is that we're talking about starting again," says Dr Aodh Quinlivan, director of the centre for local and regional governance at University College Cork.
“It seems kind of staggering that 21 years later we seem [again] to be at the starting point on this. Even though politically for a long time the main parties have been in favour of directly-elected mayors. I’m not quite sure it’s a burning issue for them. When it comes down to it, there has been a lack of political will.”
If Dublin, Ireland and the world have changed immeasurably in the two decades since legislation was first enacted, the most basic argument in favour of a directly-elected mayor for the city has not. Although the capital is the State's economic cockpit, it lacks a powerful voice with executive clout and a democratic mandate to make it work better. It goes without saying that Dublin's challenges these days are all the greater because of the acute housing crisis that is at its worst in the city.
Ireland's administrative system is more centralised than many comparable developed European states
“With a population of 1.5 million and 900,000 jobs generating 40 per cent of national income, the question that needs to be addressed is - who is responsible for Dublin?” asks Aebhric McGibney, public affairs director with Dublin Chamber.
“At present, the answer is a plethora of local authorities and agencies, with no single person accountable for one of Ireland’s most important assets. We believe that a single figure, with the appropriate powers and authority, should be put in charge of tackling Dublin’s deficits and making it a city that is internationally renowned for its quality of life, sustainability and economic vibrancy.”
There are four local authorities in Dublin – each with a chief executive, a mayor and councillors, but with limited powers overall – and a clutch of other national organisations with responsibility for infrastructure such as transport, roads and housing.
In addition, Ireland's administrative system is more centralised than many comparable developed European states. International studies suggest that the level of local autonomy is on a par with that of Moldova. When it comes to running the State, local government has always been the poor relation. Just like Seanad reform, local government reform is something many leaders profess to believe in without doing much about it.
The practical questions are considerable, politically tricky and encompass far more than providing a budget for the mayor and staff. Establishing a forceful mayoral office with real capacity to direct and execute policy change focussed on the city would require ministers, Government departments and executive leaders in councils to surrender some of their power. This has proved a barrier in the past and is likely to do so again, no matter what the citizens’ assembly says.
'What we have seen so far is very little in the way of the further devolving of powers to local government'
The prospect of a challenge from entrenched bureaucratic forces is not to be underestimated, says someone who was in the Cabinet when the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition advanced the failed 2010 plan. “The difficulty was not with ministerial colleagues,” the former minister recalls. “The city managers were completely and utterly opposed to it. They didn’t want it. They have their fiefdoms and they have total and utter power.”
This is no small point. To have real impact, a new mayoralty would have to take power from others who wield it. “It’s pointless having a directly elected mayor without a major devolution of powers and functions to local government,” says Quinlivan.
“An advantage of a directly-elected mayor obviously is that somebody first of all would have a five-year term of office. They’re accountable to the electorate, democratically it’s very sound...The idea is that you could have a strong political leader who can speak on behalf of Dublin and advocate in areas like housing, sustainability, transport etc,” he adds.
“But – and this is always a big but – Ireland and Irish local government has very limited powers in areas like transport, tourism, policing, education. So while broadly I think having a directly elected mayor is a good thing and could be an interesting experiment there’s not much value in bringing a directly elected mayor on top of a very weak and dysfunctional system of local government unless you actually try and improve the system of local government as well.”
A 52 per cent majority of people in Limerick voted in a 2019 plebiscite to elect their own mayor
McGibney of Dublin Chamber makes a similar argument. “What we have seen so far is very little in the way of the further devolving of powers to local government, and more a reassignment of functions. For the business community, it is the job that matters and not the title.”
An alternative, he suggests, may be to create a special Cabinet ministry to oversee the capital city. “Given the lack of progress towards serious devolution of powers to a Dublin-wide local government, perhaps it would be more useful to give the necessary powers to a minister. In the same vein as Ireland has a Minister for Rural Affairs, we need a person at the Cabinet table with responsibility for Dublin.”
Whatever happens as a result of the Dublin citizens' assembly, the example of Limerick suggests rapid advances are unlikely.
A 52 per cent majority of people in Limerick voted in a 2019 plebiscite to elect their own major, becoming the only city of three to do so when the same proposal was rejected by voters in Cork and Waterford. Limerick's first mayoralty election is supposed to take place alongside the 2024 local elections. But draft laws are still awaited even though the Government approved the general scheme of legislation 11 months ago.
“Drafting of this complex bill is progressing steadily and publication of the Bill has been identified as a priority for the Department as soon as practicable in 2022,” says the Department of Local Government. “The time frame for its passage through the legislative process will then be a matter for the Oireachtas. It should be noted that the timing of elections for a mayor in Limerick will be decided by Government once the legislation is enacted.”
Dublin may well be next in the queue, but there is some still some distance to travel.