Harry McGee: Why Dublin needs mayor with real powers

‘Dublin isn’t competing with Limerick or Waterford. Its rivals include London, Paris, Edinburgh, Berlin, Madrid, Barcelona. It’s competing with them for investment, tourism, conferences’

Who was mayor of London until May this year? Photograph:  EPA/Jeremy Lempin

Who was mayor of London until May this year? Photograph: EPA/Jeremy Lempin

 

A start-the-weekend political quiz. 1. Who is the current mayor of London? 2. Who was mayor of London until May this year? 3. Who is the mayor of New York? 4. Who is the lord mayor of Dublin?

Number 2 is obvious. Boris Johnson. And anyone who followed the Brexit referendum campaign will know the answer to question 1. Johnson’s successor is Sadiq Khan, the former Labour MP for Tooting. He played a leading role in the televised debates and has built up a very high profile since his election in May.

Most people would make a good stab at number 3. It’s Bill de Blasio – though some may have guessed the previous incumbent, Michael Bloomberg.

Now, admit it: number 4 is the stumbler, isn’t it? I’d say most people, bar the incredibly well-informed (which doesn’t include me) would struggle to name the lord mayor of Dublin.

It’s not the fault of the incumbent, Brendan Carr, a popular and effective councillor for Finglas and Cabra.

No, the problem is the job and the role itself. Carr will struggle gallantly to build a profile between now and next summer, just as Sinn Féin’s Críona Ní Dhálaigh did over the past year.

When the role is officially described, you hear the term “largely symbolic”. That translates as having no power whatsoever – a “show pony”, to use George Lee’s term for his role as a TD during his short political career.

The office has existed for 787 years, since King Henry III granted a charter in 1229. Back then the mayor of Dublin had real powers, even though some of those powers now seem a tad gory, including summary disposal of political rivals.

Pot-bellied pigs

Other than that, the role involves numerous openings, functions, after-dinner speeches, launches, conferences etc. It is admirable and helps the city’s PR, but the role is limited and, erm, “largely symbolic”.

This all came home to me last weekend with a tweet by London mayor Sadiq Khan: “I’ve joined forces with leaders of world cities to find ways we can create cleaner, greener cities together.”

This is the C40 global initiative, led by 40 mayors from cities around the world. They are showing how urban areas can lead the way in helping reach the goals of the Paris climate change agreement. The vast majority, as far as I can ascertain, have executive mayors, with fixed terms. There are many European cities involved. Dublin is not one of them.

The question the tweet prompted in my mind was: “Who is the leader of Dublin?” It reminds me a little of the famous Henry Kissinger rhetorical question: “Who do I speak to when I pick up the telephone and want to speak to Europe?”

The case for a directly-elected Dublin mayor with executive powers is beyond dispute at this stage. The city needs an identifiable medium-term political leader who can speak on its behalf and will have powers to influence transport and traffic policy, sustainable transport, tourism, trade and economy, marketing, infrastructure and other services.

Dublin isn’t competing with Limerick or Waterford. Its rivals include London, Paris, Edinburgh, Berlin, Madrid and Barcelona. It’s competing with them for investment, tourism and conferences.

The situation in Dublin at the moment is messy. There are four local authorities with one councillor in each showing off the bling. The preponderance of power resides with officials.

The first serious attempt to have a directly-elected mayor was by Noel Dempsey, one of the best environment ministers we have had. He introduced a law in 2000 to make it happen in 2004, but it was repealed by his successor, Martin Cullen, who was not one of the best environment ministers we have had.

John Gormley made some headway with the idea up until 2009. After that any preoccupation other than his survival as a minister was a luxury for the Green Party leader. It was Phil Hogan who went furthest with the idea in his 2014 local government reforms. Hogan had some great ideas but also a scatter-gun approach to their implementation.

Setting the bar too high

Fingal councillors said a mayor of Dublin would not represent non-urban areas such as Loughshinny and Rush.

That argument does not hold water.

The mayor would be mayor for all of Dublin, city and county, with a small directly-elected assembly of councillors (and also a small cabinet). Each local authority would still operate in its own area, albeit having ceded some powers. And the mayor would be a substantial politician with a national profile.

It’s beyond time for it.

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