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A player mayor

Dublin City and County needs a visionary, strategic, political, accountable leader with a mandate

In 1991 I was elected as a councillor onto Dublin City Council. Before we took our seats on the new City Council we were deferentially issued with robes to wear for the formal first meeting. As a councillor my robes were green and blue. Councillors first elected in their ward were referred to as aldermen and wore the same robes but with an extra yellow strip indicating their gorgeous ascendancy. However, as I walked into my first meeting in Council Chamber I spied someone wearing bright purple robes. This was Frank Feely, the unelected City Manager, whose self-chosen robes summed up the anti-democratic nature of local government in Ireland since the 1920s. Not only did he get to chose his own spiffing robes, but he, and all other unelected city officials then and now boast pre-eminent powers over decisions locally that affect our lives.

Name the last four mayors of Dublin. It shouldn’t be difficult: you only have to go back four years. In fact, because of the limited power and tenure, it is unfair to ask: even aficionados will admit that it would be too much knowledge.

A year ago I tweeted that the “Dublin Mayor idea will die a slow painful death by committee. Bad for Dublin, bad for Ireland”. Unless there is a change of heart by Fingal councillors this may well be the outcome. Apparently they aren’t enthusiastic about a directly elected mayor, and have the power to block the proposal. They may well decline, given that their status depends on the status quo. Had the Green Party’s proposals for a directly elected mayor for Dublin come to fruition we would have had a mayor for all of Dublin directly elected by the people of Dublin next May, rather than the Fine Gael proposals that at best will result in a mayoral election in five years time.

The blame again slumbers at Phil Hogan’s door for setting up a process that seems doomed to fail, unless there is a change of heart. Even his master plan for local government reform “Putting People First” contains a breath-taking anti-urban bias as he proposes giving Dublin City equal powers to Westmeath on regional issues. It seems clear that, although Phil Hogan is Minister for the Environment, he is wholeheartedly Fine Gael TD for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, and doesn’t want to devolve power to Dublin or other cities.

Currently national government decide on the important issues that cities should be deciding, and councillors are mostly left to sort out issues of administration, maladministration and zoning. The legislation introduced by the Green Party in the last Government provided for a mayor who would co-ordinate water, waste, transport and planning policies. Time and again, we return to the legacy of bad planning decisions across the country. The people of Dublin are still picking up the tab for mad rezoning decisions that took place in Dublin County Council in the 1980s. Councillors were allowed rezone land without any sense of responsibility and without a mayor who had the bigger picture about what the city might be.

It doesn’t have to be this way: a mayor can have serious powers for strategy, policy and implementation – as well as to set a tone and man a bully pulpit.

The challenge in Dublin is that the current divide and conquer approach of four different local authorities with four different agendas, managers and mayors elected on a revolving basis is confusing and dysfunctional. Henry Kissinger asked who would he talk to if he wanted to talk to Europe. We need someone to talk to when we want to talk to Dublin. We need someone who has a strong, coherent vision for Dublin.

Of course elected mayors can be kicked out in a vote on their performance, effecting significant accountability.

All across the world, strong cities have directly elected, strategic, accountable mayors. Georges Frêche one of the most colourful and controversial voices in the south of France was mayor of Montpellier for 27 years. Under his mayoralty the city thrived. That is why most French people when asked say they would like to live in Montpellier. Barcelona would not be the same without the legacy of Pasqual Maragall, who transformed that city from industrial backwater to hosting the 1992 Olympics. He made the city tick, and work effectively because he was a strong and dynamic civil leader who united the city and brought the Games to Barcelona. We all remember the scenes at the diving events, where the divers competed with the city as a backdrop. That was no accident, it happened because there was a strong mayor.

Against the odds though we have had some great mayors in Dublin city. I have strong memories of Carmencita Hederman and her fantastic contribution to the city during its Millennium year. Half way through the millennium year, she was replaced by the more prosaic Ben Briscoe, followed by Seán Haughey.

Under the current system this cannot happen. It gives the permanent government of Managers, of John Tierneys and Owen Keegans, who serve seven years, the upper hand, and diminishes the role of elected representatives.

In many places, a city’s lifeblood – its economy, cultural life and sense of place – is channelled through its mayor’s office. One only has to look at Shirley Clarke Franklin in Atlanta, Martin O’Malley in Baltimore.

I can easily recall – dating remarkably back to 1977 – the last four mayors of New York City – Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Dublin too needs mayors who represent a vision, and leave a legacy. And are remembered.

Ciaran Cuffe