Alan O’Reilly is a political activist based in London.
Ireland is somewhat unusual among its European peers in that it hasn’t had to date a system of directly-elected mayors in any of its major cities.
This will change next year, when Limerick becomes the first city in Ireland to get one, while Dubliners are expected to go to the polls next year to decide if they want a mayor for themselves.
At present towns, cities, and counties across Ireland have either a lord mayor, mayor, or chairperson. These bare not directly elected roles but, in the main, ceremonial positions without any significant executive responsibility.
In 2019, voters went to the polls in Cork, Limerick and Waterford to decide whether they wanted an elected mayor. Limerick was the only one to vote in favour; the proposal was narrowly rejected (by less than 1,000 votes in each) by Cork and Waterford.
There was no one reason for the rejection. Some argued that the government ran a disjointed campaign, others that voters were unsure as to the exact nature of the powers of these mayors so feared they would simply become another figurehead.
Regardless, Limerick became the only city of these three to embrace a new model. But since then, actually implementing the decision has been delayed, and elections for the role are now only expected to take place next year, coinciding with European and local elections.
It is on this same date that voters in Dublin may also be asked to vote on whether they want to see a directly elected mayor for the capital. At present Dublin has a Lord Mayor, a purely ceremonial position elected directly by councillors. It is also the case that Dublin is not one single authority but four local authorities. Each has its own chairperson or mayor; again, though, these are all ceremonial roles.
But it’s yet unclear what will be the scope of this office. A citizen’s assembly was tasked to determine what the role would look like. The Assembly looked at a range of models, many in the UK, and made recommendations to the Government that a new mayor’s office.
They said that such mayors should have 15 specific devolved powers, including housing, local healthcare, transport, environment, and oversight of emergency services. Further powers would be devolved over time. Parliamentary committees are also due to make recommendations.
It will be interesting to see if the Government will allow the creation of a single powerful Mayor of Dublin. The creation of a powerful political platform could create further headaches for future governments.
With over a quarter of the population of Ireland living in Dublin and its environs, a mayor would have a huge personal mandate, the largest of any politician in Ireland other than the President. But unlike that office, could potentially be coupled with real executive powers and the mandate to deliver tangible policy proposals.
Even a mayor with weak powers would have a strong platform to advocate on behalf of Dubliners and this again could be a thorn in the side of any future government. One only needs to look at the experience in London with the current Mayor to recognise the pitfalls of this approach.
Ireland has generally had relatively weak local government, and over the years powers have drained away from town halls rather than towards them. The role of mayor could stop this centralisation of power, and allow Dubliners a powerful political voice..
Or they could follow the voters of Cork and Waterford, leaving Limerick an isolated case – and perhaps, like the rejection of the North East Regional Assembly in England, putting an end to the experiment. Much will likely depend on the final proposal for the role and if national politicians are willing to devolve powers they have previously jealously guarded.