Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
For many Dubs there is a special place reserved in Hell, even beneath the frozen alive for all eternity form of Judas Iscariot, just for that bane of the average Dubliners’ life, The Corpo.
The Corpo, or to give it its formal title, Dublin City Council, gets terrible stick. Of course it does, being given the thankless task of governing a region of the nation for which permanent indignation is the default setting. More than most other counties, the county symbol of Dublin should be a Dub shuffling along with an inflatable crucifix, given my native county’s natural disposition towards believing everything is just terrible.
Let’s be clear: Dublin City Council isn’t the worst. It makes mistakes, of course, but as with so many Irish institutions it suffers from a lack of ownership. Most Dubliners don’t think of the city council as their council, and so its decisions are dismissed as at best arbitrary and at worst the product of some hidden elite agenda. Dubliners don’t elect the man who actually runs the city, Owen Keegan. A man who will spend a budget of nearly €863m in 2017. Yeah, sure, the city council nominally sets the budget. We all know the reality. Once the rubber stamp thumps down on the budget, it’s over to Owen.
Just look at the debates on getting cars out of the city centre, or building proper physically segregated cycle lanes that don’t rely on the frankly overrated power of a millimetre of paint to protect cyclists from traffic. Indeed, local authorities would probably be just as effective using the cycle lane paint to paint pentagrams on our roads to cast Satanic spells to protect cyclists. I doubt it would be any worse.
These are big issues, with strong arguments on both sides. The decision to reduce car access to the city centre is one which will have an impact on the quality of life of both people who use the city centre and those who drive there. It’s a question of convenience versus a more continental lifestyle.
These are issues that affect ordinary Dubliners every day. That’s why there was such heated debate about them during the local elections in 2014.
What’s that? You don’t remember that debate? Actually, you’re right. You don’t recall it because it didn’t happen, because our local elections are so parochially focussed that city or county-wide issues hardly ever get debated. Instead, you get right down to an individual lamppost or speed ramp on a street, or the future of the Palestinian people. But the future of Dublin city? Never.
There’s a very simple reason why. There are no votes in it. There is no time when you as a voter get to vote for a person at local level with the responsibility to actually make decisions.
TDs lobby. Cllrs call for things. But actual county-wide decisions are for the most part made by unelected county chief executives. It’s not that they make bad decisions. But they’re not our decisions. I attended a briefing in Dublin City Council years ago in my Progressive Democrat days where the then city manager, John Fitzgerald, and his team laid out the strategy for the development of Dublin. It was very impressive, and his team were well on top of their briefs. But they actually laughed out loud when asked about councillor input. Not out of arrogance, but because councillors for the most part just weren’t interested.
Take another county or city-wide issue: housing. Who is in charge of building houses in the city? Who can we fire in the polling booth for not delivering? Local councillors are more interested in stopping housing developments to placate voters who have actual homes. Only a county-wide mayor has a big enough constituency to be genuinely frightened by people who use housing as their first preference deciding issue. Imagine an independent Housing First candidate for mayor of Greater Dublin. He or she won’t win, but every candidate will be falling over them trying to get their second preferences. Suddenly housing is a real election issue. It’s the same with cycle lanes and reducing car access. A single-seat election, either at county or regional election, and suddenly every candidate can’t ignore those issues, because 50% of the vote is much harder to get than a usual quota. At a city-wide level, suddenly both the cyclist and motorist vote matters.
This is why we need elected mayors with the power to raise money and spend it.
If there is a single political reform Leo Varadkar could introduce that has the potential to seriously change how Irish politics works, it is letting every county directly elect a full-time executive mayor.
From Dublin’s perspective, it would create a single individual not just charged with approaching the city as a region, but who could be dismissed directly by its people. Real proper accountability.
For the counties outside Dublin it would not only do the same but also recognize that Dublin shouldn’t be the centre of all politics and ideas. That every county should be able to set its own path.
Politicians don’t like the idea, because it shines the spotlight too closely on someone. Councillors say they want councils because it’s more democratic, but that’s not the answer. The reason so many councillors are against elected mayors is because a) they like their year-long responsibility free look-at-my-chain ego trip, and b) they like being able to hide amongst their colleagues.
“It’s not my fault X didn’t happen. I was in favour but all the other councillors were against it.”
In the ward next door another councillor is saying the exact same thing.
And the ward after that. And the ward after that.
But this changes everything. Suddenly there’ll be a new generation of public office holders whom the public know actually have budgets and the power to spend them. Some will do a Homer Simpson, blow their budgets in a reckless bid to be popular. Maybe so. Let them, because it’ll be the people of the county who will then have to suffer the consequences of their vote.
Some of the elected mayors will be awful chancers. But others will transform their counties, turning Leitrim into the Vegas of Ireland, or Wicklow into fashionable Brighton. Maybe the mayor of Kerry will fill the ditches of the kingdom with the overturned cars of people who have had very big dinners. Some may even try to turn Fingal or Dublin City into Havana or Caracas, putting commercial rates through the roof or trying to erect statues of Che Guevera or Stalin or The Unknown Provo on O’Connell Street.
Good: let them try. It’s time to take the stabilisers off the voters and the politicians.
It’s the next step in breaking the Dublin Castle mentality that permeates the nation. That we are a nation of grown-ups who have to make decisions.
By the way, one final thing: Owen Keegan hasn’t been a bad city chief executive. I suspect he wouldn’t make a bad mayor either, and I’d seriously consider voting for him. But I would like the opportunity to make that call. After all, it is my money he’s spending.