Previously published in The Irish Independent.
Picture the scene: Michael Collins sitting across from that wily old Welsh fox British prime minister David Lloyd George, faced with two choices.
One, the acceptance of Saorstát Éireann and a partitioned dominion status still under (nominally) the British crown, or two, a continued war which Collins, the architect of our war against the British, believed was ultimately doomed through lack of resources.
Now, imagine if Collins, who had fought for a single republic covering the whole island, had instead proffered a third option: that Ireland stay in the United Kingdom until the perfect all-Ireland republic model was offered.
Decades later we’d be still going to summer schools and debating what sort of republic would be the best, all under a union jack fluttering in the breeze, opposed to any change until we get the exact model that delivers absolutely everything we aspire to.
Welcome to Irish politics 2021.
Listening to the arguments against the proposed Directly-Elected Mayor (DEM) for Limerick is close to making me explode, for the simple reason that it is a debate so covered in falsehood.
Don’t get me wrong: there are good arguments against having elected mayors.
I don’t agree with them, but I accept their validity.
But that’s not what we are getting here.
Instead, we get arguments that go from the moronic to the downright dishonest.
Firstly, the argument that we shouldn’t have an elected mayor because we will have to pay them is a valid one provided you’re willing to say that you’re happy with Dublin making the decisions, through the county manager (I hate the term chief executive). But you know what: the people who are happy to knock the idea are very often the first to complain that their county is ignored by Dublin. They can’t have it both ways.
Then there’s the argument that we will elect gobshites, which is quite possible, but is an argument against Irish democracy, not elected mayors.
Opposing DEMs as just a pure two-fingers-to-politics isn’t much of an argument either, just a very very conservative act against change dressed up as anti-establishmentism.
The real opposition, though, is the most duplicitous.
That’s the people who claim to be very enthusiastic about DEMs, but feel that the issue needs to be debated endlessly until the perfect model is arrived at.
The stay-under-British-rule until perfection argument.
It’s a con argument. Mostly by county councillors who actually want to keep the current year long taxpayer-funded responsibility-free ego trip, but don’t want to admit it in public.
It’s the same argument used to delay Seanad reform.
Remember politicians falling over each other with Seanad reform proposals right up to referendum day, and then suddenly vanishing? Same malarkey. They don’t want Seanad reform: they want to keep the argument going on forever to avoid reform.
It’s the same with debates on DEMs.
It’s the weirdest coalition you’ll ever see: people who hate politicians because they believe they’re in politics to look after themselves siding with politicians who want to keep the current system for that exact reason, to look after themselves.
The proposed DEM system isn’t ideal.
It’s unclear how the mayor and the chief executive will actually work together. What happens if the mayor and the chief executive have a falling-out over, say, a proposal by the chief executive to build an urban whitewater rafting facility?
I have no idea. But I’d sure like to see what happens when there’s someone in the room opposed to it with a few hundred thousand first preferences in her back pocket.
The DEM is a progressive start for two reasons.
One: it identifies a single person in every county who can be held accountable for the actions and policies of the county council.
Two: it lets ordinary voters fire them, which is a great motivator for politicians.
Something you can’t do with the county chief executive.
As to the argument that it will be just a ceremonial position, ask yourself this.
If the mayor job doesn’t matter, why does it currently have a year-long term? Why not just let the mayoralty rotate month by month to every councillor alphabetically? That way they wouldn’t have to take time off work to be mayor (or get paid much), but could just take it during their annual holidays.
One reason is the publicity, but the other reason is that even if a mayor was elected for five years under our current system, by the councillors themselves, the public would start holding them responsible for the council.
It would stop being the mostly-showboating job that most councillors pretend it isn’t.
The current mayoral term is designed for a year’s worth of subsidised publicity but not long enough to be blamed for anything. This would change that, and the fact that so many councillors are campaigning on a “Less power now!” platform is surreal.
Directly Elected Mayors are not a panacea for every problem, but they are a game-changer. From day one the mayor will have decision-making powers comparable to the chief executive, and more importantly a framework to build on, gaining experience and then looking for more power to be devolved locally.
We didn’t get to be a united republic from 1921.
The treaty was not the end of our journey, but the stepping stone to us taking our place at the table of European sovereign nations. From Free State to republic to EU member to you-know-what.
The proposal for mayor of Limerick is the same: the first modest step in moving decision-making power from the Custom House to where most people live, and should be seized upon in that spirit.