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Cork Independent


The mayoral plebiscite was the right result

Wednesday, 26th June, 2019 4:39pm

By Maurice O’Brien

Ever since the story of Dick Whittington, mayoralty has fascinated people. The pantomime legend of Dick, his cat, and the pealing of Bo Bells announcing his future as mayor of London has appealed to children and indeed to grown-ups for generations.

The idea that a young person from a poor background, carrying his belongings on a shoulder pack, could become first citizen of a great city might have proved a suitable backdrop for the recent plebiscite on a directly elected lord mayor.

The appeal by those in high places to persuade voters to radically change an office which holds considerable importance and affection for the people of Cork was rejected. Predictably, voices are already being raised to ask us to revisit our decision, which is hardly a compliment to the democratic process.

As one who has taken an active interest in the rapidly ensuing referendum campaigns of recent years, invariably on the no side, I find the result of the plebiscite refreshing.

I believe the recent decision demonstrates an independence of thought which inspires confidence. Sufficient numbers of voters are refusing to be dictated to by the political establishment and are evaluating propositions on their merits.

One argument put forward by those promoting the plebiscite was that it would give every citizen the potential to become lord mayor. In a very broad sense, that might be the case, but the reality is immensely different.

Running for public office requires funds and organizational structure, experience of campaigns and an array of canvassers. The main political parties, supported as they are by public as well as private funds, can outspend any independent presenting for election. They have brought campaigning to a fine art and would almost certainly dominate any electoral contest for lord mayor.

The fact that the revised mayoralty would have sweeping authority and a portfolio of powers that presume executive experience would see established politicians touting their credentials and dismissing the candidature of others as amateur.

It is far more likely that the proposed office of lord mayor would have developed into anything from a sinecure for ex-senators to a launching pad for aspirant ministers.

The prospect that a person politically or socio economically un-endowed could become lord mayor of Cork borders on the realms of fantasy akin to the Dick Whittington story.

The super salary envisaged for a five-year incumbent who would be installed replete with paid advisors was a major put off for voters. It runs counter to our perception of what being lord mayor is about.

It is one thing to be elected by the people, it is another thing to represent the people with empathy and assurance that you share their journey. The ordinariness of many of the lord mayors, especially since the abolition of the dual mandate (which had allowed TDs to serve on local councils), is a huge point in favour of the existing system.

Lord mayors are chosen by their fellow councillors to serve for one year and revert to ordinary councillor and perhaps back to their ‘day job’ the next. This allows people to identify with their lord mayors in a way that is valued and appreciated.

Each and every lord mayor has in a real sense stood before the people and achieved election, albeit by voters in an electoral area rather than by the city as a whole.

The various regions of the city are reasonably well represented by the rotational system of appointment and the move towards including Independents as office holders further spreads the representational base.

A lord mayor must combine representation of his or her electoral area with the needs of the wider city and the discharge of mayoral functions, adding a further grounding element to the present role.

Local government in Ireland is predicated on the concept and practice of two elements; reserved and executive functions. Put simply, elected councillors hold the purse strings and decide budgets and allocations. The chief executive (manager) and his/her team have charge of the day to day running of the local authority in accordance with legislation.

The differentiation in roles between those elected and those appointed is a necessary part of a well-functioning devolved administration. Blurring this distinction by introducing an executive lord mayor whose powers would straddle both functions, would be perilous.

We approach the centenaries of two of Cork’s most outstanding lord mayors, Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney.

Both died in office; one shot by the RIC at his home and the other on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in protest over his unjustified imprisonment. They added to our city something far more than high salaried executive expertise, whether directly elected or not.

Not every lord mayor can be expected to stand in their shadow as history makes different demands in different eras. Yet their service – even at a supreme cost – should be an example for all who seek to represent city or country in the highest of roles.

If we are ever asked to vote again on the mayoralty issue, I expect the proposal will be even more strenuously challenged and the result be unchanged.

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