Dublin mayor election delay not a surprise

In the first of a series of articles Dermot Looney, a Labour Party councillor on South Dublin County Council, looks at the proposals for a directly elected Mayor of Dublin.

It won’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone involved in Dublin politics to read recently that John Gormley’s deadline of 2010 for holding the new Mayor of Dublin election will now not be met. But it is worthwhile to examine the recent history of the project to see how seriously – or not – the notion of a Dublin mayor is taken by the real decision-makers in Government.

Proposals for a directly-elected Mayor of Dublin have been mooted over the years by, amongst others, Labour and the Greens. Fianna Fail toyed with the idea in the early part of the last decade, only for Noel Dempsey to reportedly ditch the plan because polls showed no Fianna Failer could win.

The Green’s plans were contained in the FF/Green 2007 Programme for Government, and, like so many other recent ministerial pronouncements, were re-announced with fanfare in October 2009 in the ‘renegotiated’ programme. There was one major change – the original date of 2011 had been brought forward to this year.

There was further extensive coverage of Gormley’s plan in January 2010 when he surprised many – including, it would seem, his Government partners in FF – by announcing the mayoral elections would take place within six months. Gormley pledged at the time that the to-be-elected mayor would “raise the profile of Dublin, enhance local democracy and accountability, and lead the provision of a more effective and integrated public service across the city and region”.

“For far too long,” Gormley told The Irish Times, “We haven’t had proper local government in this country; we’ve had local administration.”

Within a few weeks, though, Gormley was already admitting his plan for a June election was “overambitious” as the heads of the Local Government (Dublin Mayor and Regional Authority) Bill were published. Instead, he set an Autumn 2010 date for the vote.

“I can’t say for certain,” he told the Times about setting an exact date, “But what I can say it will be in 2010 – that’s for certain.” He was equally certain as recently as June 23, when he ‘insisted’ to the Irish Independent that the election would take place in October.

You can’t really argue with Labour environment spokesperson, Joanna Tuffy, who noted that Minister Gormley seems to have “a habit of announcing things without thinking through the logistics properly.”

Last week though, we learned that the Cabinet would not approve legislation until later this year – meaning that an election will not take place until Spring 2011 at the earliest. The Irish Times reported, worryingly, that “the Bill has proved to be far more complex than originally envisaged and it will be one of the biggest pieces of legislation put through by the Government” with a purported 170 sections.

So much for Gormley and his certainty of a 2010 vote, June or not. You can’t really argue with Labour environment spokesperson, Joanna Tuffy, who noted that Minister Gormley seems to have “a habit of announcing things without thinking through the logistics properly.”

Cynics point out that Fianna Fail simply would not countenance any election given that it would, in essence, force them to hold three by-elections which would result in a further three vote swing in the Dail. These are now not likely to happen until the likely presidential election which must happen before November.

It is more than possible, given the history of delays, that the mayoral election will be contemporaneous with the ballots for president, the by-elections in Waterford, Donegal South West and Dublin South, the impending Childrens’ Rights Referendum and whatever you’re having yourself.

More significant than these delays, however, are the proposals themselves. They have grown and mutated over the course of the last three years with these recycled announcements. We are frequently told that the mayor will have similar powers to the Mayor of London but unlike the London mayor, no role is envisaged for the Mayor of Dublin in education, policing or health.

Minister Gormley has said that the mayor will have the authority to direct councils and their officials to implement policy on waste, water and planning as well as a substantial role in transport but the devil is truly in the detail. In my next post, I’ll examine what details have been included in the Heads of the Bill before finally examining whether the proposals stand up to the most important test of all – will they really improve democracy for local people and communities?

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