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Title: Should Ireland introduce a directly elected mayor?
On the 24th of May 2019, on the same day as the local elections, the people of Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick cities will be asked whether or not they want to introduce a directly elected mayor. In Dublin, a citizens assembly will be convened to debate the same question. This question comes at an interesting time in Ireland, as in recent years the role and power of local government have been in decline. This is clear from attempts to merge city and county councils, measures which succeeded in Galway but failed in Cork, and more notably, the abolition of town councils in 2014. The nature of the power of the mayor, and where it will come from are still unclear, but Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has claimed that the mayor would have “real power and influence” (Loughlin and McConnell, 2019). Whether or not this will be the case remains to be seen, and the effect that this new position will have on Irish politics and the lives of the electorate depends on the powers and influence of the mayor. For the sake of this paper, it will be assumed that the mayor will serve a five-year term, possess powers over certain sectors such as transport and housing, and appoint a cabinet to oversee these sectors, similar to the role of mayors in England (Elcock and Fenwick, 2007). It will also be assumed that the mayor will be held accountable to the council, and can be removed by a sufficient majority if they abuse the position (O’Connell, 2013). In the following paper the advantages and disadvantages of a directly elected mayor in Ireland will be examined, with an emphasis on the role of local government, candidate selection, and the effects of increased direct democracy.
One of the greatest advantages which can be drawn from the establishment of directly elected mayors is an increase in direct democracy, allowing for the electorate to take a more active role in politics, an element that is absent from the less accessible central government (MacCarthaigh, 2009). A directly elected mayor, unlike the ceremonial Lord Mayor, will derive their mandate directly from the people, and as such will be far more accountable to them. It is unclear which powers will be devolved to a directly elected mayor, although two areas that have been suggested include housing and transport (O’Connell, 2013). A directly elected mayor will be more accountable to, and less insulated from the will of the public, which will likely lead to increased productivity in those sectors. The suggested five-year mandate would also allow or the mayor to affect a level of change or improvement that would be impossible to achieve with the current one year term of the Lord Mayor.
This increase in direct democracy could have a serious effect on the authority of the Central Government. As in the case of directly elected mayors, it may lead to conflict between local government, and the representative central government. In Cork, for example, if a mayor were to be elected by a city-wide electorate, made up of all constituencies in Cork City, there is a strong possibility that the mayor could receive a stronger mandate than government ministers or in the case of Dublin at the moment, the Taoiseach, who will potentially receive fewer votes than the mayor due to constituency size. This conflict would not necessarily be a negative development as it would empower the electorate to protest the Central Government with a single, united voice through the directly elected mayor. The idea of using the local elections to protest against the national government would not be a new one in Ireland, as seen from the 2014 elections wherein coalition party Labour suffered crushing defeats (The Irish Times, 2014), and a directly elected mayor would be better equipped to articulate these protests.
A potential issue arising from the method of electing a mayor stems from constituency loyalty. It is presumed that the mayor would be elected on a city-wide basis, wherein the candidates would be voted for by the city as a whole, rather than in their constituencies (Interview with Eolan Ryng). In an ideal world a mayor would treat the whole city as their constituency and not favour their home constituency, however, this is unlikely as the majority of their votes will likely stem from these areas. In cities where there is a considerable disparity in population size between constituencies, there is a potential for mayors being elected by, and for their own constituents, instead of the entire city. This possibility is compounded by the already present tendency for clientelism in Irish politics (Komito, 1992).
Another issue which could arise in the event of a directly elected mayor being introduced is the potential for celebrity candidates being elected. The advent of Donald Trump being elected president in the United States and the rise of populism across Europe, paired with the inherent accessibility of local government in Ireland it is not unreasonable to assume that a candidate may be elected as mayor on the strength of their personality or fame, instead of policies or qualifications. The same can, of course, be said for councillors, but the risks are far greater in the case of a directly elected mayor who has considerable powers, and a five-year mandate. This raises the question as to whether or not the position of mayor if granted sufficient powers, should be as accessible as that of councillor. It should be noted, however, that any position of considerable power which is elected by the public has the potential to be filled by unqualified candidates, and that many positions in government have been filled by those who had little to no relevant experience (The Journal, 2014). One could even argue that allowing the public to directly appoint candidates gives them greater control over those in positions of authority, instead of relying on a party to choose who they deem to be a suitable candidate.
Role of Local Government in Ireland
The relevance of local government in Ireland has been steadily dissipating in recent years, with many of its responsibilities, ranging from agriculture to transport have been transferred to central government agencies (MacCarthaigh, 2009). This paired with the abolition of town councils in 2014, the role of local government has been considerably diluted. The establishment of a directly elected mayor could serve to re-invigorate the local government system in Ireland. It is unclear right now where the powers devolved to the mayor will come from, but if, as assumed, the mayor will possess considerable powers over areas such as transport and housing, the relevance of local government in Ireland could be renewed.
A strengthening of the local government system, through an accountable mayor with executive powers, is a good path to restoring the distinction between the role of the local government and the central government. As mentioned above, there is a strong tradition of brokerage in Irish politics, one that is equally prevalent amongst TDs. A TDs primary role is to create and debate new legislation, due to the weakness of the local government system in Ireland (Collins and Quinlivan 2010: 363–4), the electorate often looks to a TD rather than to a councillor in order to solve local issues. If sufficient powers were to be returned to local government, and an accountable figure was seen to be both pro-active and efficient in dealing with issues on a local level, it could restore the electorates’ faith in local government. If the electorate started to look more often to their councillors or mayor for local issues, TDs can begin to focus more of their energy on legislating, and not have to worry about facing backlash for neglecting their constituency.
In summary, in the event of a directly elected mayor being established, it would constitute a considerable rise in direct democracy in Ireland, allowing the electorate to exert greater control over who represents them, as well as the policies that are implemented in their cities. The disadvantages associated with this increase stems from the size of the electorate which the mayor will be elected from being larger than that of TDs, leading to conflict. In this case, the pros of increased direct democracy outweigh the cons, as giving the electorate a means to manage their own local interests (Mill, J.S, 1912), as well as giving them a conduit through which they can voice their complaints to the national government.
The risks associated with candidate selection are the almost the exact same as those associated with other democratically elected positions, with a potential for unqualified or celebrity candidates. As in other cases of elections, the electorate must be trusted to choose the most suitable candidate for them, and should not be denied that right simply because they may choose an unsuitable candidate. The real issue with candidate selection in the case of a directly elected mayor is the localist tendencies in Irish politics, however, it is assumed that the mayor will be accountable to the city council and that if the mayor were to favour their own constituency too heavily they will be disciplined.
Finally, the re-invigoration of the local government system is a major advantage of the proposal to introduce directly elected mayors. The devolution of power back to the local level would no doubt be a welcome development for advocates of local government, and if done properly could lead to a restoration of faith in the local government system.
In conclusion, if the type of mayor discussed in this essay is introduced in Ireland, then the benefits of such a position far outweigh the potential risks. Of course, there is still a great deal of uncertainty regarding the position, and until such a time as we have all the details of the position, it cannot be said for certain whether or not this position will be a useful one. However, even if a diluted version of the mayor mentioned above were to be introduced, the increase in representation and powers at the local level would be a positive change and could lead to a greater role for local government in the future.
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