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Bertie Ahern thinks directly elected mayors are a ‘stupid idea’. Here’s why he’s wrong

The new mayor of Limerick will have a job unlike any other in Ireland, with potential to strengthen local government and local democracy

A very interesting experiment in politics and government is taking place in Limerick right now. Along with the local and European elections, the city and county will also choose Ireland’s first directly elected mayor, a new executive position which will head the local authority. Directly-elected executive mayors with substantial powers have always been a feature of the political system in the United States. Lately, they have become fashionable in the UK, where the establishment of the office in London was followed by other big cities and regions. They have real power, clout, budgets and a bully pulpit.

Why Limerick? Because they decided to give it a go. Five years ago, at the 2019 local and European elections, voters in Limerick, Cork and Waterford were asked in plebiscites if they favoured the idea of a directly elected mayor for their city and county. Cork (displaying a lack of self-confidence that surprised me, I confess) and Waterford said no thanks; Limerick answered: bring it on. The first election campaign there is well under way.

I visited this week to attend a debate between most of the candidates organised by the Limerick Chamber of Commerce, hosted by the Technical University of the Shannon and supported by the Limerick Post. The quality of the debate and engagement was impressive – but so was the level of interest: all the tickets for the university’s main auditorium (some 300 or so) were snapped up and more than twice as many joined online. For a political debate, these are decent numbers. Those involved say the campaign was slow to start – but the public is now switching on. The sense that Limerick is doing something unique and groundbreaking is likely to increase interest.

Bertie Ahern thinks it’s a “stupid idea”, he told a conference this week. I don’t. I think it has the potential to strengthen local government and local democracy, and enhance Limerick’s sense of identity. If it works, that is.


On Tuesday, the candidates debated their plans on a variety of issues. The state of University Hospital Limerick is an ever-present in all political debates in the city, although health is not one of the areas in which the new mayor will have any powers. They clashed on housing, on transport, on policing, on green issues and on plans to revive the city centre. All were knowledgeable and forthright; there were lots of good ideas, big and small, floated.

The election will be closely contested; the count will be carnage. With 15 candidates for one seat, transfer patterns will be decisive. With no polling (none publicly available anyway), there’s no indication how anyone is doing. Parties with established local organisations clearly have an advantage, so Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be contenders; Labour, the Greens and Social Democrats will also have a head start. But strong local Independents will also have a say, and won’t suffer from the negative effects that being in a party disliked by some voters will inflict on the other candidates. Indeed, local chatter suggests that the strongest Independents are best placed. We’ll see.

The election is only the start of the experiment, however. Once the new mayor of Limerick takes up the office, he or she will be closely scrutinised to see if the innovation is a success. It’s a real-time policy lab.

It will be unlike any other job in Ireland. While the mayor will take up some of the existing responsibilities of the chief executive of the local authority, it’s also a deeply political role. They will have to bring the council’s budget – about €700 million a year, between capital and current spending – to the elected members of the council for approval and thereafter will have overall responsibility for its spending. The mayor’s office will have its own budget of around €8 million, and its own staff.

A vital task will be effective communication with stakeholders such as businesses, local educational institutions, sporting bodies and voluntary groups. The mayor will also be an external voice for the region, serving as the chief spokesperson and interlocutor with central government and its agencies, such as the HSE.

Perhaps the most important thing will be to figure out how to make the machine of local government work to achieve specific desired outcomes. The mayor will have to learn how to work with the existing bureaucracy – but also to get it to do what he or she wants.

Operating the great machine of government and getting it to move in a particular direction – rather than just doing what it always has – is increasingly one of the great challenges of Irish political leadership.

Despite the raucous debate which gives such prominence to the extremes, the Irish political system is marked by a high degree of consensus in many important areas – not least among them economic policy. As we’ve seen recently, Sinn Féin has been moving towards the FF-FG economic consensus, promising not to rock that particular boat in government. On other issues, though – such as housing and, recently, Palestine – the movement has been in the other direction, as FF-FG move leftward towards the Sinn Féin position. On the issue that seems to be coming up on more and more doorsteps – immigration – the three big parties are shuffling towards the same position. The Government has no sooner announced its latest tightening of conditions for refugees than Sinn Féin is rushing to say it agrees.

On so many issues, including and perhaps especially health, there is a high degree of agreement among any of the likely governments on what should be done. The difficulty is in actually getting the system to change in order to do it. The new mayor of Limerick will face similar challenges and, no doubt, frustrations. The rest of the country will be watching on.

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