For the first time in Ireland, the people of Limerick will have a unique opportunity in June 2024 to elect a Directly Elected Mayor (DEM), who will provide democratic and developmental leadership for the county and city, linking local and national government in an innovative way and responding to Limerick’s needs and priorities, writes Dr Bríd Quinn.
Since the positive result of Limerick’s 2019 plebiscite, preparations have been underway to introduce the Limerick DEM, albeit by way of a tortuous path. An Implementation Advisory Group (IAG) published a comprehensive report in 2020, outlining how best to establish and shape the role of Directly Elected Mayor. A widespread consultation process ‘Limerick – Let’s Talk About our Mayor! was led by the University of Limerick and served to raise public awareness and identify challenges and opportunities.
In April 2021, the Government signed off on the General Scheme of a Bill. The Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage undertook pre-legislative scrutiny of the General Scheme and recommended how the Bill might be amended so as to ensure that the DEM has sufficient powers and functions to fulfil the role.
Despite many queries by citizens and politicians, the Bill was not published until August 2023 and after much debate and over 100 amendments, the Local Government (Mayor of Limerick) and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2023, was received for final consideration and passed in the Dáil on 13 December 2023.
It is clear from the various consultative processes and from international experience that implementation of a DEM model will change the political dynamics and governance approach in Limerick. Power and influence will be concentrated in the DEM who will have both democratic and statutory authority and will, as the Bill indicates, be supported by a budget to implement the mayoral programme.
A key concern in the discussions has been to ensure the DEM model implemented would add value to Ireland’s democratic and governance processes and underpin place-making actions. The Bill, if fully and wholeheartedly implemented, should provide Limerick with an opportunity to pioneer and elaborate a DEM model appropriate to the Irish context.
The DEM will have a clear mandate with executive functions and will be the visible and legitimate leader, acting on behalf of Limerick’s citizens in domestic and international interactions. S/he will be an identifiable, accountable official with whom governmental, business and community actors can negotiate.
In political and academic discussions on the possible role of a DEM, functions and finance are seen as the keys to success or failure. The Bill provides for some means for the DEM, with Budget 2024 allocating €4.327m to support establishment of the office and provide a budget for delivery of the mayoral programme.
These provisions need to be implemented unreservedly if the model is to be successful. Ireland should remember the lessons from system failure in other countries because DEMs were not given the functions, power and finance to carry out their envisaged role.
The Limerick Bill specifies major changes to the operation of the elected council, management of the council’s actions and its leadership structure. A three-pillar structure will be put in place, comprising the Elected Council, the DEM and the Director General (formerly the Chief Executive).
The reserved functions of the council will not change. The elected council will retain its primacy and the DEM will be answerable to council members in relation to the performance by him or her of the mayoral functions.
The Dáil debates indicated some dissatisfaction that a wider range of delegated functions was not specified but such amendments were defeated. The Bill details the five-year (renewable) term of office, remuneration of the DEM, office staffing and removal process as well as the details of the electoral and plebiscite processes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr Bríd Quinn, a former member of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick, carries out consultancy and voluntary work in Ireland and abroad for state bodies, development organisations, community groups and international organisations.
She has a particular interest in local and regional governance, EU territorial policies and public management reform, topics on which she has published widely. Dr Quinn contributes to a range of organisations monitoring local government systems, observing elections, facilitating workshops and presenting at conferences etc. She was a member of the Expert Advisory Group for the Dublin Citizens’ Assembly (2022).
Currently Dr Quinn serves as Ireland’s representative on the Council of Europe/CLRAE Group of Independent Experts. She is a member of Limerick City and County Council’s Audit Committee, Chairperson of the Steering Group’s AILG/NUIM Research Project on the ‘Councillor in the 21st Century’, and is also a lay member of the National Board of ISCP (Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists).