Jim O’Callaghan: Dublin needs an accountable, elected leader with real powers

Our great international city deserves powerful governance structures, subject to checks and balances, to oversee the capital’s operation and management

Dublin does not have an elected system of governance that is responsible and accountable on a daily basis for the most important public functions and services carried out in the city. Picture: Fergal Phillips

Dublin is a great international capital city. It is an exciting place to live, work and visit. Although, in an Irish context, it is viewed alongside our other cities such as Cork, Limerick and Galway, its real comparators are major European cities such as London, Amsterdam and Berlin.

Unlike those international capitals, Dublin does not have an elected system of governance that is responsible and accountable on a daily basis for the most important public functions and services carried out in the city.

During the summer there has been much legitimate concern about safety in the city centre and how this could be improved for residents, shoppers and tourists. Ultimately, statutory responsibility for the safety of Dublin’s streets rests exclusively with the Gardaí. However, unlike cities such as London or Amsterdam, no elected Dublin official is answerable for safety on its streets or has a say in setting the strategic direction for its policing.

Similarly, the delay in making decisions on planning and upgrading Dublin’s urban space is tolerated, in part, because no one can point directly to an office holder who is responsible for such delay.

Ireland’s political system is heavily concentrated in Leinster House, with most powers vesting in the Oireachtas and government. Those politicians elected to the Dáil are primarily responsible for enacting laws of national application. They also, very effectively, serve the needs of their constituents in defined geographical areas.

However, no politician elected to the Oireachtas or serving in government has direct daily responsibility for the successful operation and management of Dublin. That wouldn’t be resolved by appointing a Minister for Dublin or Urban Affairs since the dominance of civil service control and the dependence of such ministerial office on central government would never allow for Dublin’s prioritisation.

What differentiates Dublin from other great international cities is that the vast majority of those cities are not controlled exclusively and governed by central government but by municipal elected officeholders, generally mayors, with very substantial powers.

The most prominent example we are exposed to is the office of Mayor of London. The holder of that office has very significant powers, including responsibility for setting the strategic direction for policing in London, formulating its transport policy and coordinating development in the city. The Mayor of Amsterdam also has many powers, including responsibility for public order and safety.

The proposal to establish a Mayor for Dublin has been on and off the political agenda for many years, with my Fianna Fáil colleague John Lahart introducing legislation back in 2016 for the establishment of such an office.

Last year, a Citizens Assembly chaired by Jim Gavin, the former Dublin football manager, proposed the establishment of a powerful directly elected mayor with wide-ranging powers and responsibilities. Included in this proposal was a recommendation that some responsibility for policing could be devolved to the new mayor’s office after it was initially set up.

Historically, there has been deep concern and, in truth, opposition within government about allowing Dublin to have independent powers that could challenge and even expose central government control. In part, there is a fear that an efficiently and effectively managed Dublin could show up the inadequacies and delay of central government.

It is now apparent that, notwithstanding the excellent work done by Dublin’s local authorities, their chief executives and ceremonial mayors, there is a clear absence of political leadership for this thriving and exciting international city. This will not change until it has an elected leader with real powers whom Dubliners can hold to account for the city’s failings – and, indeed, successes. These powers would be subject to checks and balances and would not result in a complete transfer of executive control from central government.

One of the reasons why an elected Mayor of Dublin has been opposed in the past is a fear that a celebrity candidate, devoid of political ideas, could bluff their way into office. That is a risk in every election. However, the advantage of conferring limited but very real powers on a new office is that it would require candidates to be specific in their manifesto proposals about how they would exercise these new powers. An elected mayor who failed to deliver would be identified very quickly.

But a mayor with real powers, elected for a five-year term, who had a statutory role in the strategic direction of policing in the city, in the development of its urban space and in the improvement of its transport systems, would know that his or her performance could be easily appraised by Dubliners who, for too long, have been deprived of the powerful governance structures that their great international city deserves.

Jim O’Callaghan is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South and his party’s Justice spokesperson.