EDITORIAL: Cork elects first Sinn Féin Lord Mayor in 90 years

14 June 2015, Sunday
By Bryan T. Smyth

I remember well the negotiations last year (2014) over who would become Lord Mayor of Cork City.

Talks, and more talks

At the time – as a Journalist – I was contacted by many candidates looking to provide statesman like quotes in order to bolster their positions within their political parties. Various names were being discussed in the corridors of power: “No he’s not experienced enough” one expert might say, while another would reply “yes, but his time has come…”. There were talks, and talks about talks.

One candidate invited me to a BBQ in order to seek my counsel. I couldn’t make that particular event, but the headline of ‘Cllr seeks Counsel’ sprung to mind. Still, that was ‘a headline seeking a story’, a story which will never be written. As a Journalist you must speak with everyone, in order to see what’s what, but you must never divulge trusted information. A proper Journalist – one who cares about the craft – must be honorable in their dealings.

Fast forward 12 months, and I was most interested to hear this week that Sinn Féin Councillor Chris O’Leary had been elected as this years (2015) Lord Mayor of Cork City. Historians agree that the last Sinn Fein Lord Mayor in Cork was 90 years ago, a Cllr Sean French in 1925. As a sidebar, staying with history, the award for the most unusual name of a former Lord Mayor of Cork must go to Ebra Destakenpoole. Never heard of him? That’s ok, he held the office in the 14th century!


Above: 12th June 2015 Chris O’Leary on the steps of City Hall,
just before his election as Mayor of Cork, pictured with Senator David Cullinane and Martin Ferris TD.

The old pact is gone

“Lord Mayor” is the honorific title for the Chairperson of the 30 member Cork City Council.

The position is voted on by Councillors each year, and until last year there was a long running pact between Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail, whereby the office was rotated between the parties. Each party internally chose its own Lord Mayor and Deputy Lord Mayor, that would then be put to a vote, and thanks to the pact the names would be rubber stamped.

However, following the local elections of May 2014 those traditional big-three parties found that Sinn Fein now had quite a high number of seats in the Chamber, and hence would certainly want a Lord Mayorship during the forthcoming 5 year term of the council. There was varied talks this time last year (as referred to above) and the 2014 office ultimately went to the Fianna Fail party, with Bishopstown based Cllr Mary Shields receiving the chain of office, while the Deputy Lord Mayor position was taken up by Fianna Fail Cllr Kenneth O’Flynn.

Easter Rising

The fact that it is a Sinn Fein Cllr who has been elected as Lord Mayor this year is significant. The Lord Mayorship lasts 12 months, but crucially rather than running a calendar year from January to December, the term of office instead lasts from June to June. This means an office holder gets to boast of being Mayor for not one, but two, years on their CV in the future! (and politicians do need CV’s, as elections are funny things and nothing is guaranteed ‘going forward’). This means that Sinn Fein will have the Mayoral chain not only for the current year of 2015, but also for 2016. This latter year, of course, will be the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

sf sinn fein logo

What is the title: ‘Lord Mayor’ or just plain ‘Mayor’?

The title of the office in the English language is “Lord Mayor” and in the Irish language (Gaelige) it’s “Ard-Mhéara”. However, in English the Lord prefix doesn’t sit well with Sinn Fein Cllrs.

Other local authorities in Ireland have plain “Mayors”, and it is only Cork, Dublin and Belfast who enjoy the Lord prefix. It’s a title that has served to elevate the Mayor’s of those City’s above other Mayors at events, and seeing as how the entire purpose of a Mayor is to be a figurehead surely something that makes the office more high sounding must be good? Well not quite. In relation to Cork it was Queen Victoria who authorised the addition of “Lord” by charter in 1900. At that time Cork, and indeed all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Ireland). The story of Irish Independence is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say in 2015 Cork is most certainly not part of the United Kingdom, and there is a feeling among Sinn Fein Cllrs that the Lord prefix is not appropriate. I predict there will be many heated – yet friendly – debates between Cllrs of all parties over the name of of the office for the coming 12 months: Lord Mayor or Mayor. We’re only two days in and already two press releases from Sinn Fein have left out the word ‘Lord’.

Inaugural speech of new Lord Mayor

Upon his election as Lord Mayor yesterday Chris O’Leary read the following prepared speech.

“A dhaoine uaisle, failte roimh go dti an ocaid speisialta seo.

“I would like to congratulate Cllr Mary Shields on her fantastic year in office and on the hard work, commitment and dedication you gave throughout the past year on behalf of this council and the people of Cork City. Thank you to you and your family, especially your husband Michael, and your deputy Cllr Kenneth O’Flynn.

“Fellow councillors, City officials, friends and comrades, it is with great pride and a sense of honour that I take up the office of Ard-Mhéara at this historic time. It is historic in many ways. It sees a Sinn Fein Ard-Mhéara for the first time in over 90 years in the rebel city of Cork. Fittingly, the period of office will also take in the centenary of the Easter Rising.

“This is the city that gave us two of the most iconic Republicans in this country, Tomás McCurtain and Terence McSwiney- two patriots who dedicated their lives to this country and our city. We should be forever proud that these two great men represented our city as Ard-Mhéara and they will forever be a shining light over Cork and the office of Ard-Mhéara. The standard that they set should be the aim that all holders of the office should strive for but few if any will achieve.

“It is also historic, because of the d’Hondt system, this is first truly inclusive council in 40 years. Under this system each councillor from every party and none could potentially become Ard-Mhéara. Thus, reflecting the true will of the Cork City electorate at the last local elections. It was the same desire for inclusivity that gave such an emphatic result in the recent Equality Referendum.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the people of Cork City want a fair, equal and more inclusive society. As Ard-Mhéara, I pledge that I will be non-partisan and inclusive in all my duties, whether inside or outside the council chamber and to highlight the injustices that make our society unequal.

“We should remember that decent housing, education and employment are basic human rights. We should all hold the highest standards for these basic rights locally in our great city, nationally and internationally.

“What power we have in this city should be used to benefit all our people. Furthermore where possible we should use our influence to improve the lot of people wherever we can. With this in mind, I will seek regular meetings with our local Oireachtas members and MEP’s on issues such as the future of Cork Airport. I will also work with them to address areas of need which are impacting on the City of Cork and to devise and progress solutions.

“For the next 12 months, I will work to present our great city in the best light possible. I will highlight its numerous positives, while tackling the negatives in an honest and earnest way.

“I believe that we share the view that, after seven years of social and economic crisis, the people are looking for hope through positive and progressive politics.

“Those of us elected to this Council, from all parties and none, have a responsibility to work together to make life better for the people we represent.

I look forward to working with all members of this Council. I also want to work constructively with all councillors elected to deliver for the people of Cork of City.

“I want to be a Mayor for all of the people of this city.

“To this end, my priorities for the year will include:

Having the tricolour and the Cork flag flown over City Hall throughout the centenary year of 2016.

Centenary awards will consist of Civic, Voluntary and Cultural awards for 2016, showcasing the best of the talent that we have in Cork City.

Special school centenary awards will be initiated along with the traditional school visits.

Cork City Council will develop a charter for stakeholders and the users of services.

A focus on the Voluntary and Community sector within Cork City taking the opportunity to visit organisations paying tribute to the enormous contribution they make to individuals, communities and the wellbeing of the city.

To highlight the human impact of the ongoing housing and homeless crisis in Cork City. As Ard-Mhéara I will establish a Cork City Housing Stakeholders Forum.

“We are in the midst of the worst housing crisis in modern history. Almost 26,000 people across the city are on the waiting list. We now have families that are sleeping tonight in local hotels because they cannot afford the rent in private accommodation and the council is unable to house them.

“Since 2008, Government funding for social housing has been cut by 90%.

The solution to the housing crisis is very simple – we need to build more social houses.

“As Ard-Mhéara, I pledge to use my office to highlight this crisis. To put a human face on the suffering of thousands of families who do not have a home of their own.

“I also pledge to promote meaningful solutions to this crisis.

“Local government must be able to meet the housing need of the people. We need to have the money to build and buy more social houses.

“Our homeless services must have the funding required to support those without a home and to assist them to live independently.

“Cork City Council has in the past had positive record in terms of its delivery of social housing and building quality social housing like those in my own area in Mahon.

“I will also focus on positively promoting the growth potential and attractiveness of Cork City as the City for employment creation, business development, education and economic perspectives.

“I will strive to highlight the ongoing work of the Community and Voluntary sector and engage in a meaningful outreach initiatives with them in Cork City.

“Looking to the future, I hope that my year as Ard-Mhéara will leave some legacies as well as building on the work of my predecessors. Cork has pressing issues to address, and I have already identified some of these.

“However, it also has a bright future and one of my tasks is to ensure that, during the next year, we all make solid progress towards that future.

Last March, the Cork City Development Plan 2015-2021 was made by the elected members and we are in the process of preparing the Local Economic and Community Plan. This is being developed in conjunction with the Local Community Development Committee.

“Both of these documents will chart our future actions over the short-term. They are crafted using the principles of sustainable development which seeks to balance economic, social and environmental concerns in pursuit of our strategic choices and decision making. Nationally, the National Planning Framework and the Regional Economic and Social Strategies will further guide the city’s development. They all present challenges, but without challenge there cannot be progress.

“The increase in development activity, particularly in the city centre, is welcome and I anticipate that it will continue supported by the City Council’s strategic purchases of the former TSB building and two historic warehouses on Parnell Place, the redevelopment of Elizabeth Fort and the substantial support for the Event Centre at the former Beamish and Crawford site. Factoring in the prospect of two international telecoms cables boosting connectivity and reducing the cost of doing business in Cork, the future is bright. However, we must do more to encourage small businesses and startups to ensure there is local economic activity in order to create a balance to foreign direct investment in the city.

“A key objective of the city’s economic strategy is to attract talented people and also to maximise the opportunities of our own citizens. This morning Cork City Council concluded a Memorandum of Understanding in relation to Learning with UCC, CIT and the Cork ETB in order to achieve this and build on the great work of the learning forum. Cork is a Learning City and is recognised as such by UNESCO. Learning is a key part of Cork’s strategic messaging and branding which will be rolled out globally this year. Part of my role as Lord Mayor is to bring positive messages about Cork to our prospective markets and I will do this in London, Shanghai and San Francisco during my term of office.

“Cork trades on its reputation, talented people and quality of life. A key part of quality of life is access to affordable, comfortable housing. This is in very short supply at present and I will make it a priority of my year in office. I want to ensure that it is addressed so as that people have a decent roof over their heads. Housing is not just a social issue. Short of housing will impact negatively on our economic competitiveness. Today everything is interconnected. It is the basis of sustainability.

“However, a major issue that I wish also to address is the Cork Local Government Review. The elected members of Cork City Council are unanimous that their preferred option is an independent city authority with extended devolved powers and an increased area to cater for Cork City’s growth over the next forty years. Anything less will usher in the dissolution of the city council which has governed Cork in various forms since at least the 12th century. It is ironic and really disgraceful that the chamber, which provided the platform for the supreme sacrifices made by Tomás MacCurtain and Terence MacSwiney, should now be threatened by demotion to a municipal district in around the centenary of 1916. The second largest urban area in this state requires strong independent government to address its challenges, not least of which is the concentration of resources on the east coast. It is important that people understand that the governance of the city is important, not least because the decisions taken will affect their lives.

“In taking up the office of Ard-Mhéara, I am humbled when I think of some of the names that have gone before, people of such high character, that have set such a high standard for the office of Ard-Mhéara. I will do my utmost to uphold these standards.

“To conclude, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sinn Fein, my party colleagues, my fellow councillors and in particular my family. While tonight is a joyous occasion it is also tinged with sadness as two of my biggest supporters over the years sadly passed away this year, my brother Kevin in January and my mother Pat in recent weeks.

Both were committed republican activists and I know they are here with us tonight in spirit, as they wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

“In twelve months time, when looking back on my term, if I can honestly say that I have taken the Mayor’s role into the homes, communities and workplaces of those whom this office represents, then I will be a proud republican activist.

“Go Raibh Maith Agaibh Go Leir.”

Sinn Fein colleagues congratulate Chris

Sinn Féin MEP for Ireland South Liadh Ní Riada congratulated incoming Cllr Chris O’Leary and wished him well for the year ahead. Ní Riada, who hails from the Muskerry Gaeltacht on the Cork-Kerry border, said:

“Chris O’ Leary is a fantastic public representative, a tireless worker for his community, and a true republican in every sense of the word. I have no doubt that as Ard-Mhéara of Cork City, Chris will make a real difference to the people of cork, and be an inclusive and accessible leader.

“Two of our greatest republican heroes, Tomás MacCurtain and Terence McSwiney served as Ard-Mhéara of this city and it is fitting, as we approach the centenary of the Easter Rising, that we once again have a Sinn Féin Ard-Mhéara in Cork’s City Hall.
“Chris, along with the Sinn Féin team of councillors, will ensure that issues of central importance to the people of Cork such as housing, genuine and fair economic recovery, and equality for all will receive the attention they need.

“I look forward to working with the incoming Ard-Mhéara and a strong, dedicated and talented Sinn Féin team at local, national and European level to give Cork and Ireland the real and fair political representation that is sorely needed.”

Deputy Lord Mayor

Moving on, the position of Deputy Lord Mayor or Leas Ard-Mhéara for the year ahead has gone to Sinn Fein Cllr Mick Nugent.

To follow what happens at meetings of Cork City Council checkout the hashtag #CorkCC

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