Cork Lord Mayor is against merger of City and County Councils

20 September 2015
By David O’Sullivan
david@TheCork.ie

The Lord Mayor of Cork City has taken the unusual step of writing an ‘open letter’ to the people of Cork.

We have reproduced it below in full.

Open letter to the people of Cork by the Lord Mayor of Cork Sinn Fein Cllr Chris O’Leary 

Cork-City-Council

As Lord Mayor of Cork, I feel compelled to write this open letter to the citizens of Cork concerning the recent outcome of the Cork Local Government Review process and the Elected Members unprecedented unanimous instruction to the city’s Chief Executive to challenge that outcome in the courts.

That decision I can assure you was not easily arrived at. However, given what was at stake, the Council was given little option but to take the action it has embarked upon.

On September 08th the Committee’s report was seen for the first time by myself and the Chief Executive. That same day the Minister for the Environment stated that he supported the recommendations of the Report and that he would recommend the merger of Cork city and county to the next meeting of Cabinet, most likely on Tuesday next the 22nd September 2015. The haste with which the Minister came to this momentous conclusion can mean only one of two things. Either the Minister had knowledge of what the recommendations of the Committee would be for quite some time before the supposed deliberation process was completed. Or that he made his mind up to abolish Cork City Council as an entity almost on receipt of the recommendations. Either scenario gives serious cause for concern. And make no mistake about it – what is proposed here is the abolition of Cork City Council.

Now I am not so naive as to believe that there are not many legitimate criticisms of what this Council delivers. To express concern about public services and management is part of the democratic process and is one of the mechanisms by which we seek to improve what we do. But local governance is about more than housing and public lighting or potholes and broken footpaths. It is about representation at the closest level to the citizen. It’s about having a say in your own affairs. It’s about democracy!

This Council is the successor of institutions which have governed Cork since 1185 when the first city Charter was granted to Cork. The City itself, of course, dates back to its foundation in 609 AD with the establishment of a hermitage on the south bank of the River Lee by St. Finbarr. As part of its struggle for independence, this Council also played a central role and was the chosen platform for McCurtain and McSweeney in legitimising the democratic mandate for our country’s freedom which culminated in the establishment of the first Dail in 1919. The Council has played an important role in the cultural and artistic life of the City and the County and has been recognised for the value which it confers on its citizen’s lives and was awarded Local Authority of the Year 2005.

To think that this legacy could be obliterated at the stroke of the Minister’s pen is more than worrying. Of even greater concern is that the recommendation in favour of this dramatic shift in this City’s fortunes was decided on the vote of one individual. Surely such a momentous decision deserved greater transparency and a far more definitive argument for its conclusions. Unlike most other important administrative processes which have the potential of profound impact , this process had no provision for rebuttal of the arguments which formed the basis for the decision and more worryingly, no provision for appeal to any appellate body.

The only option remaining to the City Council to preserve local government in the City was to follow the legal route. Reluctantly myself and two other members of Council signed the Order requiring that the Chief Executive commence legal proceedings to test the validity of the Committee’s decision and this process will take a step further at next Tuesdays Council meeting scheduled to begin one minute after midnight.

Of equal concern is the current government policy under putting people first, which has overseen the amalgamation of Limerick City and County Council, Tipperary North & South Riding, Waterford City and County and currently Galway City and County (which, by the way, is undergoing a completely different process to consider its options than that which was used for Cork). The policy document itself has been criticised strongly by the European Council, which argues that these moves are flying in the face of the principle of subsidiarity. In other words, it is taking democracy further away from the citizens which is purports to serve. This concern is echoed by Minister Kelly’s own Party Leader who has publicly stated that “….the clear preference for the Labour Party is for local government is to be as local as possible”. The entire Putting People First reform process has gone unchallenged long enough and when its true impact across the entire state is felt over the next number of years, it will be unquestionably too late to reverse. It is also the Council’s intention to challenge this ideology in our courts, which reflects the concerns shared by a growing number of local authorities.

I think it is important to let you know that had the work of the Committee delivered a robust and undeniable argument in favour of a merger, I would not be putting this letter before you. My genuine and heartfelt ambition is only what is best for Cork. However, there is now a groundswell of important voices adding to the concern of the quality of the argument presented in the report in favour of the merger and, more worrying, the apparent dismissal of the minority report and its consignment to the backend of the actual report itself.

The President of U.C.C., Dr. Michael Murphy is quoted as saying

“I have met nobody who would hold the view that the status quo is in the best interest of the region. At least that is agreed. But the matter of which of the two options, is one that doesn’t need to be determined in 48 hours, or even 48 days”.

I welcome also recent comments attributed to Minister Simon Coveney where he said that “ We need to have cool heads and a balanced look at this report as opposed to rushing to a decision”

At the very least, one would have expected that a City as ancient as Cork, a government structure with as much relevance as Cork City Council and a population in both City and County of proud Corkonians would have deserved better.

The paucity of substantial evidence for the merger proposition is glaring. Of further concern is the assumption by certain quarters of the business community that a merger will lead to significant economic development, jobs growth and more efficient decision making, while at the same time suggesting that a substantially expanded metropolitan Cork would not offer similar or indeed better opportunities. The vast weight of evidence supports the assertion that cities of a certain scale act as pivotal drivers of economic growth, both for themselves and, invariably, for their wider hinterlands.

Our argument is not to overturn the decision of the report but to have a process in which we can all have confidence – one which is transparent and truly reflective of the diverse opinions to which this issue must inevitably give rise. Most important of all, it should be what would be best for this City and this County for 50 years into the future. It is my unequivocal belief, and that of my colleagues in the Council chamber, that the process that has just been completed has abjectly failed to meet those fundamental criteria.

Be under no illusions – what is being proposed here means an end to democratic accountability within the City of Cork and, in my view, amounts to an impetuous and reckless act of political vandalism. No one, whether in the City or the County, should feel comfortable standing aside and watching this happen. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the famous Irish political philosopher, “the only thing necessary for wrong to triumph, is for good men to do nothing”. For Cork City Council doing nothing to halt this travesty is no longer an option.

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