SIX months on from the most radical shake-up of local government in the history of Limerick and city-based councillors are divided on the merits of amalgamation.
For Fine Gael’s Cllr Maria Byrne, it is “the right way to have gone” but for another ex-mayor, Independent Cllr John Gilligan, “an unmitigated disaster”.
What everybody agrees on is that there were always bound to be teething problems.
“It is very early days and very tempting to say it isn’t working out but it is a huge project, bringing two organisations together that had been separate since the foundation of the state. People have commented to me, and I tend to agree with them, that it could take a couple of years to bed down,” said Labour’s Cllr Joe Leddin.
Cllr Byrne agreed that Rome was not built in a day.
“In the long term, I think it is going to be very positive. I’m a firm believer that it is the right way to have gone. Certainly there have been a lot of changes and no matter whether you are a new councillor or an established councillor, it is about responding to those changes,” she said.
And one thing the people of Limerick was not well served by in the past was having three local authorities responsible for planning a single urban area.
“A lot of bad decisions made in the past, like with the outlying shopping centres. But there is a lot of vision there now. And if city centre thrives, the whole region will thrive. In the beginning people were a bit suspicious if money was being invested in the city centre or in the outlying areas about how it was going to affect them whereas now I think people see we all have to be concerned about the bigger picture for Limerick,” Cllr Byrne said.
But Cllr Gilligan isn’t convinced that his beloved city hasn’t lost prestige as the result of a merger.
“One of the major problems we will have when all is said and done is that the status of the city has been diminished considerably. We are now in a farcical situation where we have two mayors and I don’t think anybody ever envisaged that.
“But even worse, the biggest blow will be the fact that when it comes to the estimates, we have little or no control over how the money will be spent. Over the years we sat down and had over €80 million in a book of estimates and we went through it diligently piece by piece and we were able to reduce rates in the last six or seven years. Now the city manager has almost total control of that the situation is we can only vary it up or down by a couple of per cent. We either pass the budget or go into liquidation.
“It’s ironic that we got rid of all the robes and all the regalia but the truth of the matter is all we are is a decoration and little more. If you haven’t charge of spending the money in Limerick city then there is not much point in you being there. And that is a new departure,” Cllr Gilligan said.
Another novelty, according to Fianna Fail’s Cllr Kieran O’Hanlon, is trying to cater for huge electoral areas.
“I was never too gone on the idea and would have preferred a simple extension of the city boundary. I still feel that the electoral areas are quite ridiculous. To expect part-time public representatives to represent 40,000 people is just not good enough. They should be much smaller. Local representation should be local. I feel theses seven-seaters were designed primarily to save the Labour Party some seats in local government but it obviously didn’t work,” said Cllr O’Hanlon.
And the amalgamation has resulted in a 40-member body that Sinn Fein’s Cllr Maurice Quinlivan believes is too unwieldy to get through the agenda of the bi-monthly full meetings.
“I think it should be changed to every month. You are talking about 40 people who have the right to put down a motion at each council meeting,” he said.
Cllr Leddin pointed out that even to go through a roll-call vote of 40 members could take 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
One of the new members of the council, the Anti-Austerity Alliance’s Cllr Cian Prendiville said he had no difficulty with long meetings as such. “There is a tendency for councillors from the big parties in particular all wanting to speak and repeating the same points. There is no problem if three of four people from the same party want to speak if they have different things to say. But I have found that an item has gone on for an hour where pretty much everyone has said pretty much the same thing. That makes the meetings drag on a bit,” he said.
He added that, curiously, those who had a different view - such as the AAA - tended to get ruled out of order or have their contributions curtailed.
“But I wouldn’t be overly fixated on the length of the meetings because at the end of the day that is what we are there to do,” Cllr Prendiville said.