SINCE Limerick’s two councils formally merged five months ago, many public events have seen the presence of two men in chains, leading to confusion as to who does what when it comes to civic duties.
A lot of the much-publicised merger of the two local authorities has happened away from the public glare, with most Limerick folk not seeing much of a difference. But at various public events and community gatherings, there has been confusion when two civic dignitaries turn up.
In the blue corner, we have Fine Gael councillor Michael Sheahan.
From Askeaton and now based in Monaleen, he is the 818th mayor of Limerick, a beneficiary of the grand coalition between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
Meanwhile, in the green corner sits his fellow Askeaton man Kevin Sheahan, the cathaoirleach of the new local authority, and its first citizen.
Under the terms of newly redrafted local authority legislation brought up when the City Council and the County Council merged, the cathaoirleach is senior to the mayor, leaving many traditionalists upset and visitors to the city confused.
The chief executive of the local authority, Conn Murray, has even admitted he finds the title of cathaoirleach one which is hard to explain internationally.
There have even been suggestions that the mayor and cathaoirleach do not get on, with some people commenting on a “tension” existing between the pair. Now, the possibility of a role reversal, to leave the chairman as mayor is being discussed.
Up until earlier this year, the situation was far more straightforward. The mayor of Limerick was considered the first citizen of the city, the holder of an ancient title dating back to 1197 and Adam Sarvant. Once elected, he or she would be following in the footsteps of many of the political heavyweights, including Donogh O’Malley, Frances Condell and current Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan.
The cathaoirleach was considered the first citizen of the county area, a historic role in itself, dating back to 1899. But after the merger, it is the latter role – now strenghtened – which has become the top job.
The title of mayor has been kept, perhaps out of respect to its more than 800-year history.But many councillors feel its prestige has all but gone. While Cathaoirleach Sheahan enjoyed a grand election before an audience of hundreds in the University Concert Hall, Mayor Michael Sheahan’s coronation was far more low-key.
Previous mayoral elections were held on a Monday evening, with the staffs and finery of Limerick’s rich history present. Most councillors wore the robes of office, now consigned to the City Museum. This year’s election took place on a Monday morning, and while there were words of congratulation spoken to former teacher Michael, his political rival in Fianna Fail James Collins was quick to give him a reality check.
“You have no special powers. We were democratically elected, and every voice is equal,” he said.
Although the mayor never had many of these “special powers”, he did enjoy a lot of influence, says Cllr John Gilligan, himself first citizen back in 2008. He was saddened at the lack of ceremony at Mayor Sheahan’s election. “It was a very sad occasion. As it presently stands, [the mayoralty] is a meaningless role,” he said. “I think we have to face up to the realisation that the mayor does not exist, and at the end of this year, we should end the charade and not elect another mayor.”
Cllr Michael Sheahan acknowledges his role is diminished in comparison to his predecessors. “The new legislation leans in favour of more power for the cathaoirleach. It seems to diminish the role of mayor. We need to know what the boundaries are,” he said.
The reduced role of the mayor, was thrown into sharp focus when the Freedom of Limerick was bestowed on President Michael D Higgins. The mayor sat in silence throughout the ceremony in the Milk Market, something he feels upset about in retrospect.
“I was taken aback by it. I felt that because of the occasion, and the location that the mayor of the city should have been positively accorded an opportunity to welcome the president in a public way,” he said.
It did not go unnoticed elsewhere in the Milk Market.
Cllr Maurice Quinlivan, of Sinn Fein, said: “The mayor’s job has been downgraded, and this was exposed very publicly during the Freedom ceremony, when the mayor sat on the platform looking kind of stupid because he had no role to play. I was not the only one to notice this. People in the audience asked me – ‘Why did the mayor not speak?’ They could not understand this.”
Cllr Gilligan added: “It was embarrassing for the mayor. Here was the President of Ireland. We are giving him the Freedom of Limerick, and he could not officiate. It just goes to show the office is now meaningless.”
There have been claims that the two Sheahans do not get on, and are there is an underlying tension between the pair.
One metropolitan district councillor, who did not wish to be identified, said: “There is a huge personality clash between Michael and Kevin. Michael is intercepting invitations and showing up at events as the mayor, and Kevin is doing the same. Michael might be trying to jump into a photograph with the cathaoirleach, and it is just inappropriate.”
Labour councillor Joe Leddin, who is not part of the grand coalition, admits he has witnessed some tension between the pair.
However, both the mayor and cathaoirleach have flatly denied this is the case.
“Tension? No – never! We have not had a cross word between us. It would not be in the nature of either of us to be like that,” Mayor Michael Sheahan said.
Similarly, Cathaoirleach Kevin said: “I am not conscious of that having happened at any time. I think we both make every effort to ensure [tension] would not happen.”
But, pointedly, he added that his rival’s status is the same as municipal district chairmen in Newcastle West, Cappamore/Kilmallock and Adare/Rathkeale. Only this week, the council leader was heard to tell people waiting on the mayor at the University Hospital words to the effect of: “I’m effectively the mayor – we can start this.”
Away from personality clashes, what is widely accepted is that there is a confusion around Limerick City and County Council being led by a cathaoirleach.
“It is messy,” Kevin Sheahan admitted. “I have been abroad and trying to explain what ‘cathaoirleach’ means is a disaster. If you go to America, cathaoirleach sounds like a swear word. It is no bother explaining it in front of a crowd. But to explain it one-to-one all day long gets pretty tiresome.”
There has been talk of changing the title of cathaoirleach to mayor to aid Limerick’s international cause and restore the prestige of the ancient office. It has gained support – in some cases grudgingly – from Cllrs Maurice Quinlivan, Joe Leddin, Kieran O’Hanlon, and the present cathaoirleach himself, who said: “I think it was a mistake not to refer to the person in my position as mayor.”
Not surprisingly, Michael Sheahan disagrees, saying his title refers to someone based in an urban area. “It does not refer to a rural area at all,” he added.
Limerick is now in a situation where it is one of the few city-led areas of Europe that does not have a mayor as its first citizen.
Waterford, which saw a similar council merger, dispensed with the title of cathaoirleach, instead creating a rather confusing situation where there is a mayor of the city and county, and a mayor of the metropolitan area.
Newly elected Independent councillor Emmet O’Brien says there needs to be an agreed title.Leader, he says, would be a good compromise, a title widely used in councils in Britain. “As long as he is not called the Führer, I think everyone would be happy,” Cllr O’Brien laughed.
Michael Sheahan insists most people in the city still see him as the first citizen. Kevin Sheahan would be slow to concede that point. But that it can be made in the first place is evidence of a change that has not worked.