May 23: Mayoral mess requires some fresh thinking

The saga of Limerick’s two mayors may be nearing an end – and many would say not before time. Readers could be forgiven for being confused by events, so a quick refresher may be helpful before conclusions are drawn about a far from satisfactory example of local government in action.

The saga of Limerick’s two mayors may be nearing an end – and many would say not before time. Readers could be forgiven for being confused by events, so a quick refresher may be helpful before conclusions are drawn about a far from satisfactory example of local government in action.

The facts are as follows. Amid much public bemusement, Kevin and Michael Sheahan, two unrelated sons of Askeaton, have both worn mayoral chains at countless local occasions for most of the past year. Kevin – elected as chairman of the new joint authority back in June 2014, began his term of office with the title ‘cathaoirleach’. Michael started off as mayor of the new Metropolitan District, a lesser position to that held by his namesake but – crucially – one bearing the all-important title of mayor.

With Michael enthus-iastically donning the chain and embracing his mayoral duties in the city, Kevin felt short-changed by not having the mayoral moniker. As the official first citizen and council leader, he had a point. After all, VIPs from overseas could be forgiven for being stumped when introduced to Limerick’s ‘cathaoirleach’. Conn Murray, CEO of the council, correctly stated that the title of mayor has vastly more currency. Then he engineered the abandonment of the cathaoirleach title and upgraded Kevin Sheahan to Mayor of Limerick City and County. As the general public grappled with the new concept of two mayors, Michael Sheahan was left rather in the lurch for the rest of his term in office. The mini mayor had been decisively trumped by the big mayor, aided and abetted by officialdom. The word went out from the powers that be: Limerick has only one mayor and his name is Kevin Sheahan.

So, what happens next?

Fine Gael TD Patrick O’Donovan has raised the stakes by asking the Environment Minister Alan Kelly if he plans to bring forward legislation to clear up the confusion over the two mayors. His intervention was not well received in certain quarters. Mr Kelly duly ordered a review. Nobody should be surprised if the outcome is the ending of Limerick’s double mayoralty.

Councillors from the new Metropolitan District who are now up in arms over the potential removal of the second ‘mayor’ title must know they are fighting a losing battle. They lost that one when the city and county were merged – and the general public have an appetite for only one mayor. The same goes for the council executive, still busy pushing the ‘one Limerick, one council, one mayor’ message.

Perhaps the biggest problem now faced by Mr Murray, as he tries to get the second mayor off the stage, is that fact that four city-based councillors are already on a promise of that title, beginning with Fianna Fail’s Jerry O’Dea next month. As we have seen, the mayor’s chain and title carry a lot of clout, so resistance to both being unexpectedly removed is only human nature.

Liam Galvin, based in Abbeyfeale – 39 miles from the city – is next in line to be Mayor of Limerick City and County. Is that a realistic or desirable state of affairs for a part-time politician, when the office of mayor places so many demands on the incumbent, the majority of which involve his or her attendance at city-based functions. In a word, no.

Ten months ago, Cllr Galvin was to be cathaoirleach and nobody had a problem with that. But now he is weeks away from being appointed Mayor of Limerick City and County. What’s in a name? For some, especially city-based people mindful of the 800-year history of Limerick’s mayoralty, the difference is everything.

There is no ideal solution to this distinctly messy situation, but possibly the best suggestion we heard this week came from Castleconnell-based Shane Clifford, who proposed that the leader of the Metropolitan District should be installed as the deputy mayor of the overall council.

We would go further. Last June, a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael agreement resulted in 10 politicians being nominated for office over the five years of the council, beginning with the two Sheahans. But that agreement was made when the title ‘cathaoirleach’ still existed and when the people of Limerick were still trying to figure out what was happening.

The goalposts have been moved. The council has been merged administratively but hearts and minds are not as easy to manoeuvre. The cultural differences between city and county are real and will not be bridged so quickly.

It is no reflection on Cllr Galvin’s ability to suggest that the man on the street in Corbally may struggle to understand why a councillor from the Limerick-Kerry border is mayor of the city, as well as the county. We believe the council should look again at who should be appointed to the new title of Mayor of Limerick City and County over the next four years.

At least this time our councillors will know what they are voting for.