It is early days in the life of the new all-Limerick authority, too early to draw many conclusions about its effectiveness, but one thing is already abundantly clear – the scenario that allowed for both an overall council leader (called the cathaoirleach) and a mayor of the metropolitan area is now exposed as an unfortunate fudge. It doesn’t work. It was never going to work.
There was nothing wrong, in itself, with the idea of a council leader. It was also understandable –indeed, essential – that the historic office of mayor should continue following the merger of the city and county councils. The simple solution was to make the council leader Mayor of Limerick – all of Limerick. Instead, we were landed with a compromise that pleased nobody.
In Kevin Sheahan, we have a council leader who is at pains to point out to all and sundry – particularly in the city – that his title takes precedence. This was particularly obvious on the day when President Michael D Higgins was given the Freedom of Limerick. As this week’s report by the Leader’s Nick Rabbitts makes clear, it was an uncomfortable occasion for the Mayor of Limerick, Kevin’s namesake and fellow Askeaton man Michael Sheahan. He did not get anywhere near a microphone that day – previous holders of the mayoralty would have found themselves not only given the honour of speaking but positioned alongside the recipient of Limerick’s highest award, highly visible in all the photographs for posterity.
Both Sheahans are, to varying degrees, victims of this botched compromise. One is left trying to explain to visitors to the city that he is, in effect, Limerick’s first citizen, despite having a title that leaves the average American scratching his or her head. The other has to come to terms with the fact that, as Mayor of Limerick, he is sometimes obliged to play a lesser (or non-existent) role at important functions.
To be fair to both men, they have tried to make the best of an awkward situation. They are both trying to accentuate the positive and put their best foot forward on Limerick’s behalf. But Limerick is not big enough for two such roles and it is understandable that Kevin Sheahan, as the elected leader of the City and County Council, would seek to make his mark on the metropolitan area.
It would not take much to sort it out. From next June, let there be one chain, one Mayor of Limerick – all of it – and abolish the title of cathaoirleach. Cancel the arrangements that led to incumbents being lined up for five years for the roles of both cathaoirleach and mayor. If some councillors are upset by this, then tough luck. Let’s face it, in the old days the backroom deals over the mayoralty were frequently overtaken by events anyway.
Or is a little common sense too much to ask for?