To borrow an old chestnut, the cathaoirleach of Limerick City & County Council, Kevin Sheahan, is no stranger to controversy. After 29 years on the council, he has seen contentious issues come and go and built a formidable support base in Askeaton along the way. Thus, this veteran is unlikely to lose sleep over the flak he receives on our letters page this week – over two separate issues.
In our edition last week, he professed himself “speechless” over the resistance to his plan to erect a large wooden cross in the council chamber. That he was apparently so surprised is somewhat alarming, because the Limerick of 2014 has changed in so many ways from the distant days of 1985 when he was first elected.
Whatever about the ill-conceived idea for the cross, Cllr Sheahan’s comments concerning the stalled development on the Dublin Road – once Parkway Valley and newly renamed Horizon Mall – cannot go unchallenged, for various reasons.
First, while we do not question for a moment the credentials of an experienced operator such as Cllr Sheahan for the beefed-up role of cathaoirleach, his intervention in this matter smacked of the kind of thing a directly elected mayor with power to wield might have come out with.
Cllr Sheahan heads up the new 40-member authority and he will surely be aware that the last thing the people of Limerick want to see is a council divided on the key issues to be tackled in the next five years, chief of which must be the revitalisation of the city centre, for the benefit of all citizens.
These are early days for the new authority and it is nothing less than extraordinary that Cllr Sheahan finds it appropriate to wade into the Horizon Mall debate in such a strident manner, claiming he has “heard no reason” why the massive retail development should be completed.
Either he has not been paying attention, or he rejects out of hand the sound argument that even if there was the population base in the Limerick area to support another huge out-of-town retail park – which is highly doubtful – the inevitably grim consequences for our long-suffering city centre retail community are reason enough in itself not to support the plans for the Dublin Road site.
The single biggest reason to merge the two authorities was to end the damaging practice of the city and county councils competing for rates, to the detriment of joined-up thinking and the best interests of Limerick as a whole. And yet, mere weeks after he took office, here we have the council leader pulling rank and opposing stated council policy. The argument he puts forward – that developers such as Suneil Sharma must be encouraged, lest they go elsewhere with their chequebooks – is seriously flawed. Mr Sharma, the man who once promised to revitalise the city centre, before walking away, knew the risks when he purchased the Parkway Valley site. Nobody should shed tears were he to walk away because – in seeking to safeguard the city centre’s future – the council did not yield to him.
Cllr Sheahan, it should be said, advocated a combined authority long before the idea gained currency. We can only surmise that he saw the big picture when he took this stance. While all of us would welcome more jobs, they cannot come at any price and Cllr Sheahan cannot have it both ways.
Development can be a double-edged sword and Limerick City & County Council cannot afford to get this key decision wrong. At some point, the time may come when this particular venture – or some variation of it – can be justified.
But that time is not now.