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OPINION: City and county merger is broached differently

September 19th, 2016 10:35 AM

By Southern Star Team

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ALTHOUGH the merger of Cork City and County Councils was shelved because of Corpo opposition and a high-profile legal challenge, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney, has resurrected the annexation plan. If successful it will be ‘the biggest change to local authority in Cork in more than 100 years.’

Coveney says that a deal consisting of  ‘a new structure that serves the interests of the City and County’ needs to be established between both councils. He added that this might mean abandoning the idea of a merger.

The polemical statement was phrased in what seemed to be deliberately fuzzy language: ‘The important thing,’ he suggested, was not a merger, but ‘a seamless decision-making process on everything from tourism strategy to transport strategy, housing, planning, energy management, and managing the harbour collectively.’

‘A seamless decision-making process’!  What did he mean? Was this FG’s way of obscuring the fact that a merger again was on the cards?

As a shrewd politico, Coveney is well aware that his government’s previous effort to abolish Cork City Council and replace it with a ‘super council’ was perceived by Leesiders as an insult to their municipal sensibilities, and to what they understood to be local democracy. 

 

Public excluded

The affront was compounded by the fact that no one asked Leesiders their opinion. As far as the government was concerned, the man and woman in the street, the electorate, didn’t come into the equation.

The absence of involvement by the ordinary citizens of Cork was the dogmatic policy of Environment Minister Alan Kelly when he set up the statutory committee that produced the Smiddy Report. Inevitably, internal disagreement emerged as a feature of that committee’s deliberations.

Two members broke away to produce a minority report that asserted the complete opposite of what Smiddy (and Kelly) was putting forward. Merging with County Hall was a very bad idea, they said!

The Smiddy report, now excessively toxic for Fine Gael and Labour, was thrown into a cupboard and left to rot. But, with Coveney breathing new life into the project, Corkonians will be keen to see how he’ll package the revamped merger plan and, at the same time, minimise the political risk to himself.

He’ll be well aware that the dissenting minority report was endorsed by 18 former Right Honourable Lord Mayors who claimed that for Cork City to be divested of its essential powers to self-govern, to run its own affairs, to set its own budgets and to ‘strategise’ for the future was ‘a preposterous and extraordinary proposition.’

 

Curse of the Corpo

Coveney will remember too that public support for the Smiddy plan seemed to be confined to County Council bureaucrats, property developers, meeja cronies and the Cork Chamber of Commerce – which was manifestly not broad-based enough to influence opinion in favour of the annexation of one local authority by another.

And, bearing in mind the sad fate of then Environment Minister Alan Kelly, who first put forward the merger wheeze, Coveney might well wonder if some sort of medieval ‘Curse of the Corpo’ hangs over those who seek to destroy the city’s centuries-old heritage and institutions.

Because, once Kelly began pushing through his plan, he had nothing but bad luck in the political sphere. For instance in 2015, his boss, Joan Burton, nominated him for the prestigious roles of Labour’s director of elections and chair of Labour’s national campaign.

His achievements? The catastrophic collapse of the Labour vote and the worst general election in the history of his party. It lost 30 seats and saw an astonishing 81% drop in support!

Making matters worse for Kelly was last May’s announcement of his intention to seek the leadership of the Labour Party. His seven surviving parliamentary comrades treated his political aspiration with contemptuous disregard and he failed to attract any support. Ignominy indeed!

In the meantime, the now redundant Smiddy plan has racked up €157,811 in travel costs, secretarial duties, advertising and ‘analytical support’ (whatever that is), even though the five members of the controversial merger committee will not be paid for their services!

 

A friend indeed!

Ah yes. As Kenny’s government digs in on pay, the country faces a winter of industrial discontent among Dublin Bus, train drivers, gardai, doctors, nurses, and teachers.

But, thanks to the generosity of Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, 950 local councillors are in line for a €4,000 pay hike on the basis that they will no longer have to pay the 4% Class K PSRI rate, which was introduced by Fianna Fáil in 2011. (Should they choose to continue making their Class K contribution they will be entitled to a contributory pension).

The pay boost will be announced in next month’s budget, just when (hopefully) FG councillors are influencing TDs to purge Dame Enda. Nothing like a burst of generosity with public money to win friends – particularly as it’s all quite legit and above board! 

The fact that Varadkar will be a contender in the leadership battle to replace Kenny is neither here nor there, of course.

 

Grim times in Grimsby

And now for something completely different!  A bizarre news story, courtesy of the Lincolnshire Echo, that informs readers of the dramatic action taken in a courtroom after a lady broke wind.

Here’s how the newspaper described the cataclysmic event: ‘The sombre silence of a Lincolnshire courtroom was rudely broken when woman suddenly broke wind very loudly from the public gallery. The unexpected and highly-unwelcome interruption to the dignity of the court day proved to be the dubious highlight of an otherwise dull day at the magistrate’s court.

‘The same woman returned to the courtroom in the afternoon, prompting emergency evasive action to be taken by some. One male observer, originally sitting unknowingly next to the culprit on the front row of the public gallery, was told about what had happened and hastily moved back a row to provide more distance in the event of a second unexpected event.

‘He also took cover outside the courtroom door later on during proceedings in a wise pre-emptive bid to avoid being in the firing line in the event of an ear-splitting encore. He later suffered the indignity of being blamed by others for being the one responsible for the noise in the first place.

‘It is not the first time that the loud breaking of wind has abruptly shattered the order and peacefulness of judicial proceedings in Court Four in Grimsby. On another occasion, those present in court struggled to keep straight faces as the male culprit, also sitting in the public gallery, shattered the silence with his unwelcome contribution to – or comment on – the proceedings.

‘This time, as then, nothing was said publicly about the unexpectedly loud sound but nervous twitches and stifled grins were seemingly the order of the day.’

 

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