Coalition could learn a thing or two from hardline mayor Koch
Published 07/02/2013 | 04:00
New York mayor Ed Koch, who died last week, restored confidence in New York's ability to govern itself and fixed its finances with tough and uncompromising policy positions. We could learn a lot from him here in Ireland.
The present mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, had this to say about his predecessor at the funeral. "New York was in a state of despair and decay. Ed held up his hands and shouted: 'Enough. We will not accept this. Our best days are still ahead.' Ed convinced us that we could be great again."
Will we hear words like this accompanying any graveside orations for the present Cabinet?
Koch's job was almost as difficult as the present Government's job – and he was dealing with a much larger economy.
The city's finances were still in crisis after a brush with default in 1975. Times Square was a cesspool. Parts of the Bronx were in such disrepair that filmmakers used them as a stand-in for the German city of Dresden after it had been devastated by bombing in World War Two. Rioters had been involved in large-scale looting and a serial killer who called himself "Son of Sam" was at large.
Koch sorted out many of these problems by drawing up a convincing budget plan that involved tens of thousands of redundancies, taking on vested interests and shooting from the hip.
One of this first actions was to draw up a convincing four-year budget which involved slashing the public sector and convincing the federal government to extend him a loan.
The budget involved real pain for the public sector but yielded real dividends. Where we have Croke Park, New Yorkers had Koch – who took on the unions and won.
As commuters walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to get to their offices during a subway strike in 1980, they were greeted by a yelling and gesticulating Koch. "Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We're not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!" the mayor shouted.
The strike was resolved 10 days later, with subway workers receiving a pay raise far less than they initially demanded.
That hard line helped him in later negotiations with New York's police, fire and sanitation workers.
Can you imagine any Cabinet minister here doing anything like this? The problem is you can't – and the unions know it.
The other thing about Koch is that he didn't just want to be the man who balanced the books. During his 12 years in office, he replaced the patronage appointment of judges with a system of merit selection, a reform he called his proudest achievement, and launched a massive city-funded affordable-housing programme.
Again, can you imagine the present Government appointing anybody on merit or building houses for the poor?
Koch had his faults but he loved his city and turned it around with the guts, straight talking and clear thinking that is so conspicuously absent in Ireland today.