Cork's civil war over city bounds divides a village
Plans to triple the population of southern capital is meeting strong resistance from the county, with suburb Douglas caught in the middle. Graham Clifford reports
A bullet won't be fired nor a war cry roared, but Cork county councillors are preparing for a showdown with their city neighbours.
A review group, appointed by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, will look at possibly extending the boundaries of Cork city with suburbs such as Ballincollig, Carrigaline and Douglas being re-designated city council areas.
It's 50 years since the boundaries of Cork city were last widened and given the huge growth of the southern capital in recent decades, most feel it makes sense to reflect that officially by expanding its reach.
There's a belief that the city will be able to apply for additional EU funding and attract more international investment if its borders widen.
"When I look up Cork city on the internet, I'm shocked to see the official population at around 100,000.We all know that's nonsense, and if you took in all the suburbs, it'd be closer to 300,000. People here feel a closer association with the city than the country," explains Joe Harris, an Independent councillor in Douglas who grew up on the city side of the river that flows through the suburb, but who now lives across the way in the county side.
Roughly half of Douglas is in city territory, half in the county. Which means the middle-class suburb is set to become the battleground.
Should the review group recommend boundary extension to take in the once quaint village of Douglas, the county council coffers would be severely hit.
"The impact would be huge," explains Labour councillor Noel McCarthy from Fermoy. "The likes of Douglas Court Shopping Centre and similar malls in Ballincollig and Carrigaline bring in a lot of rates which allows the county council to do its work. If these industrial areas were taken away, the impact on our budget would be massive - perhaps there would need to be compensation paid to the county council."
Another option open to the review group is to suggest a merger of the city and county councils, but Noel McCarthy is sceptical such a proposal could work in practice. "I believe Cork is simply too large a county to have one local government authority covering the whole area," he said.
And in Skibbereen, Fianna Fáil councillor Joe Carroll echoed those sentiments, telling the Weekend Review: "The city and the county need separate representation. The idea of lumping all into one large authority would not serve the people in my opinion. The city people and the country people are a different breed."
Alf Smiddy, the chairman of the review group, told us that their key priority will be doing what is right for the region and its people.
"We will talk to all stakeholders, business groups and to both Cork city and county councils and listen to everyone's views. It's true to say that any strong region needs a strong heart. It's almost like the human body, everything flows from the heart and so we need to make sure Cork city is strong," he said.
He's aware that his commission could well be history-makers in a county which has resisted extensions to the city boundary for decades.
"The idea of widening the city bounds has been kicked up and down office corridors in Cork for more than 20 years but nobody tackled the issue. It will be a defining moment for Cork, there's no doubt about that and we're very aware of our responsibilities. We hope to come up with a model of local government here that will last for 25 years and beyond," he said.
Lawrence Owens, the CEO of the Cork Business Association, believes the current structure hurts the economy of Cork city and is hoping the boundaries are widened.
"If you're an international retailer, for example, and you look at Cork city and see a population of less than 100,000 then you're not going to give it a second thought. The real population is at least three times that size - that's a much more attractive city for inward investment. We have to get rid of this ridiculous bureaucratic restriction," he said.
Back in Douglas, now with a population of around 25,000, mothers are busy pushing trolleys of shopping through the car park of Tesco with children jumping on for a ride. Smartly dressed twenty-somethings stride along with bags from fashion outlets such as Next and New Look. People are spending money here.
There's an impressive array of chic cafés and cool restaurants - in one such place I find French-native, Isabelle Sheridan, who owns the On the Pig's Back café and deli on the county side of the Douglas border.
There's an amazing array of local farmhouse cheeses, bread, jams, wines and dips in this multi-award winning café. Isabelle opened the doors here in 2009 but has a café with the same name in Cork city's famous English Market since 1992.
"In terms of running a business, I can't see any real difference between operating in the city and operating in the county - the rates do not differ hugely from the other," she says.
She's in favour of the city boundaries being extended, telling me: "Of course a suburb like this should be part of the city, it makes no sense to me that it is not already. I think the city could be more vibrant if the boundary was extended, resources could be shared and planning issues made more straight-forward."
In the complex world of cross-boundary local government, Cork city and county councils have agreements with regard to housing, but one county councillor from Douglas says it's not working and is an example of why the suburb needs to be brought within the city walls.
"I've people living in the county part of Douglas who are on the city's housing list. But when I try to contact someone in the city's housing department about them, they sometimes don't want to know," says Fine Gael county councillor Deirdre Forde.
Though not originally from Douglas, Deirdre has lived here for decades and knows local older people who would have reservations about becoming 'city slickers'.
"It wasn't that long ago that Douglas was more of a country area and the people here are immensely proud of their village and general area," she said. "I think if all of Douglas was in the city, it would probably be for the best. Like we're all Cork, we understand we need to do what's right to make the city and county stronger."
She pauses and then tells me: "I suppose my head says yes, this is the right thing to do. . . but my heart says no."
IS A MERGER OF CITY AND COUNTY OUT OF BOUNDS?
City expansions, boundary changes and council mergers are nothing new in Ireland.
Just last year Limerick and Waterford merged their city and county councils into one authority, though Cork is considerably larger, both geographically and in terms of population, than both counties. The Tipperary North and South councils also merged.
With a total population of just over 520,000, Cork stretches from Youghal in the east to the Beara Peninsula in the west and north to major towns such as Mitchelstown.
Those on the review committee, which include chairperson and former head of Beamish and Crawford Alf Smiddy, UCC Professor of History Dermot Keogh, senior counsel John Lucey, former Kerry county manager Tom Curran and Dr Theresa Reidy, lecturer at UCC's Department of Government, may well propose a type of local government structure not seen in Ireland before.
It's understood they will look at amalgamated council structures in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, to see if the systems in operation there could work in Cork.
A dedicated website has been set up by the Cork review committee seeking submissions from interest groups and members of the public: