Saturday 24 March 2018

Our capital is still a city in state of siege

An elected mayor of Dublin -- with real powers -- could change the city for the better, believes Ulick O'Connor

Last week Anne Harris, writing about Dublin in the Sunday Independent in an article entitled "Where the Streets have no shame", accused those who run the city of not doing so in the best interests of its people. This situation didn't arrive today or yesterday. In an article for Image magazine written in November 1978 I quoted from an article in the New York Times which ran as follows: "Dublin is a city in a state of siege. Derelict new construction started but never finished has left gaping wounds in streets of uniformly classical beauty and rubble-strewn lots are like bombed-out ruins."

The situation then was even more frightening than this. The longest Georgian boulevard in western Europe in Fitzwilliam Street had been cut in half and one side of it replaced with buildings that had all the allure of a custom- built prison. Erskine Childers, the Minister for Transport and Power had approved a project for filling in the Grand Canal at Baggot Street in order to provide a new road, which would replace the former leafy waterway, with its striking statue of Patrick Kavanagh. Sandymount Strand was to be turned into an industrial estate.

The excellent Harcourt Street railway line to Bray had been closed for 10 years on the grounds given by its then chief executive that everybody would soon have a car and the railway would become superfluous. The worst act of barbarism was the destruction of a newly discovered Viking village, the only one in existence outside Scandinavia, which had been found just below city hall next door to Christ Church. If restored it was hoped to bring millions of tourists each year to the city. Instead it was decided to build a new City Hall at Wood Quay and destroy the Viking site. There was massive public protest and an organised group of protesters which included academics, priests and architects squatted on the site for a year. A future president, Mary Robinson, was among them.

The battle to save Wood Quay was lost and an inappropriate City Hall shoved up beside Christ Church. Sandymount Strand, however, was saved by massive public protests and a statement from a former adviser to the late President Kennedy that any city which would treat its beautiful marine landscape in this way was not worthy to be called a civilized one.

At the beginning of the 20th century Dublin Corporation had the reputation of having some of the most corrupt councillors in Western Europe. Unlike other capital cities it had no Lord Mayor elected by popular vote.

There was, of course, each year a gentleman called a Lord Mayor elected by the city councillors who, attired in admiral's hat and silk clothing, drove around the town in a horse-drawn carriage, but who had about as much authority over the city's affairs as the head porter in Trinity College. Whenever the question of the Lord Mayor's unaccountability was raised it would be pointed out that he had the same authority as his London counterpart.

But when the English capital moved on the matter in 2000 and decided to elect a proper mayor by popular vote, Dublin was the only major city in Western Europe without a Lord Mayor in the accepted sense. Under the newly elected mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, massive changes for the better were achieved. As the last metropolis to hold on to the old system it has become obvious that we need change too.

Now John Gormley, Minister for the Environment, has stated that the legislation for a Lord Mayor elected by popular vote would be in place this year. He has been accused in the Dail of legislating for "another toothless quango". If this is so (and Mr Gormley denies it), then it is yet another betrayal. The mayors of cities like Berlin and Paris are certainly not "toothless". They are next to prime ministers in wielding power. Similarly in the United States, the mayors of Chicago, New York and Boston have the sort of control which is only second to that of the US President.

We can change our situation to measure up to other cities if we take the right step. But will we? One graphic memory is etched in my mind. It is of a meeting, which took place in the council chamber as permissions to develop areas were being granted. Delirious developers in the gallery when a rezone amendment came through shouted down to their pet politicians below with yells of triumph, who were not shy about returning the tribute to the success of their efforts. Political lobbyist Frank Dunlop was sent to jail after he admitted to bribing politicians to vote for land rezoning. The Assistant City Manager, George Redmond, was tried and also sent to jail. To what extent the villainy had penetrated the system would be revealed when the tribunals would sit later on.

Will the day come when we can say our capital city has ceased to be one "where the streets have no shame"?

Sunday Independent

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