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From crisis-era mandarin to State’s first directly-elected mayor, who is John Moran?

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According to insiders, John Moran’s successful campaign to become Limerick’s and Ireland’s first directly-elected mayor was predicated on three things.

First, he convinced voters that it was a big job, involving a complex set of relations, and a big opportunity for Limerick, and not, as some had claimed, a titular position with no real power.

Second, he pitched himself as a candidate that understood the machine of government – that could deal with “the juggernaut of central government” – having served in several high-profile positions, including secretary general of the Department of Finance and later as chair of the Land Development Agency.

And third, as an Independent candidate, Moran claimed to be above the petty party wrangling that engulfs so much politics here, and therefore a more neutral candidate.

Either way the former lawyer and banker and, at one time, the State’s most recognisable civil servant, has been elected Limerick’s “first citizen” at a relatively dynamic time for the county, symbolised by US pharma giant Eli Lilly’s massive $500 million investment in its Limerick plant and the hosting of the Ryder Cup in Adare Manor in 2027.

More significantly, Moran breaks the mould of Irish politics by becoming the first directly-elected mayor. Normally mayors are elected by local councillors and only for one-year terms. If the new position proves a success, if Moran makes it a success over the next five years, it could well trigger similar elections in other local authority areas and potentially the biggest shake-up in local government in decades.

Under the legislation Limerick’s incoming mayor will take on a number of executive functions in areas such as strategic development, housing and building, road transport and environmental services, but will not have powers over things like policing. They will play a key role in projects such as the Limerick Development Plan.

Under the new system the chief executive of the council will become a director general working under Moran, maintaining a focus on day-to-day issues such as finances, human resources and events. But according to one observer, there’s no real template, “no one knows how it will work”.

Moran will receive an annual salary of €154,000, will be assigned up to five staff from the council, and have an annual budget of €8 million for mayoral projects and initiatives. His chief responsibility will be proposing the annual €1 billion budget for Limerick City and County Council.

“I can’t think of any other politician anywhere in the country who will automatically be given the power to direct how government funds are used,” Moran said in a recent interview with The Irish Times. In other words he will be the only directly-elected official to automatically assume an executive position rather than a representative one.

Moran grew up in Limerick but left county and country in the 1980s to work in a variety of roles abroad. After passing the New York Bar exams, he worked for a time as a lawyer on Wall Street with Sullivan & Cromwell, before taking a job with aircraft leasing company GPA, set up by the late Tony Ryan. Later he worked for McCann Fitzgerald, taking charge of the Irish law firm’s New York office where he advised US clients setting up operations in Ireland. He was also at one time head of Zurich Bank’s Asian operations.

He joined the Central Bank in 2010 as head of wholesale banking supervision, before moving to the Department of Finance a year later, initially to lead its involvement in rescuing the then ailing banking sector.

He served as secretary general of the department between 2012 and 2014, working closely with former finance minister Michael Noonan, who credits Moran with making a lot of the decisions. Moran brokered the State’s sale of Bank of Ireland shares to US financiers Wilbur Ross and Prem Watsa at the height of the financial crisis in 2011 and the promissory note arrangement to fund the repayment of the creditors of Anglo, deals that many see as turning points in the nation’s path to financial redemption.

He also served on the European Investment Bank’s board between 2013 and 2018, and chaired the Land Development Agency, the agency tasked with building affordable housing on State lands, between 2019 and 2021.

In his interview with The Irish Times Moran denied he quit the Land Development Agency but admitted there were disagreements about his employment contract, governance and government funding for the agency, which was initially just €300 million, a figure he describes as woefully inadequate.

Moran’s varied and high-profile career and his relatively short tenures in charge of the finance department and the LDA could be reflective of a dynamic, opportunity-seeking disposition or someone who struggles with the straitjacket of government bureaucracy.

His new role will involve some serious financial wrangling between his new department and central government.

In his interview with The Irish Times Moran insisted Ireland was too centralised, with limited scope for policymaking at local level. He noted that some 60-70 per cent of exchequer funding spent in Denmark was spent by local municipalities, councils and mayors, compared to just 10 per cent here.

He now has a chance to illustrate the potential benefit of a more decentralised system.

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