Councillor John Lyons is running a couple of minutes late for our lunch at Caffe Mistro in Northside Shopping Centre. Sitting in the restaurant, busy with early afternoon shoppers, at a table next to the glass balcony that looks down on the main atrium of the centre below, I see why.
He’s chatting to a grey-haired man in a tan coat at the foot of the stairs that lead to the restaurant.
“He was asking me if he should he register for the water charges,” Lyons says.
The man said he wasn’t going to pay the charges, but the deadline for registering with Irish Water is the 30 June, the cut-off point for the conservation grant.
Lyons told him that some people were hedging their bets in registering before the deadline, but the majority he’s spoken to will not be paying. The man seemed happy enough with that.
It’s self service at Caffe Mistro, a large, airy space bathed in natural light from a conservatory style ceiling. The food is fast and simple, a carvery and a deli section. The People Before Profit councillor usually just has a coffee when he’s here, but today he opts for a tuna salad with sweet corn and sundried tomatoes for €6.25. I go for a sesame seed baguette with ham, cucumber, coleslaw and red onion, toasted. It comes with a side of crisps for €4.90.
Elected to the city council last June, Lyons describes his first year as a local representative for Dublin North Central as “interesting.” He feels there’s very little power at local government. “You keep coming up against brick wall after brick wall,” he says.
The biggest issue he deals with is housing. He has people coming to him who are on the housing list 14 years and “it doesn’t look like they’re going to be housed within the next decade or two, and that’s being honest,” he says. “More recently, though, it’s homelessness.”
The number of people who are officially and unofficially homeless, he says “is frightening.” In the last month in particular, it’s got to the stage “where part of your job is just seeing if you can get Focus Ireland to assign a key worker for people who are in these situations because there’s such a backlog”.
The council, he believes, no longer wants to provide social housing directly, but “to do it at arms length” by trying to rejuvenate the private property market through public-private partnerships of the kind, he says, like the O’Devany Gardens Regeneration project that “left thousands high and dry when the property bubble burst”.
A local from up the road in Santry, the 36-year-old holds two MAs, one in Irish studies from the Queens University, Belfast and the other in history from St Patrick’s College, Dublin.
Hairless on top with a trimmed, rust-coloured beard, his mug shots on both the People Before Profit and the Dublin City Councilwebsites give an impression of someone who is militant, almost unapproachable. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Lyons is soft spoken, good-natured and even apologetic about his summer cold which has him all bunged up and is killing any appetite he might have had for his salad.
His predilection for politics was most likely formed at 10 years of age, when his father was laid off from his job at Smurfit and had to fight hard for his redundancy package.
It wasn’t until 2008 at a Gaza demonstration in town where he bumped into members of People Before Profit that he really began to engage in politics. He started working for the party as an agent and, in 2011, to his “horror” he was asked to run in the general election.
Although he wasn’t elected, he enjoyed the experience; it gave him an excuse to knock on doors and discuss politics with people, something he loves to do.
It’s hardly surprising he was stopped on his way here to discuss the issue of water charges. Since his election to Dublin City Council last year, Lyon’s has been a major player in the Right to Water campaign.
Last September he was arrested in a residential suburb in his Dublin North Central constituency for violating a court order restricting protesters from coming within 20 metres of water-meter installations. He was brought in the back of a Garda van to Coolock Garda station and put in a cell (not an entirely new experience for the social activist).
Forty minutes later, he was release without charge but a file was sent to the DPP. The DPP has yet to act on it, but “it’s a live issue.” John Tierney, managing director of Irish Water called for prosecutions against those arrested, he says. “Politically I think it would be suicidal.”
Lyons was also involved in the “Inkgate” controversy that emerged earlier this year, which accused various local councillors of misusing public funds in the printing of anti-water charges leaflets.
Apparently, Lyons had printed 100,000 leaflets at a cost of €3,800. It was suggested that he and others councillors involved would have to incur the cost of what independent councillor Mannix Flynn described as the “exorbitant” printing of these leaflets, but this was later voted down and instead a limit of 5,000 leaflets per councillor per month came into force.
Lyons believes the move by Dublin City Council management was a political one, to dampen the effect of a sizable left-wing contingent within the council. Last year’s DCC elections radically changed the council, he says. “You had five councillors from People Before Profit where before there was just one, 16 Sinn Fein councillors where before there were just five and you had several independent councillors who would most definitely be termed left wing.”
The first six months in the council, he says, there was a very political chamber. Issues such as the water charges and the abolition of the property tax were being discussed regularly at the monthly meetings.
“What we saw at the turn of the year was a reaction to this from Dublin City Council management, through standing orders which were ruling out emergency motions of a political nature unless they had a direct bearing on the running of the council,” Lyons says. “The definition of what that actually entails is very narrow.” Essentially, he says, political debate in the chamber is being restricted.
The introduction of a quota for printing leaflets, he sees, as just another move by council management to dampen down the left-wing element of the chamber. “We were using the resources that were in place, printing leaflets for local campaigns and local issues, the water charges being one of them, housing was another. I see that as part of my role as an activist, as a public representative,” he says.
Lyons obtained the council’s annual printing budget, which is €1.2 million. “So if you want to look at my printing in comparison to that…”.
“Really and truly, they just don’t like the fact that I was printing leaflets opposing the introduction of water charges, which I do believe is related to Dublin City Council,” he says. Because water services, he feels, should be brought back under the remit of the local council.
The prominence of the Right to Water campaign has died down in recent weeks, he says, but it is by no means going away. The first batch of bills was sent out to homes two months ago and Irish Water has yet to publish figures on the number of people who have paid. Because of this, Lyons believes there’s a very high rate of non-payment.
How will it end? The government he says “may have taken the heat out of it with some concessions but they’re in for a big shock if they think they’ve won over the majority to this regressive regime.”
Since the beginning of last year, Irish Water has been a stick of live dynamite that the government continues to grasp in its hand. Come the next general election, Lyons believes, if the government is still wielding it, it will go off.
Lyons will be there to pick up the pieces. Clare Daly spoke at his endorsement in February, where he was announced as People Before Profit’s candidate for Dublin Bay North, the second largest constituency in the country. He reckons he’s a “good chance of taking the seat.”
He’s put a lot of work in on the ground and he feels his constituents believe his interests are genuinely wrapped up in their own.
In the whole time we’ve been talking Councillor Lyons hasn’t touched his salad, not once. He never eats lunch and with his summer cold he has no appetite. He asks one of the girls behind the deli counter to wrap it up for him so he can take it away.
Later that evening, over the phone, he tells me it was very tasty.