At Lunch With... Councillor Noel Rock

In Anderson’s Creperie, just off the Drumcondra Road, the cool blue walls are welcoming, as are the shelves stacked with wine bottles. The scent of cooking crepes wafts through the café, which is packed full of adults and children this Sunday afternoon.

When Councillor Noel Rock arrives we go out to the front of the redbrick café where a number of seats glow appealingly in the sunshine and offer a quiet place to talk away from the hustle and bustle inside.

There is a slight breeze, but the councillor seems warm enough in his striped shirt.

The French-style eatery offers a menu of salads, sandwiches, crepes and pastries, but this week it’s more like coffee with a councillor rather than lunch, as the councillor orders just a vanilla mocha and I follow suit with a cup of tea.

Rock has spent the day attending five community-organised barbecues in his local constituency of Ballymun and explains he is full after the cake at every event.

Rock comes to Anderson’s Creperie quite often for its busy atmosphere, nice coffee and, of course, because it is local. In fact, he had breakfast here this morning – a bowl of porridge with pears. Although, he admits that he usually gets the less healthy option of a lemon and sugar crepe. “I think anti-obesity campaigners would have my head,” he jokes.

At 27, Rock is Fine Gael’s youngest councillor for Dublin City but he wasn’t always interested in Irish politics. His first venture into politics was in the summer of 2006, when he worked as an intern for Hillary Clinton in the US Senate – an experience that wasn’t completely unlike House of Cards. Ms Clinton obviously made a good impression on Rock, as he would “bet his house” that she wins her current campaign. (Editor’s note: I’ll take that bet.)

Rock also spent the summer of 2007 in Washington as a supervisor of internships in the Washington-Ireland programme; it was here that he started to think about Irish politics after a young Fine Gael member asked him to join the party. “I was 19 at the time and I didn’t really want to get involved in Irish politics. Frankly, I found it off-putting,” he says.

But the encounter flipped a switch in his head and one day soon after he printed out the manifestos of the six main parties at the time: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, the PDs and the Green Party. Using a scoreboard system, he chose a party to join based on its political history, and its current manifesto.

Fine Gael ranked first in political history because of their “capacity towards being a liberal, tolerant and fair party,” explains Rock, adding that Garret Fitzgerald had also helped to create a more equal society.

Then after looking at the manifestos, Rock decided Fine Gael was the best fit for him, while the Green Party followed in second place.

It wasn’t until the following summer while working in the press office of the European People’s Party in Brussels that Rock realised he wanted to become a politician. “I wasn’t particularly satisfied just working for a political party,” he says, explaining his dislike of defending other people’s actions.

“This is going to be an ongoing challenge in my life because, even though I am going to be representing myself, obviously being in a party you do have to accept decisions that maybe you wouldn’t have agreed with,” he adds.

Being a proud Ballymun native, Rock believes this gives him a certain perspective on politics, but feels that growing up in a house without money to spare really lets him empathise with his struggling constituents.

Raised by his mother after the death of his father, Rock thinks the area has come on hugely since his childhood when he saw more crime, anti-social behaviour and the lingering remnants of the 1980s drug problem.

“It’s a rare phrase that I use, but all credit to Fianna Fáil. In some respects they weren’t shy about putting money into Ballymun,” he says, although he adds that it probably could have been spent more effectively.

Councillor Rock believes these problems don’t exist in the same way today, with one of the biggest complaints in the area being the lack of a shopping centre and this is being addressed to a certain extent with a €1.8 million investment in a supermarket and other retail outlets on the Ballymun Road.

More generally in the constituency, the biggest issues are housing and transport. According to Rock, transport is this area of the city is a clear weakness. Of the three options proposed in the North Dublin transport study, he believes extending the Luas out by Glasnevin and towards Dublin airport would be the best choice.

To deal with housing shortages, the councillor believes the city skyline will have to change slightly in the coming years: “We need to build and we probably have to build upwards as well.”

The councillor’s days can be busy. He spends at least 50 hours each week doing council work, he says, and an additional 15 hours speech writing in the Senate. Though he enjoys being on Dublin City Council, he is interested in becoming a TD.

“I enjoy the practicalities of being able to say I got a sign replaced there, or a pothole fixed there… but if I can represent people at a more senior level, all the better,” he comments.

While Rock admits people in Fine Gael have asked him to run in next year’s general election, he said we’ll have to wait and see.

One story that made headlines during Rock’s campaign to become a councillor – particularly after another Fine Gael councillor called him a “tosser” on Twitter – was his pledge to not accept any expenses. When the subject is mentioned, it quickly becomes clear that expenses are a source of annoyance.

“I think people thought I was a little bit disingenuous before, but now I’ve refused to take €7,800 tax free at this stage. Next week, it will become €8,400. I think it will be €36,000 over the course of my term; that’s the minimum it could be,” Rock says.

He acknowledges that some councillors don’t agree with this, while others couldn’t possibly do it, but says it was an easy decision for him to make when he thinks of why he got into politics. Very few jobs pay phone expenses and Rock doesn’t see why politicians should be any different.

On to the topic of TD’s expenses, one of Rock’s big bugbears is that TDs living within 25km of Leinster House get €9,000 per annum in travelling costs. “It isn’t even the distance that you live, you can send them a longer route. There’s nothing wrong with that strictly speaking… it does my head in though,” he fumes, concluding that he will continue to refuse expenses if he ever becomes a TD.

I continue on to another topic which arouses incredulity and irritation in the councillor – the Housing Strategic Policy Committee.

The councillor praises the Department of the Environment, saying that it is providing funding for housing, and criticises Sinn Féin, who has a majority on the council, for not accessing these funds. “They have been unwilling to push the button on developing sites unfortunately,” he comments.

He then discusses a development of 72 houses in Cherry Orchard Park, which Fianna Fáil councillor, Daithí de Róiste has put a motion against because there is only one shop, one school and one church in the area.

“I mean we’re never going to get anywhere if everyone is opposing every development in their back garden… The people of Cherry Orchard Park must be as devout as they come if the church is going to be overwhelmed by 72 extra houses,” says Rock, who finds the reasons behind the motion deeply spurious and frustrating.

As the councillor drains the last of his frothy coffee, I remember he’s probably had a 65-hour work week, and think it is time to let him go home.

Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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