We’re well into our blueberry scones, sipping our tea and coffee, before I ask the question: what is the difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? This, after all, seems an opportune moment. Across the table is Councillor Paul McAuliffe, the cheery and on-the-up Fianna Fail group leader in Dublin City Council.
Since 2011, the party has lacked a TD in the city, so it’s fallen on local councillors to take the lead in boosting the party’s profile. Most recently, you might have heard McAuliffe pitch the voted-down Moore Street Development Bill, try to raise the alarm about Dublin’s overstretched infrastructure, or voice unhappiness at the almost-definite crowning ;of a Sinn Fein mayor for 2016.
McAuliffe seems unfazed by my question. Fianna Fail is the party in the middle and it’s a party about community, he tells me. “Being the local community councillor, and being the party that can represent the shopkeeper and the shopworker.”
“On the one hand, you have Fine Gael’s unfair Ireland where they say, ‘Look, these changes have to be made, they’re unfair, but they have to be made,’” he says.
“And on the other side you’ve Sinn Fein’s unreal Ireland where anything can happen, and you can rewrite the rules, and Europe’ll give us money, or they won’t give us money, or we don’t need the money,” he says.
“There has to be something in the middle.” He says Fianna Fail is the party that can bridge that divide: it can grow the economy, but not leave people behind while doing it. I suspect that Sinn Féin and Fine Gael might say the same.
McAuliffe has been a councillor for six years now. For a while, he tried to juggle a full-time job, his duties as councillor, and family. But it was too much and, about two years ago, he realised he was hardly seeing his son and quit his job to concentrate on politics and family.
“It’s either time or finance,” he says. “I think every young family is struggling with that.”
Now he spends much of his time dashing between the Civic Offices on Wood Quay and City Hall. In between is The Queen Of Tarts, which is where, at a little past 11am on Monday, we have settled at a table by the door, the room awash with conversation and the gentle clinking of cutlery on dainty plates.
In about 45 minutes, McAuliffe has to get back to City Hall for a meeting about the draft development plan, so we order quickly. I get an Americano and blueberry scone with butter, no cream.
He toys with the idea of a muffin, but strawberry-and-almond doesn’t sound like it’ll hit the spot. So he goes for a blueberry scone, too. Without cream, he says. “I think cream in the morning just seems wrong,” he laughs.
Politics was part of McAuliffe’s childhood. His grandfather was in the IRA on the anti-treaty side, and later worked with Sean McBride Seán MacBride in the republican-socialist party Clann Republica Clann na Poblachta.
“So, being a kid growing up, you would be in the sitting room and you’d be talking to your grandfather and because of his interest in politics you’d be talking about it all the time,” he says. “So I suppose that’s where it came up.”
When he was growing up in Finglas in the early 1980s, there were vast areas where unemployment was chronic, says McAuliffe. “You were told not to put Finglas in your address when you were making a job application,” he says. “Our school told us. That’s because jobs were scarce and there was discrimination.”
That influences his politics, he says. Jobs were always at the top of his mind.
But his political journey has gone from that belief to realising that even when you have jobs there are really social issues that you have to resolve.
“And because I represent an area like Ballymun, you know, you can really see that not everybody is born into an equal world. Not everybody is given the same chance, and sometimes, the state and society do need to step in and help families to tackle the problems that they have.”
McAuliffe says he enjoys the day-to-day work of a councillor and that local councillors have a lot of influence. Look at Dublin Bikes, or what the council can do about housing.
I’m glad McAuliffe has brought up housing. From the outside, it seems like when the council has had the chance to act on housing – and homelessness – it hasn’t: councillors voted down a plan to refurbish O’Devaney Gardens into temporary accommodation for homeless families, and cut the property tax, arguably reducing the funds available for homeless services.
“We all accept that the solution to the housing crisis is to build more houses, there’s really no other way out of it,” he says. But “what has come before us seems to be very temporary, ad-hoc solutions, which essentially are wastes of public money. But secondly, they’re bad planning.”
They’ve just spent €1 billion on regeneration in Ballymun. He doesn’t want them to be spending another billion fixing other disastrous projects in 20 years time. “Whatever decisions we make, we can’t slow down the process, but we must have good planning.”
We’re making solid progress on the scones. I slather mine with dark-pink jam and take messy bites. He cuts his into neat triangles.
“O’Devaney Gardens was a real tough decision for many of us,” he says. On offer, was spending €5 million to house families on a rotating six-month basis in and out of a refurbished flat complex and it wasn’t clear who would manage it. “If that had been a permanent refurbishment with permanent housing, I think councillors would have voted for it,” he says.
We switch topic to what has been a recurring theme in coverage of city council in recent times. The question of who gets to be mayor for 1916.
McAuliffe has been pushing for it not to be a Sinn Fein candidate although he stresses – so many times that it’s tempting to leave it out, as a joke – that it’s not a personal attack on Sinn Fein Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, the likely next mayor.
Sure, Sinn Fein have come a long way after the peace process, but the mayoralty is a ceremonial role, he says. “Therefore, I think in a very ceremonial year, it’s very important that we have a party that will be trusted by the people of the city. And I have a real fear that would use the office of mayor in 2016 to justify the campaign that they were involved in in Northern Ireland.”
Isn’t it just democratic that they get the mayoralty in 2016? I ask. They do have the most seats on the council. “They have the most seats but not an overall majority on the council,” he said. “So they have to work with other parties.”
This whole question of who gets to camp out in Mansion House next might feel more pertinent if Dublin actually had a mayor with powers. Is the idea of an elected mayor dead now? I ask.
“No, no, absolutely not. I’m working on something at the moment,” he says.
“I think maybe we need to have a directly elected county manager. Maybe Owen Keegan with control over the other four local authorities, maybe that’s the office that needs to be directly elected,” he suggests. That’s the powerful position, after all.
Local authorities are attached to their mayors, he says. People like to see them glad-handing, and on show at events.
But wouldn’t that idea, also, be subject to concerns about it being too urban-centric? “If councillors felt they still had their own mayor as a voice, and if they still had their own county, they could be persuaded, you know. I think the Fingal councillors spent a long time developing their own identity and they saw this as taking away from them.”
As the clock ticks down, the conversation touches on McAuliffe’s role as the chair of the Economic and Enterprise Committee.
Set up a year back, the committee is drafting the new economic and community plan for the city; at the moment, they want to know what goals we should be setting. (You can weigh in here.)
If they can draft a solid plan and bring in the funding and resources from national agencies to support it, it’ll be great, he says. “It’s a link between the social and the economic together. I think that’s exciting.”
It’s also, he thinks, “the beginnings of the local authorities system turning into the local government system.” He looks at his watch. It’s back to City Hall for the next meeting.