“I don’t share his political views. I don’t share his political philosophy. But he’s an honorable, dedicated councillor in his area and I’m happy to support him,” said Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey at Monday’s annual meeting to elect the new lord mayor.
In the top seat for the next 12 months is Micheál Mac Donncha, who has been a Sinn Féin councillor for Beamont-Donaghmede since 2011. Labour Councillor Áine Clancy will be deputy lord mayor for the year.
Winning 35 of 57 votes from a council in which Sinn Féin has the biggest block of representatives, Mac Donncha is now charged with representing the city and chairing the city council’s monthly meetings.
(Five councillors were absent, and one abstained.)
Labour, Sinn Féin, the Green Party and some independent councillors have a loose voting pact, which means, among other things, that the lord mayor is rotated between their parties.
“I’m very proud,” Mac Donncha says. “It’s a great honour to represent people in any elected position but, obviously, to be lord mayor of Dublin is a special honour.”
Just and Equal
Unlike some of his council colleagues, Mac Donncha says he doesn’t hail from any political dynasty or a politically charged household.
He is an only child. His late father, Billy, was a carpenter. He is currently carer for his mother, Peggy, who was too unwell to attend Monday’s meeting.
Neither of his parents were politically active, he says. But one event spurred him towards Sinn Féin. “I first got interested in politics in 1981,” he says.
The year of the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, in which 10 men died, made an impression upon the young Mac Donncha, who signed up as a card-carrying Sinn Féin member in 1982. He was 18 years old.
Mac Donncha always had an interest in Irish history and the struggle for independence, he says, but in 1981 he became active. “The [hunger strikes] politicised me then,” he says.
From 1990 to 1996, he was the editor of Sinn Féin’s newspaper An Poblacht, and in 1997 he became political advisor to Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, then the only Sinn Féin TD in the Dáil.
“He is someone who is totally committed to a just and equal society,” says Ó Caoláin, who attended Monday’s council meeting. Ó Caoláin says his former political advisor is a “good friend”.
At Monday’s meeting Sinn Féin Councillor Críona Ní Dhálaigh, who was lord mayor until this time last year, noted Mac Donncha was a great composer of “ditties”.
It’s true, says Ó Caoláin. “He’s a talented singer and songwriter as well,” he says. “He can write a song at the click of your fingers.”
And, it must be said, “he enjoys the occasional pint of Guinness”, Ó Caoláin adds. Mac Donncha was co-opted onto the council in 2011, has chaired the finance committee, and been active with the residents of Priory Hall.
He says he plans to use his term as lord mayor to address some key issues.
A Step Change
Number one on the new lord mayor’s list is the housing crisis.
“We need a step-change in government policy. It’s not working,” he says. “It’s quite clear the political will has not been there to force the Housing Department to clear the bureaucracy, to clear all of the delays.”
But how, in a largely ceremonial role, does Mac Donncha plan to force the department’s hand?
Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan, who is not elected, holds the local government’s executive power. The lord mayor is first elected as a councillor, and then elected by her or his colleagues as first among equals.
There’s long been talk about Dubliners getting a directly elect a mayor with more power, and that’s something Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe pressed Mac Donncha at Monday’s meeting to works towards.
In the meantime, as Mac Donncha sees it, on issues like housing, what the lord mayor can ultimately do is provide leadership. And that might make a difference, he says.
“I think it’s very relevant in a leadership role for the councillors, the city council and the citizens,” he says.
In addition to focusing on housing issues, Mac Donncha’s other priorities include the retention of the Moore Street 1916 “battlefield” site, for which he has campaigned in the past, and the promotion of the Irish language.
He wants the recent report on Moore Street fully implemented and is “determined to do all that [he] can to ensure Moore Street…is finally and definitively saved.”
Independent Councillor Nial Ring is pleased with that one. Ring, as head of the council’s Moore Street Committee, says Mac Donncha has worked closely with the advisory committee but also on “consulting with citizens” on the site’s future use.
Ring says Mac Donncha describes himself as “grumpy”.
“There’s probably a bit of grumpiness there, but when you’re on the same wavelength I always found him to be very approachable,” says Ring.
Brexit, with all its uncertainties, is also on the mind of the new lord mayor. Political outreach and collaboration, says Mac Donncha, is a priority for his term.
“Obviously the Dublin-Belfast corridor is an economic driver of our country, so I’d like to work with mayors and chairs in Belfast, Newry, Dundalk, Drogheda to look at that issue,” he says.
Building the Community
At Monday’s meeting several councillors commented on how Mac Donncha, a lifelong Northsider, will now become a Southsider.
“For practical purposes”, he says, he’ll occupy the Mansion House for the next 12 months. It will be just him. He’s unmarried and has no children.
But he won’t be bored, says Sinn Féin Councillor Larry O’Toole. “He’ll be out 18, 19 hours a day,” he says.
O’Toole recalls first meeting Mac Donncha in 1984. Since then, the two have had “many a good music and singing session”, O’Toole says.
Mac Donncha will be a Southsider “in name only”, says O’Toole. “He’ll have to get back out to his area during the year.”
One of the key roles of the lord mayor is to chair the council’s monthly meetings at City Hall. Mac Donncha’s predecessor, Labour Councillor Brendan Carr, was roundly praised on Monday night for his performance of this task.
Carr enforced the “clock system”, whereby councillors were limited in how long they could speak. Mac Donncha says he intends to maintain its enforcement.
And, like Carr, he won’t be afraid to challenge his council colleagues while in the chair. “I’ll certainly intervene where I have to,” he says.
Beaumont-Donaghmede Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland says she and Mac Donncha have worked across party lines at times to resolve community issues.
Gilliland says a lord mayor should play a political role. “It’s about the person chasing up particular issues,” she says. “Brendan Carr was quite political in what he said, and there were times he went beyond the niceties of what the lord mayor does, and I think that’s important.”
But there’s a balance for Mac Donncha to strike.
When there is a consensus at council around a particular issue, she says, then the lord mayor “is perfectly entitled to get political” and assertive around that issue, to back councillors up.
As lord mayor, Mac Donncha says he plans to ensure that the city council continues its “vital role” in supporting and developing communities across Dublin.
“I think the council has a very important role in helping to build communities,” he says.
“Particularly where we do have new housing developments, for instance, we need to see community development as well, that the facilities are there for the community.”