In the council chamber at City Hall on Monday, Owen Keegan looked relaxed, tie-less, at his last monthly meeting of Dublin City Council as chief executive.
After 10 years in the job, he’s due to retire next week. At the meeting, he and the councillors said their goodbyes to each other.
At the same meeting, Coilín O’Reilly – one of the council’s assistant chief executives – also said his goodbyes, as he’s leaving his role as head of housing at Dublin City Council to take a job as chief executive at Carlow County Council.
Councillors from across the political spectrum wished O’Reilly well in his new role, paid tribute to the work he’d done in Dublin, and said they hoped he’d be back. Maybe soon, some hinted. Maybe as the next permanent chief executive.
Although the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage notified the Public Appointments Service (PAS) in February of the upcoming vacancy at the top of the country’s biggest local authority, no permanent replacement has been chosen yet.
Assistant chief executive Eileen Quinlivan, assistant chief executive in charge of human resources, will step into Shakespeare’s role as deputy chief executive. It’s unclear yet who will take over O’Reilly’s job as head of housing at the council.
Goodbye to Owen Keegan
At Monday’s meeting, councillors took turns saying their goodbyes to Keegan and wishing him well in his retirement.
“All dictatorships must come to an end at some point, even benevolent ones,” said Fine Gael Councillor James Geoghegan.
“On a serious note, I think you’re a public servant who’s always been motivated by the public good, what you felt was in the public good,” Geoghegan said.
“Now, the public didn’t necessarily always agree with you on that point, but I absolutely believe you were always motivated by that,” he said.
Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan also recalled disagreements with Keegan as he said goodbye.
“I just want to say congratulations to you for your commitment to public service and public service is not about agreement, it is not about having a happy and holistic relationship,” Doolan said.
“It is about the cut and thrust, it’s about debate, transparency, accountability, it’s about disagreeing, it’s about agreeing in the longer term,” he said.
“We’ve had disagreements, we’ve had cross words, but that is public life, that is public representation, and I want to wish you and your family all the very best as you go canoeing into the sunset,” he said.
In his statement, Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey also riffed on Keegan’s supposed fondness for canoeing.
“I just want to say a sincere thank you for a lot of hard work and dedication to the city of Dublin,” Lacey said.
“I think sometimes you were blamed for things that weren’t your fault. I think sometimes you relished in that argumentative situation,” Lacey said. “You were always a public servant willing to argue your case. You were always honest about positions that you held.”
“And I think that’s really important. I think somebody who will argue for Dublin is what we need. And I think you did argue for Dublin. Sadly, some of the people you were arguing with didn’t listen to you, but that’s for another day,” Lacey said.
“So, very best wishes to you in the future, and enjoy, as Daithí said, your canoeing – perhaps not in the whitewater rafting facility, but another facility,” he said, referring to the council’s plans – which the council backed in a vote, but which faced a massive backlash – to build a whitewater rafting facility at George’s Dock.
When it was his turn to speak, independent Councillor John Lyons said that as chief executive Keegan had maintained “a very dysfunctional system, particularly with regard to housing”.
“We needed a public figure … who could actually stand up for the people of Dublin city,” Lyons said. “You didn’t.”
“You were exercised about mocking students when they were talking about housing. Homelessness volunteers, you decided you’d mock them,” he said.
In 2021, Keegan told the UCD Student Union president that if he was concerned about the price and profits of purpose-built student accommodation going up in the city, maybe the union should build some low-cost housing for its members.
In 2022, Keegan told the Irish Times that, “The council does not support the provision of homeless services on street and we disagree fundamentally with those groups – some well-intended some merely virtue signallers – who continue to promote and sustain rough sleeping.”
At Monday’s meeting, Lyons continued: “The only thing that seemed to exercise you in all that time was your pet project, which ultimately, thankfully, failed – the whitewater rafting scheme.”
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry was up next.
“I want to wish you well in your retirement, and hopefully it’s enjoyable,” he said. “I won’t pretend we’ve agreed on a single issue since we’ve worked together, but I do acknowledge the dedication, and it’s not an easy job.”
At the end of these and many other statements from councillors, Keegan replied briefly.
“I think it’s appropriate that I should sign off in this chamber, which has been the venue of so many defeats I’ve suffered over the years,” he said.
“So all I can say it was an absolute privilege to serve as chief executive of the city council for 10 years and before that, as assistant chief executive and director traffic for I think was 14 years,” Keegan said.
Farewell to Coilín O’Reilly
Towards the end of the meeting, councillors also took turns saying goodbye to O’Reilly, the council’s head of housing since late 2021.
“I’m very aware that tonight is Coilín O’Reilly’s last meeting – for the time being, let’s say – in Dublin City Council,” said Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
“I first met Coilín as director of services for the North Central Area and immediately I was struck by how proactive he was, evidence-based and solution focused,” she said. “He liked to get things done.”
“And I think that getting-things-done attitude was very evident when he took up the role as head of city recovery and then as assistant chief executive responsible for housing,” she said.
Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor, also had warm words for O’Reilly. “I’ve worked with him on many, many matters. I found him strategic, supportive, flexible, understanding.”
“I do look forward to welcoming you back, once you continue up that pyramid of power and are sitting in a seat right next door to you,” Doolan said, apparently referring to the chief executive’s seat, at that moment occupied by Shakespeare, as Keegan had left the chamber.
Perry, the independent councillor, also had warm words for O’Reilly. “You’re a doer. You’ve made a huge difference here. You’ll be a huge loss.”
And so did Lyons, the independent councillor. “It’s a big loss,” he said. “You were a breath of fresh air,” he continued. “You genuinely care and you got on top of issues really quickly.”
And independent Councillor Sophie Nicoullaud too. “Full respect. I will miss you,” she said. “You’re a great communicator and your people person and you never shied away from a tough situation.”
As well as Social Democrats Councilor Tara Deacy. “You have a really good understanding of community development and we need more of you,” she said. “I really do hope that you do what you need to do in Carlow and in a couple of years you will come back to us.”
So many councillors were praising O’Reilly that Green Party Councillor Hazel Chu cracked a joke about it. “I just want to say it sounds like you have enough councillors to run your Make Coilín Great Again and Chief Executive of Dublin City Council campaign,” she said.
Fianna Fáil Councillor Daithí de Róiste, the lord mayor, who was chairing the meeting, took his turn to say goodbye to O’Reilly last.
“I think it’s a lovely testament when words of being honest, straight, lovely to deal with very genuine – and I think that’s a true testament to you and your character,” he said. “I do hope to see you back in Dublin in the future. I hope this isn’t the end.”
Shakespeare, too, had words of praise. “As everybody has said he is a breath of fresh air and absolutely came in and just got stuff done,” he said.
“I know I will miss him – for the next three months anyway,” Shakespeare said, apparently alluding to the approximate length of the recruitment process for a new permanent chief executive.
When it was O’Reilly’s turn to respond, he thanked everyone for their kind words – and joked that he’d like a transcript of that section of the evening’s meeting, to keep.
However, “It’s not me, I’m the head of a department,” O’Reilly said. “The housing department has an extremely dedicated and hardworking team, working tirelessly.”
“Listen, I really don’t know what I’ve done to upset you, but everybody seems determined to inflict the role of chief executive of Dublin City Council on me, and I’m not sure if I need that much hassle in my life,” he said.
O’Reilly has not responded to an email sent Monday night asking if he plans to apply for the position this autumn.