Dublin Lord Mayor is determined to give city a voice
The Lord Mayor does not have any formal powers - but I have significant powers of persuasion ...
Gerry Breen strides into the Mansion House's beautiful dining room, humming the old wedding song, 'Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.'
He may be looking forward to meeting Maureen O'Hara later that evening as part of Culture Night, but the Lord Mayor of Dublin is certainly not a Quiet Man.
After just three months in the job, he's already created more headlines than many of his predecessors combined -- largely thanks to his recent controversial comments about the city's drug centres and begging laws.
"The Lord Mayor may not have many formal powers, but I have significant powers of persuasion," he says, brewing up a cup of tea (he gets through eight every day) and doodling on a notepad to make his point.
"The job commands a huge amount of respect, which means I can pick up the phone to people in Government and get through to them. I'm an incrementalist -- I don't believe we have to reinvent the wheel, I just think we need to improve what we're doing already."
As well as being a Fine Gael councillor in Clontarf, Breen runs a successful first aid supplies company.
At the height of the Celtic Tiger in 1998, however, he found himself unexpectedly without work for over a year. This, he believes, gives him an insight into what so many people are going through now -- and explains why his priority as Lord Mayor is "jobs, jobs, jobs".
"It was a horrible time," he recalls. "I had three young girls and we'd just borrowed extra money to move house. Without wanting to sound sexist, I think it's harder for the male of the species. That's why I'm manic about unemployment -- and why it does my head in when I see people who are not doing their best."
Breen has certainly been doing his best with the limited powers he has, hosting start-up business courses with the Dublin City Enterprise Board, recruiting FAS-funded interns to promote the city's villages and promoting the Parnell Street area as our very own Chinatown. He has also made the Mansion House more accessible by holding a clinic on Wednesday mornings where anyone is free to drop in and meet him.
However, it's the Mayor's comments on beggars and drug addicts that have undoubtedly created the most waves, with his suggestions that it should be illegal to beg within 10 metres of a business premises and that drug centres should be moved from the city centre out to the suburbs. By taking such a strong line on these issues, Breen knows that he risks being labelled uncaring or right-wing.
Judging by the response he's had so far, however, he believes that the public are right behind him. "Since I made my remarks I've had lots of positive emails and texts from people who told me it needed to be said. But I am a left-of-centre politician -- I believe we should cap all salaries at €250,000 for the next five years because I don't believe that anybody is worth more than that.
"During the boom, some people thought my family needed therapy because we had a battered Skoda as our only family car and we weren't buying apartments in Bulgaria."
On the long-running controversy of the Poolbeg incinerator, Breen has harsh words for the Minister of the Environment.
"John Gormley is acting the maggot," he says. "He's just coming at it from a narrow constituency point of view, looking out for his own Dail seat. But, at 2pc, the Greens are dead anyway, so it's political desperation.
"Gormley has put Dublin City Council in a horrible position. The Government allowed us to go ahead with the contract, so we went through the correct procedures and awarded it to Covanta Energy. RTE hyped up a non-story saying we could walk away from that contract, but that's nonsense -- it would cost us up to €150m. The incinerator should go ahead. I think the size of it could be looked at and Covanta are open to that.
"But it's been proved to be safe -- councillors have been shown incinerators all over Europe and the one in Vienna is across from a hospital. So as far as I'm concerned, Gormley is completely out of bounds."
When it comes to the thorny issue of traffic speed rates in Dublin city centre, however, Breen does not try to defend his colleagues' most recent actions.
"I don't agree with them," he says bluntly. "I had issues with both the 'bus gate' at College Green and the 30kph speed limit, which have had an adverse effect. They bring both the council and the law into disrepute.
"There's too much of a cycling lobby on the council and there were personal agendas going on. Sometimes politicians like to make changes to satisfy their own egos, not because it's the right thing to do."
Unlike some of his FG colleagues, Breen is cautiously optimistic about the idea of a directly elected Dublin mayor.
"It could be good if it's structured properly," he says. "If the mayor had the ability to choose staff and manage budgets, then the political process would be able to have a positive influence on the management process.
"But it can't be just another layer of bureaucracy. I've told John Gormley that there would have to be dramatic change across the four local authorities, including a cull of councillors because there are far too many of them. Politicians always say they're very busy -- but you can be busy doing the wrong thing!"
Breen may consider himself on the left wing of FG, but he's scathing about the opinion polls that show Labour surging ahead of his party in Dublin.
"Labour are flying without wings," he declares, "and I suspect they won't be up in the clouds for too long.
"People will start asking what they would actually do in Government and I don't believe they have the answers. I'd prefer FG to be a single-party Government because I think Labour would be windy in the extreme -- I see it on the council. They should take Gaviscon!"
Breen may soon get to find out for himself, since many expect him to be Richard Bruton's running mate in Dublin North Central at the next general election.
If he makes it to the Dail, he could well become a candidate for ministerial office -- but for now, he's concentrating on making a success of the job he has.
"I think our civic pride is as strong as ever," he says. "I know that being Mayor is a less powerful position than it was 300 years ago, but a lot depends on the incumbent and how they can change perceptions.
"My big ambition is to make Dublin a good place to do business -- because that's one of the ways we'll get ourselves out of this economic mess."S