On Friday morning in front of a small crowd of about 20 people at the Fumbally Exchange on Dame Lane, Dublin city planner Kieran Rose launched his campaign for Seanad and with it a bill that he would push if he were elected.
It is a simple proposition: delete about 30 words from the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2015 and return powers over planning to local authorities. In particular, it would mean that local councils could again set their own apartment standards.
And if the Department of the Environment wanted to force local authorities to adopt a planning policy, then they again would have to get the agreement of the Oireachtas — something the new Act had bypassed.
“It’s very bizarre, it’s extraordinary power, because they are bypassing the Oireachtas and they’ve taken that check out,” said Rose, a couple of days later in an interview at the Temple Bar offices of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN), an organisation he helped to found.
Rose doesn’t come across as a head-over-the-parapet kind of guy. He is slight and unassuming. He speaks in a measured way and has a quiet laugh.
His activism began in Cork in the late 1970s. He was involved in setting the Quay Co-op, a kind of workers’ co-op where all of the small groups – the Cork Gay Collective, feminists, environmentalists – that were kicking about the city with nowhere to meet could come together.
They leased a derelict building which had once been a pawnbrokers and before that a parish priest’s house. “It was a lot of people who had never done anything like that work before,” recalls Cork-based rights activist Arthur Leahy, who was part of the group. “I think it was about in three months we had it up and running . . . to a fashion . . .”
It was a kind of version of the Fumbally Exchange, said Rose. “Just a version of those kinds of places . . . It was a time of high unemployment, so the cafe and the bookshop was a way of creating employment for people who weren’t employed,” he said.
“I invested in it, you know, donated money to it, and worked with a lot of sweat equity to convert the building because it was a derelict building, and then I was on various management committees and things like that,” said Rose.
Back then, as Leahy tells it in a telephone interview, Rose was more of a thinker than a street-fighter: “His huge forte was in outlining strategy. Where we’d be rushing over the hill at the nearest target, like, Kieran was always very much the kind of person who would think out the strategy, you know, ‘Where are we going?’ And he hasn’t changed really. That’s still his kind of strength.”
After the Quay Co-op was up and running, Rose got involved in the anti-amendment campaign in 1982 and 1983. “That was about stopping – we lost obviously – stopping the Eighth Amendment from being put in the Constitution,” Rose said.
Now, he’s committed to having another try – to “undo the damage”.
Just before Christmas, Rose and another planner were called in to speak to some of the senior management of Dublin City Council. They were in a bit of trouble.
On 22 December, the Irish Times had quoted Rose’s opposition to changes by the government to apartment standards, which shrunk the minimum allowable size for new apartments in the city.
“The Minister has been bamboozled by certain powerful vested property interests. This will result in a serious reduction in the quality of housing supply. It is truly shocking and worse than expected,” Rose said in the article.
It was an intervention that, apparently, hadn’t sat well with the Department of Environment. Rose and another planner were told off in an amicable meeting with the council’s senior management. Dublin City Council issued an apology.
For some, the episode raised issues about the role of civil servants, and whether they should not be seen or heard, leaving the policy and open debate to elected representatives. So why did Rose choose to speak out?
“It was a sense that if I didn’t speak out, nobody would. And because I had devised the apartment standards I understood the issue in a very detailed way. And also, I understood the private property vested interests and what they would be up to,” Rose said.
“I think it’s a very unusual aspect of civil society in Ireland that there is no advocacy group that’s working on issues of housing equality and apartment standards,” he said. “And the state agency that you think would have that remit and responsibility, actively campaigned for a reduction.”
If there had been somebody else to speak out – say, a directly elected mayor – then he wouldn’t have put himself forward, he said. But “otherwise I thought those reduced standards would just slip through unnoticed”.
If the reduced apartment standards were a bad idea, then perhaps it should have been the job of senior management to speak up, or for the elected representatives to be more vocal in their opposition, I suggest.
Rose pauses but doesn’t point fingers. “Whatever the case,” he says, “there wasn’t significant opposition voiced.”
It’s a politic answer and perhaps a hint at his status as both an insider and an outsider.
On the one hand, he has been a planner with local authorities for more than 30 years, privy to the day-to-day of local government, adept at working within the system. On the other hand, he has been a vocal advocate for gay rights, for decent housing standards, for choice for women seeking abortions.
“There are two kinds of energies: there is the kind of street energy that goes out and does more of the shouting and roaring and that kind of suits me more,” said Leahy. “And then there’s the kind of people who just work away, you know, at the institutions and just changing fundamentally the attitudes of Irish society.”
Leahy said: “I think both are necessary, and I think Kieran probably throughout his life straddled both of them. If you’re gay, you have to do it. Because you are automatically an outsider for a lot of your life. But in a sense, I think probably the formative thing in Kieran’s life is working within the trade union movement, because the trade union movement allowed you to be an outsider and to be effective. Which probably wouldn’t have happened within the orthodox political system.”
Rose has worked on legislation in the past. He pushed for the vacant-land levy and for the apartment standards in 2007. He’s used to working within the system.
He has specific measures he says he will push if he gets into the Seanad: bringing the vacant-land levy forward — so owners would have to start paying it sooner than the currently planned 2019 — and increasing rates to stop land hoarding. He believes this would bring down the cost of land, and therefore the cost of building new homes.
Another suggestion he has is to push a simpler version of a directly elected mayor than was put forward in the failed attempt in March 2014, when Fingal County Council voted against holding a plebiscite on the idea.
Rose said he believes the proposal was designed to fail. “It was so complex,” he said. “I thought it was designed to create maximum opposition.”
A simple way to start, he says, would be to directly elect the lord mayor of Dublin City Council, which wouldn’t require agreement from surrounding areas. He’d also want to see the powers of Dublin City Council’s CEO handed over to this directly elected lord mayor.
“That would hugely address the democratic deficit of the city,” Rose said.
Rose said he didn’t face discrimination for being gay in Cork when he was younger, and that influenced his own beliefs about the values and chance of change in Irish society.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of people believed that the Irish were irredeemably reactionary, he says. “There was a lot of evidence for that.”
It was a period that featured the defeat of the divorce referendum, and the X case which saw the attorney general force a pregnant girl who had been raped to return from the UK before she could carry out an abortion.
“I used to always say, there’s that tradition in Ireland, but there’s also a very positive tradition that stems from our struggle against colonialism, imperialism, our experience of the trade-union movement and workers’ rights movements. And those were values that we could appeal to,” he said.
Sometimes, he is called a Pollyanna by friends, he says. “Because I kept on saying it, against, in their minds, all the evidence.”
Paul Kearns, a city planner who has worked alongside Rose for about 20 years, says he’s heard that people say that about Rose – he’s even said it himself.
“There is a kind of strange combination of naive optimism and hard-nosed political awareness,” Kearns said. “If you’re not optimistic and you’re advocating for change, it doesn’t really make sense to be involved, you know.”
But Leahy says he thinks calling Rose a Pollyanna is “a bit of an exaggeration”.
“You don’t get along as he’s done without knowing when to call a spade a spade,” says Leahy.
“He doesn’t, often, I think, come across with the kind of passion,” he says. “He can often appear as a kind of dry stick, when I know he’s full of passion and commitment and vision and that often surprises me that it doesn’t come across.”