After a week as lord mayor, Brendan Carr hasn’t just settled into the role, he is already submerged in a new back-to-back schedule.
On the first Monday in July, in a grand room off the foyer of the Mansion House, he tells me that he’s hoping to move in with his family next week.
Not all lord mayors make the Mansion House their home, but some of his colleagues who previously held the role advised him that it would be the easiest option. He’ll have to be there for so many meetings and if he’s living there, he’ll be able to see his 7-year-old son more.
His son is excited about the move. Carr says he walked into the plush, high-ceilinged Blue Room — also known as the Lady Mayoress’ Parlour — on the opposite side of the foyer last week and claimed it as his playroom.
But he did have some concerns that Santa might not make it down the chimney, Carr says, laughing.
The Blue Room is decorated with antique chairs on a plump rug and fine art on the walls. At the moment, there’s a dark impressionist oil painting, and a brighter one showing a bygone Winetavern Street.
But they won’t be there much longer. It’s tradition for the lord mayor to go to the Hugh Lane Gallery and pick three paintings for this room. Carr plans to do it in the coming weeks.
“I’m a bit quirky when it comes to that kind of stuff, you know,” he says. “There’s very few people who can go into the Hugh Lane and say, ‘I want that, that and that.’”
A Political Family
After he was voted in by other councillors last week, many media reports described Carr as emotional during his speech.
He wasn’t expecting that. “It was when I mentioned my mam,” he says. “Everything just kind of came down on top of me, thinking of my mam and how she got me into that position.”
Carr’s mother passed away last year, and he says it’s still sore for the family. She was extremely proud both times Carr was deputy lord mayor, especially in 1999 when he was the first to be elected rather than appointed.
“My mam was one person that always taught me that no matter how happy you are, if there’s someone else that’s not happy, you have to help them,” he says. “That’s really the way I was reared.”
A trade-union official with SIPTU and Labour councillor for Cabra and Finglas since 1999, he grew up surrounded by politics. His father ran in the local elections back in the 1970s and was also a trade-union official.
“I was just born into it, you know that kind of way,” he says. “My whole life, I’ve been involved with the Labour Party … The elections in 1999, they had no one in my particular area to run, so I put my head up.”
He says he won, in part, because of his links with the local community through SIPTU, GAA clubs and residents’ association.
Carr’s father is a founding member of St Oliver Plunkett Eoghan Ruadh GAA Club in Dublin 7. Carr played football and hurling there at all levels.
Conal Clerkin of the club’s executive committee says Carr’s involved in all aspects of the club. He was a committee member before he returned to serve on Dublin City Council, and he helps raise funds too.
For a recent singing-competition fundraiser, Carr dressed up as Freddie Mercury and sang some of his hits, says Clerkin. “He did a fantastic performance that night and he won the audience vote.”
In 2009, Carr decided not to run in the local elections, but he returned in 2014 and was re-elected. He thinks the council changed massively during his time away.
“When I left the council it was very political,” he says. “But it was also very structured. It got business done.”
These days, some councillors talk just for the sake of talking, says Carr. At meetings, he speaks less than most, until the debate comes round to the issue of working conditions or wages. And he’s not quoted much in the media.
He attracted some attention last December when people were trying to figure out why councillors — who later said they were confused — voted to reject the Phibsboro Local Area Plan.
It was 18 months in the making but once it was voted down, none of it could be implemented. That night, Carr put forward a last-minute amendment to the plan that might have added to the din.
He supported the plan at the time and regrets that it did not pass.
Dublin City Council Chief Executive, Owen Keegan, has said that for Phibsboro to get a Local Area Plan, the whole process would have to be started from scratch. But Carr disagrees and believes once the legislative time frames are followed, it could be done using the work that’s already been completed.
He says that council meetings at the moment are farcical.
The council can’t get through the agenda, he says, because some councillors don’t give enough respect to the chair. (He’s the chair now.) And some bicker and make things personal, which he thinks is never necessary.
He waited for more than a year for a vote on a motion he submitted, calling for the minister for justice to fully reopen Cabra Garda Station.
He recalls one meeting where councillors
debated a report for nearly two hours, and they weren’t even voting on it. “I actually walked out of the meeting,” he says.
Over the next year, he wants to change this culture and start to get business done, he says. His experience chairing union meetings should help him out.
Carr expected it to be a couple of months before he made the council’s monthly meetings more efficient. During the first one that he chaired, though, things did move faster than usual.
He gave councillors their two minutes to speak, but cut their microphones if they went beyond that. Without having to extend the meeting, the council passed motions that had been neglected for months and months.
Carr got his post as lord mayor in part due to the machinations of the power-sharing pact agreed by the council’s loose ruling coalition.
In the 2014 local elections, Sinn Féin won the largest share of the Dublin City Council seats (16 of 63), but didn’t reach a majority.
So it entered a power-sharing pact with Labour, the Green Party, and some independents, which involved taking turns to hold the position of lord mayor.
After Críona Ní Dhálaigh held the position for Sinn Féin for the past year, it was Labour’s turn to choose a candidate who would get backing from the rest of the coalition.
In late June, they put forward Carr, who was elected lord mayor by the council at a meeting in City Hall. He got 43 votes. His rivals, Fianna Fail’s Paul McAuliffe and People Before Profit’s Tina MacVeigh, got 8 and 9 votes, respectively.
Dermot Lacey, the head of the council’s Labour Party group, says it chose Carr because he’s worked hard on council committees over the years, he’s good humoured and he was the longest serving Labour councillor who hadn’t been lord mayor yet.
“He’s been deputy lord mayor twice,” says Lacey. “To two robust lord mayors — myself and Mary Freehill — so we knew he was up for the job.”
Plans, Plans, Plans
When he was elected lord mayor, Carr set out three objectives: to introduce a hotel bed tax to Dublin, to promote a living wage of €11.50 and to create a register of employers willing to give jobs to or train ex-offenders.
He plans to introduce a system where businesses that pay the living wage get a plaque from the city council – and he plans to get moving on this fast. He’s been in touch with the council’s art section, and somebody there is helping with the plaques, he says.
He’s also organised a meeting on the issue and invited along the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Dublin Town and Dublin Chamber of Commerce.
The organisation Jobcare is already working on the register of workplaces for ex-offenders, but Carr wants to help with and promote their good work.
There must be plenty of people out there who fell into a cycle of crime during the recession and now want to get back to work, he says.
As for the hotel bed tax, it seems to be the least achievable of his goals.
Council managers have already suggested that the council doesn’t have the power to put a tax like this in place and that it would be up to the minister for finance to introduce it. But Carr intends to push the issue, though he expects that the hotel industry will push back.
He has scheduled a meeting with Dublin City Council’s law agent to discuss his legal opinion, and will request a meeting with the minister if necessary.
The Power Push
From there, our conversation comes round to the council’s power. In the Mansion House, Carr looks tense and throws his eyes up to the ceiling.
“It’s unfair that we have a minister looking after the whole country and he’s putting all the same policies into Dublin,” he says. “It’s unique, it’s the capital city and Dublin people should be able to have some determination on their future.”
He’d like to see a directly elected mayor come into place, but only if the position had much more power.
When he gets the chance, he plans to ask Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney whether the council might get more powers to address the housing crisis.
It would let the minister focus on other issues, says Carr. “His prime concern shouldn’t be housing in Dublin,” he says.
At a Dublin City Council meeting last month, Coveney indicated that he plans to give the council some more influence in this area.
As Carr sees it, this could be the first step toward Dublin having a more powerful local authority.