The lady Lord Mayors
Catherine Byrne worked her way up through local activism, while Deirdre Clune is the latest member of a Cork political dynasty. John Byrne profiles the new Lord Mayors of Dublin and Cork
'Catherine Byrne is not a typical Fine Gaeler," says Charlie Ardagh, a Fianna Fáil councillor on Dublin City Council. "I don't think she has a big farm, and I've seen her drinking tea [this in reference to the Fianna Fáil claim that Fine Gael members prefer drinking cappuccinos to tea].
"She's a real Dub. People in my party like her, in general the other council members would respect her."
Catherine Byrne was born in Bluebell in Dublin 49 years ago and grew up in Inchicore in west-central Dublin. Her father was a docker, and she was the second youngest of eight children.
"I was the wild one in the family," she says. "I enjoyed school, but I found it difficult at times. I had been ill for the early part of my childhood, and I left school at 14. I didn't get a Junior or Leaving Certificate."
After school she went to work in a printers as a bookbinders, and later got a qualification in catering. She married at age 20 in 1976 to a local carpenter and the pair live together in Bulfin Road in Inchicore and have four children.
It is her voluntary and community work that has defined her in Inchicore, where she is a recognised face on the street. She first got involved at the age of seven ("collecting waste paper for to build the parish centre"), and since then has been involved in a huge number of local voluntary and religious groups in Inchicore (she is a practicing Catholic). These include the Catholic Youth Council, the Vincent de Paul, the management board of the Mercy Convent secondary school and the local Drugs Task Force. She also completed a two-year Lay Ministry Course in All Hallows, and according to the Fine Gael press release "is a wonderful singer".
Tony Geoghegan, director of the Merchants Quay Project which works with problem drug users in Dublin, remembers her:
"She had a practical approach to the drugs issue. She's fairly progressive, and doesn't have the knee-jerk reaction that a lot of policians tend to have. I get the impression that she genuinely wants to try and improve the drug problem, and is not in it just for political capital."
Her family traditionally voted Fine Gael and she was a member of the local branch. But none were particularly high-profile party activists, and she did not have any political ambitions until the late Jim Mitchell, the local Fine Gael TD, asked her to run in the local elections in 1999.
She was elected and gained a reputation as a straight-talking, hard-working councillor who represented her community well. "She's not as vociferous as others on the council, but she does speak when she has something to say," says Charlie Ardagh.
"That's a nice contrast to some other people on the council who talk even when they have nothing to say. She concentrates on issues pertaining to her own area. She was heavily involved in the St Michael's Estate issue [one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country], and represented the views of her local community very well, and advocated that the local community should have been consulted," says Charlie Ardagh.
Cork's new Lord Mayor, Deirdre Clune provides a striking contrast to Catherine Byrne, both in her family and political background. Born into the famous, wealthy, tea-importing Barry family from Cork, an easy entry to politics was asssured. Both her father, Peter, and grandfather, Anthony, served as Lord Mayors in Cork. Both were TDs, and her father served as Minister for Foreign affairs.
She did her Leaving Certificate in 1976, and her strength in maths led her to studying civil engineering in UCC, where she met her dentist husband Conor (the couple now have four children). From there, she moved to Dublin and then to the UK, where she continued her work as a civil engineer.
"Politics was always in the family," she says. "From a young age I remember making tea and sandwiches for people at the polling booths and giving out literature. When I went to UCC I joined Young Fine Gael. I was always involved. Politics filled our lives."
"When we came back from England in 1986, I became very involved again, joined the local branch and worked my way up. I always had a hankering that I'd like it but I was always too busy with children to really give it a go."
In the general election of 1997, after some prompting, she ran in the general election and made it to office. "I found it great, but then also it was difficult to be up in Dublin with small children." She also won a seat in the local elections in 1999, prior to the dual mandate being abolished, and has held her position on Cork County Council ever since.
In 2002, she lost out in the election when Simon Coveney took the first Fine Gael seat in Cork South Central. "I was very disappointed. Fine Gael were hoping for two seats, but I didn't get it. There was a void there when the national politics was gone. I missed it terribly."
"She's very personable," says Fianna Fáil councillor Terry Shannon. "The Barry family are very well-known. Obviously that's a huge opening for her into the world of politics that other councillors would not have. But if you're no good, you'll get thrown out, no matter what your family name.
"I would have some policy differences with her, but no personal ones. I worked well with her."
Both were elected as a result of "voting pacts", alliances between parties where an agreement is made to vote for a single candidate even if they are from a different political party. In Cork this was made up of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and the Labour Party. In Dublin the "Democratic Alliance" consisted of Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party, and was supported by the Progressive Democrats.
"The Greens and the socialists and the like are always banging cups on table and complaining about everything. They mightn't like her, but the rest of us get on with it," says Terry Shannon of the situation in Cork.
Cork City Socialist Councillor Mick Barry, who voted against Deirdre Clune argues that "the parties of the pact support a new-liberal programme. They want privatisation throught the back door via PPPs [Public Private Partnerships].
"Also, the election of a woman was hailed by the mainstream parties as a milestone for women in the city. I would ask the question: what women is she representing? She's not representing the working class women of Cork, who had to go to the credit unions last year to borrow money because Cork City Council threatened to refuse to collect their rubbish if they didn't pay up.
"I'm against the obscene salary the Lord Mayor gets paid, which comes to over €100,000 when the Mayor's allowance and the representative's allowance are added up." (The Lord Mayor of Dublin can live in the Mansion House, gets a salary of €53,000 of which €10,000 is non-taxable, plus the councillor's representational payment of €15,330 and maximum expenses of €7,622.61).
In Dublin, independent councillor Joan Collins voted for Vincent Jackson who ran against Catherine Byrne and lost by a single vote. "I'm against these voting pacts," she says. "I think it's a stitch up, it was a done deal before anything really started. I have nothing against Catherine Byrne, and I think they [the Democratic Alliance] chose their candidate well, but I'm against voting pacts in principle."
But the two Fine Gael women are not bothered by the criticism. "I'm really looking forward to the job," says Deirdre Clune. "I enjoy meeting people, I love getting out.
Will she be using it as a stepping stone to get back into the Dáil?
"No. I suppose it is good publicity in some ways, but it can work against you as well. Look at Royston Brady. But I might well run in the next general election if I am selected by the party."
Catherine Byrne is "looking forward to putting people in their places" on the council. Anyone in particular?
"No – just in general. Sometimes council can be very unruly. Everybody wants to get their issue across. To make council work, you have to be firm, and I think I'll be firm.
"My wish would be that community-development groups will have the facility to use the Mansion House to launch their projects. The people of Dublin will be able to see the Lord Mayor as an ordinary person with ordinary views. They'll see the mayoralty in a new light."
So she won't be riding around in a horse and carriage with the gold chain hanging out, Royston Brady-style?
"I don't think so. There's no need for that. The legs still work fine. Anyway, I have a chauffeur-driven car now. It was embarrassing getting into it for the first time to drive over to the Mansion House."
And the chain?
"Well, at official events. But I won't be out in a tracksuit in the middle of Nassau St with the chain on, riding up and down on a bike."
"The role of Lord Mayor is symbolic more than anything else," says Michael Gallagher of the department of politics in Trinity College, Dublin. "They have no executive powers. They mostly go to event openings, get their photographs taken with the chain around the neck, and wish people well. And that's about it."
Though Byrne and Clune are just two of the five Fine Gael mayors recently elected – how significant is this for the not-so-long-ago embattled party?
"It can't do them any harm," says Michael Gallagher. "It ties in with their local election results and will be a great boost for morale. It gives the impression of a party on the up, as opposed to a party on the way out, as some people were predicting some time ago."
Catherine McMimm, director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, says the election of women mayors is "an encouraging sign".
"It goes some way to redressing the very serious gender imbalance on local city councils. The role is symbolic, but it's good to have women as Lord Mayors. It's very encouraging for other women to see."p