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Still work to be done

Last update - Thursday, March 1, 2012, 15:04 By Metro Éireann

It’s been a busy year for Dublin Lord Mayor Andrew Montague, what with his full list of events - and getting engaged to fiancée Sinéad last October. But even though his term ends this June, he says he won’t rest on his laurels. He tells Tolu Omoyele about his varied background, his past achievements and his vision for the capital

Hi Andrew! Your birthday this year was a special one. How so?
Yes, I was born on 29 February, which makes me a leap year baby, meaning I only have a birthday every four years.  Therefore I celebrated my 11th birthday this year! I invited other people celebrating birthdays on this day to the Mansion House, especially youngsters born four or eight years ago; for them this will be their first or second birthday.

What are your hobbies and interests?
I like and enjoy cooking, which is new for me because I’ve been trying to learn how to cook for the past two or three years. I downloaded the Jamie Oliver app, which explains the basics of cooking so well that I was able to understand what I was doing.  These days I enjoy cooking, and sometimes my fiancée Sinead and I have friends over for dinner and we cook of them. I really like Thai green curry.
I am into computers and I use them a lot – in fact I set up a web design company 10 years ago. I use Twitter, but am not a great fan of Facebook. I don’t watch television often; when I do it’s very specific, I don’t channel-hop.
I prefer to read the newspaper rather than sit down to watch the news on TV: it has no depth when compared to newspapers. The other way I stay informed is through radio and podcasts.

You are a qualified veterinarian, How did that lead you into web design and politics?
Yes, I studied veterinary medicine at college.  However, I had studied computers in secondary school back in the early ’80s. After that I didn’t use one for almost 15 years, but in 1998 I went back to college for a Master’s degree and had to do a huge amount of research on the internet, which was relatively new at the time.
Finding what you want in the library can sometimes be very slow, but with the internet everything you needed was there on-demand and very quickly. That was how I got fascinated by the internet.
I learned all the basics, and then took a course in website design. That was when I realised there was great opportunity to do something here. The first website I did was for my uncle who owned an architectural firm. I also designed websites for other vets and before I knew it, I had a business up and running. I did that for 10 years; for some of that time I was in politics as well.  But the last two years I have focused more on politics full-time, it has been so busy.
I don’t miss being a vet, I found it really stressful. I’m sticking with politics, however that is reliant on me getting elected and if I don’t, then I will do something of interest like working with an NGO.

Your one-year term is over on 20 June.
Yes, there is a new mayor every year. Mayors are elected by the city councillors, not by the public. For this reason most people don’t know who their mayor is, so most people do not understand the system. 
For example, when decisions were made about privatisation of our waste collection system, the council was not in favour of that; I voted against it, as did the majority of councillors. The power to make the decision was taken away from councillors and given to the city manager, who is not elected democratically, back in 2003. So there was no democratic input into what has happened with waste collection.
And that is not a healthy position to be in, for the reason that it’s going against the democratic wishes of what the people wanted.  But it has happened anyway. There are some advantages to privatisation, but the problem is how it was done, the changeover was too quick.
I think there is a need to re-balance the system. Having a directly elected mayor in office for four or five years would give the public a say over what is done and how. And if they don’t like the mayor, they can vote them out.

What is a typical day in office for you?
I have a few projects as part of my proposals for my term in office. I have four or five meetings per day on issues such as anti-social crime, promoting Dublin and improving the transport system.
My job as mayor is to be the ambassador for the city, to promote and sell the city. So I invite people to the Mansion House: business visitors and investors, people who bring trade, tourism and conferences to the city, and people doing good work in their community.

Can you give a brief summary of the anti-social crime initiative?
The aim is to try and reduce anti-social behaviour. It could be graffiti, vandalism, noise at night, street drinking, urinating in the street in the city centre. It’s the kind of crime that affects people’s day-to-day lives.
I believe prevention initiatives are really interesting, and it goes right back to when children are born. We need to help all parents improve their parenting skills and to try increase the bond between parents and their children. Just as children undergo physical health checks, there is a need for a psychological check-up for children to help them from a tender age. 
One successful programme we have doing just that is in Ballymun called ‘Ready, Steady, Grow’. The research has shown it is very important to set a high standard of parenting; it is much cheaper than dealing with the consequences of anti-social crime in the community. We are focused on getting this right.

What is your most outstanding contribution to Dublin City so far?
I think the Dublin bike scheme is my most beneficial legacy to the city. I proposed the scheme back in 2004, when there was a lot of cynicism about the idea. People didn’t believe it will work and really people didn’t trust Dubliners.  The thinking was all the bikes will be stolen or end up in the river or vandalized. 
The good news is that two-and-a-half years into the scheme, we have had almost four million trips, and so far only two bikes have been stolen, but we got them back.
It is a plus for Dublin to transform into an attractive and cycle-friendly city for both visitors and residents.  The bikes are very well treated by the public and in great condition.

What is the most important thing you want to see done in Dublin before you leave office?
One of the most important things I want to see in the city centre is a market like the English Market in Cork. The rationale is that money spent in the market stays within the local community, unlike money spent in a supermarket. The city council is currently working on this project; the location in mind is a beautiful redbrick Victorian building, the former wholesale fruit-and-veg market just off Capel Street.
If we get this one right, in the long term I’d like to see markets all over the suburbs, presenting a great opportunity for local businesses and farmers alike. 

Dublin recently held celebrations for the Chinese New Year, and welcomed a visit from China’s Vice President Xi Jinping. Do you think maintaining a relationship with China is beneficial?
China is the second biggest economy in the world, so I think the vice president’s visit was very good in that regard.  A very important factor for Dublin is there are so many Chinese people living here, about 30,000 – they are Dubliners as everybody else. We should celebrate their culture, their heritage and make them feel welcomed in our city.  Dublin is an immigrant city; people from all over the world come to live in Dublin.
[We want] to make people feel welcomed to Dublin. They are Dubliners, not marginalised, not irrelevant, and they are part of our city.  This is what makes the city great, the cultural variety and new influences, and I believe we are better having this.
While immigration can at times cause tension and problems, ultimately it brings huge benefits to the city. So I believe we have to work very hard to get much positivity as we can from immigration and reduce the negative side.
The big challenge is, when communities come into Ireland, they stay tight and closer to people from their own country.  Sometimes they don’t necessary have the confidence to branch out.  In the work I do I look closely at racism and discrimination.  There is always room for improvement.
I volunteered in Africa three summers in a row, and it was a huge eye-opener for me. I was over there teaching computers to teachers to equip them to teach their students. Africa was different from my expectations. It is very advanced, with a lot of educated people and entrepreneurs – it is not so different from Ireland.  You tend to hear a lot of negative stuff about Africa, but it was very good to see and experience it first-hand.

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