Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Interview with Labour Councillor Eric Byrne

I chatted recently to Councillor Eric Byrne of the Labour Party, who was returned in the Crumlin/Kimmage ward this month. Cllr. Byrne was first elected to Dublin City Council (DCC) in 1985, and was a member of Dáil Eireann from 1989-1992 and 1994-1997. Cllr Byrne is a member of of the Dublin 12 Drugs Task Force and Ballyfermot Local Area Partnership board, and helped to found the Fatima Mansions and Dolphin House Task Forces. Cllr.Byrne has kept a blog (here) since 2006, and also has a website at www.ericbyrne.ie. I was luckily able to ask Cllr. Byrne a few questions about his campaign, his use of social media and the Labour Party.

NF:What were the issues brought up the most on the doorsteps during you campaigning?

EB:Well the main issues brought up on the doorsteps were national issues. People generally only wanted to talk about national issues. Public Servants wanted to talk about the Pension Levy, the Elderly wanted to talk about the abolition of the Christmas bonus, and people only brought up topics and subjects that were national. Nobody really wanted to know about local issues like “will you fix that footpath”.

Let me explain my modus operandi when canvassing. Name Recognition is strong for me among people who have been living in the area for a few years, so the real challenge for me would be getting people who have recently moved into the area to vote for me. For new arrivals I’d invariably say; “There’s more to me than knocking on your door. Will you have a look at my website?” I’d have all my policies and updates on each local area on my website, so it’s really an easier way to communicate with people who wouldn’t speak to you on the doorstep.

Do you think your election, and the success of Labour nationally, was a reaction to the unpopularity of the government? Was it a protest vote?

There’s no doubt that there was a substantial element of protest in the vote. However there was clearly an element of people who had voted for Fianna Fáil moving away from the party. The protest vote mainly went to independents and smaller parties like (People Before Profit Councillor) Joan Collins. The Labour Party profited mainly from the ‘political protest’ voters who had moved away from the government, rather than the protest voters who were voting in protest against the political establishment.

How much of your success do you attribute to the current popularity of your party?

Well let me say that I would attribute most of my success to twenty-five years of hard political slogging. I would attribute the increase in my vote to the popularity of the Labour Party, and indeed the popularity of our leader of Eamon Gilmore.

Let me give you an example. Five years ago I got twenty percent of the first preference vote in this constituency. This year I got twenty-five percent of the first preference vote. Together with my running mate Henry Upton, Labour got nearly fifty percent of the vote in the constituency. It’s the increase that I would attribute to the current popularity of the Labour Party.

What do you make of the thirty-year electoral pact (as it is referred to by The Irish Times) in the Dublin mayoral elections between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour? Although it gives Labour the chance to have mayors like the recently elected Emer Costello, does it not undermine the poltical independence of the party in Dublin City Council?

I think local government is very different to national government. You rely even more on the support of other parties. It is unheard of in DCC that any party would have an overall majority.

Therefore you need the support of other parties. There are fifty-two seats, so you would need twenty-seven to have a majority. Labour have nineteen councillors on DCC so we must look around and see who we can do business with. In our case we did business with everybody.

Although we were the best represented party on DCC this year (ahead of Fianna Gael with 16 seats), there was an agreement to distribute positions on DCC across all the parties. For example on the six strategic policy committees, there are three Labour representatives, one Fianna Fáil, one Fine Gael and one Sinn Fein.

All parties represented on DCC are represented with at least one official position, except the five independents. Majority rule in politics is the reality of democracy.

We need stability in this current economic climate, and by working together, Labour, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Fein and the independents are giving this stability to DCC.

How important a role do you think local politics can play in the coming years?

Well I’m twenty-four years on DCC, and I have to say the discussions Labour held with the other parties were some of the most fascinating I’ve ever taken part in because they all wanted to discuss policy.

There are now six Strategic Policy Committees, each has a manager who sits monthly on the Corporate Policy Committee. This is effectively the ‘cabinet’ of DCC, and they shape policy.

For the first time now you’ll see DCC run around policy issues as opposed to gimmicky local issues.

DCC is trying to spread the word that Dublin will be the engine of growth in this country. You hear Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael sort of downplay Dublin’s importance and go on about rural areas, but I believe that Dublin can and will be the engine of growth for Ireland in the next few years.

We’ll be trying to market Dublin as an ‘open city’ in the next few years. This will include working with the Gay community and other groups to make our city as vibrant as possible. This in turn will increase tourism and commerce.

You were one of the pioneers in terms of Irish politicians keeping blogs. Do you see online social networking playing a larger role in future elections?

Well one only has to look at what’s happening now out in Iran. Social Networking and blogging are playing a bigger role. It’s well known that the media and journalists are looking at blogs and social networks to get information from the source.

I’m bringing the local issues to the people by putting up blogs and photos on my website. My website has a section for each area of my constituency, so people can see directly the local issues I’ve been working on in their area. People are always trying to catch up with what I’m doing, and the website lets them.

There is a generational conflict now between the more traditional older politicians, who are struggling to adapt and use new social networking and blogging tools, and the new younger generation of politicians, who are very web-savvy.

Many thanks to Councillor Eric Byrne for his time and patience.

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