Lunch with Oisin Quinn: No rest for the wigged as lawyer swaps court for Mansion House
The new Lord Mayor of Dublin is a practising barrister who intends to be a busy First Citizen
Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00
Newly elected Lord Mayor of Dublin Oisin Quinn has a problem. His family moved into the Mansion House in Dawson Street last week, but dogs are not allowed and his three children are distraught at the thought of living without their pet for the next 12 months. Even if he ignored the rather churlish rule, the Mansion House lacks either a garden or a yard.
The dog is not the only sacrifice the family will have to make. Mr Quinn is taking the whole business of serving as the capital's 334th mayor seriously enough to give up his lucrative practice as a barrister to concentrate on the largely ceremonial role.
He has no qualms. "The person who is Lord Mayor gets paid a fair wage and has the honour of living in the Mansion House," he reasons.
While he can almost certainly afford it, the decision means he will be spending considerably less time eating at Hanley at The Bar, where he is on first name terms with the waitresses and chats comfortably about their wedding plans and the like.
Hanley at The Bar is a curious place near the Jameson Distillery. Linked by an interior door to the Bar Council's ugly headquarters in Church Street and near the city's bustling fruit market, it is full of legal eagles in wigs and dark suits. Despite this, the food is far from grand, and the interior is modern and comfortable rather than the leather and mahogany favoured by so many of our legal friends.
The Lord Mayor and many of the other customers eat here two or three times a week. We both start with the onion soup which tastes very French, though it has less cheese than usual. The food is hearty – the sort of stuff you can eat regularly without getting too fat or it costing too much – which is just as well for Mr Quinn who is training hard for the Dublin triathlon this autumn.
He sticks to his favourite sandwich, turkey and cranberry, while I try Asian prawns, which are delicious. The abstemious politician skips dessert but recommends the carrot cake. I plump for a florentine, which takes a long time to come and is adequate.
The 44-year-old, who swims in a club every Monday morning and gives the impression of being in good shape, has big hopes for the triathlon and hopes to make it a massive event in future, bringing in thousands of visitors from abroad.
Unlike many other politicians, he is both inquisitive and unguarded. That is a trait he shares with his uncle, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, and his father, the multi-millionaire banker and entrepreneur, Lochlann.
While it is unusual for a Labour councillor to grow up in a family headed by one of the country's wealthiest men and half-owner of the Merrion Hotel, the Lord Mayor says the household was non-political and he and his five brothers and sisters were always encouraged to follow their hearts. Besides, he adds, his father only became really rich when his children had grown up. The family were interested in politics but not aligned.
"My parents were in the category of typical middle-class floating voters," he says. He remembers growing up listening to family discussions about Des O'Malley, Charlie Haughey and Garret FitzGerald.
"They were remarkably non-directional," he recalls with obvious gratitude. That means he can count a fashion designer, playwright and South American-based businessman among his siblings. "There was always a lot of debate around the dinner table, but it wasn't personal."
The dapper mayor chose law, especially employment law, though there is no tradition in the family. "I Ioved studying it in college, I loved the politics of it all," he says. "I see from doing that work that there is a lot of tension between employers and employees, and the courts show that there are problems that are not intractable, they can be solved."
Mr Quinn became involved in politics in the late 1990s after getting married and having children. "I suddenly started looking around and realising it was about more than just me," he says. "Children need parks, schools. When I went to Ruairi and said I was keen to get involved, I was asked to draft a bill because of my legal background."
After about a year of this, he asked for a change and a role that involved more involvement in real issues because drafting laws was too much like his day job. "If Ruairi hadn't been there, I'd say that drive would have been directed into the school, getting on to the board of management, for example, or getting involved in one of the kids' football teams or in cleaning up the Dodder."
He maintains it can be difficult to become a councillor, but it can also be easy. "For some it has happened very fast and very smoothly. For some of them, somebody resigned and they were co-opted and become a councillor overnight."
For Mr Quinn, however, the path was more arduous. He was forced to fight for a second council seat in Rathmines, where Labour has traditionally struggled.
While getting a council seat can be easy enough, the duties can be difficult for anybody working nine to five or those with children. That's why most councillors are either in late middle age or young, he says.
"It would be a bit of a concern," he says. "It would be very difficult to reasonably expect anybody in their 30s or 40s who has family commitments and a full-time job. I'm lucky being a barrister and I can control my time."
The same goes for the volunteers who help out. "It is sometimes hard to hang on to someone who has that perfect storm of kids and marriage and they have to put in the extra work for a promotion. I lose these people, which is a shame for politics."
Despite his affability and ability, Mr Quinn failed to make much of a mark when he stood for the Dáil in Dun Laoghaire in 2007, but it is clear the experience did nothing to put him off politics.
Like most lawyers, he is critical of Alan Shatter, and blames the Justice Minister for failing to reduce costs by creating a bill so complex that it never made it into the Dáil. "Some progress has been made on tackling costs and a lot more could be made," he believes.
He highlights the failure of the State to push down costs despite being the biggest spender on legal services: "They very rarely tender for work. They very rarely agree to a fixed cost before work begins."
While the role of Lord Mayor is, as stated, largely ceremonial, Mr Quinn may be the last to occupy the post in its present format.
He has been asked to come up with proposals for a directly-elected mayor. Those ideas will be put to Dubliners in a series of local referendums next May, and could ensure that the capital's next mayor is elected like London's Boris Johnson.
In the meantime, he is looking forward to more mundane issues that are the bread and butter of politicians everywhere.
The father of three wants to make Dublin a better place to bring young families. He wants his legacy to be a family-friendly city centre.
That means, among other things, small playgrounds all over.
"Once we bring the Luas around Stephen's Green and Dawson Street, the area there could be made green," he says. "At the moment it is just a large turning circle for taxis, which is not a very good use of space."
He also wants to improve public transport, but believes cars must be kept inside the city. "My view is not to exclude a car from the city centre. I believe that at a certain stage in people's lives they need to get in and out." He believes Dublin can learn from Bordeaux, which is linked to the suburbs by tram and bus but also has large underground car parks.
While this may all sound idealistic, Mr Quinn is clear that cities must also retain a certain grit and will always be places where the occasional addict stumbles around.
He is passionately Labour, but he wants the party to be a broader church. "I can see in Dublin City Council people in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and even Sinn Féin that I would love in our party, and some former Greens," he says.
While such views are probably obvious to many outside politics, it is rare to hear somebody on the inside state the obvious – that very little separates most of our politicians.