Tuesday 17 September 2019

'Mansion House can be open without opening too many kegs' - Dublin's Lord Mayor insists bar will close at 10pm

Dublin's new mayor has cut his boozing hours and is bringing a health kick to the Mansion House, writes Niamh Horan

Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe at the Mansion House. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Lord Mayor of Dublin Paul McAuliffe at the Mansion House. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Paul before his diet
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

When Paul McAuliffe was appointed Lord Mayor of Dublin, Guinness laid it on thick. He was barely in the door when he and his grandfather, a Guinness pensioner, received an invitation to the home of the black stuff where Paul's grandfather was treated like royalty. In fairness you've got to hand it to Guinness - no one conducts public relations with such ingenuity.

But far from heralding a continuation of boozy nights led by his predecessor Nial Ring - who blew his entire year's entertainment budget in seven months on 17,000 free pints and €19,000 worth of wine - McAuliffe has vowed to clamp down on all-night sessions.

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"My view is you can have the house open without opening too many kegs," he says, promising to shut the bar after social nights by 10pm.

In fact the Finglas man is bringing a healthier feel to the Mayor's office, thanks to his personal fight against excess.

His own battle with food started while he was working as a teenager in McDonald's and continued for a decade until 2018 when he weighed 275lb (almost 20 stone) - tipping the scales as morbidly obese.

Ironically, his job at the time was to tackle rising obesity levels in the population, as chairman of Dublin's Healthy Ireland committee.

He laughs at his own denial as he sat in meetings with Ireland's leading obesity expert. "I was overweight and sitting listening to Professor Donal O'Shea and never connected it in my head. The addiction wouldn't let me listen."

Over tea and a plate of untouched biscuits, he admits to having been a sugar addict. On the sweet stuff's ability to numb feelings, he says: "I don't know what it's like to be addicted to heroin or crack cocaine or any of those things, but sugar is a powerful, powerful drug."

He recalls bars of chocolate gulped down mindlessly "just to have the hit and you didn't even enjoy it. It was gone. You didn't even process it as food.

"Why was I fat? Because I ate too much. The lifestyle of a politician means no food preparation, no adherence to regular meals. I remember one guy I was talking to before I lost weight telling me 'You should have all your food before 7pm in the evening.'

"I had 75pc of my food after that. I would be out of a meeting and I'd have chips when I'd come back. I never drank a lot but my diet was a disaster."

Does image matter in politics?

"Yes it does, he says: "Should it? No, it absolutely shouldn't - but it absolutely does."

Life as a politician battling weight gain inevitably led to a barrage of public abuse. "I have a thick skin, you have to in politics," he says, recalling insults on social media.

"I invade people's Facebook time-lines, there are so many events a day and there are pictures of you at all the events... but when I looked at those pictures I never thought I was overweight."

Others were keen to point it out: "I remember doing an event around scrambler bikes and there was a video of me in City Hall and you can't filter video," he laughs.

"There was a lot of people slagging me off calling me 'you fat so and so'. It does get under your skin. But why does it hurt?" he asks himself, "Does it hurt because you know it's true?"

He adds: "One older lady said to me 'My God, Paul, you used to be so attractive, you are so fat now.' And it was like she had hit me in the head. The brutal honesty of an older person."

It was while chairing the Healthy Ireland committee and promoting healthy eating in Dublin that reality hit home.

"I was sitting in a room with everyone talking about obesity and in my head it felt like they were all standing on their chairs shouting, 'You're so fat!'"

Paul says if you want a eureka moment, that was it.

Today he has lost 70lb (five stone) and wants to shed another one to two stone. His magic formula for weight loss was basic.

"I stopped eating sugar, I ate lots of fish, salads and vegetables - eggs are great too - and cut out potatoes and carbs. I just ate volumes of the right stuff."

In a country where 90pc of us will be overweight in a decade, he believes we need to stop tiptoeing around the issue: "Of course we need to be sensitive but we also have to say, 'It's not OK to be obese'."

He says: "We have become so careful about body image, we don't know how to have the conversation with people who are overweight...when I was getting close to the 70lb-loss mark, people said, 'Don't be losing too much'. I said, 'Why?' Technically I was in the obese category."

He says personal responsibility is not the cause but the solution to the problem.

"I visited an addiction programme in Finglas called Voyages and I was given this analogy by people in addiction. They said they had to take that first step to get on to the boat and start the voyage. It's shaky and you're wondering if you'll get across the water. But once you're on the boat it's plain sailing.

"The drug is telling you not to take the first step - and that's why I had so much admiration for those people. Because they took the first step.

"So of course it is personal responsibility but there are issues in our society which lead people to be addicted. And that's why we need to de-stigmatise people who are called that horrible word 'junkie'. People are not junkies they are people dealing with addiction and we have to help them overcome that."

Back in Finglas he has been pounding the pavements as he gears up for the next general election, where he is running to be a TD for Dail Eireann. He says he missed his calling in life as "a researcher on the Joe Duffy show" because meeting people on the ground means predicting what they would be talking about in three or four years.

If that's the case, then the latest talking point should give cause for concern.

"I heard racism for the first time in a very big way during this election," he says. "People were openly racist about foreigners coming in to the country.

"It's happening on the doorsteps, in coffee shops, [they would say], 'We don't have houses because there are too many foreigners here'."

Reflecting on what has unfolded in US and British politics, he says: "I am very worried about Irish society at the moment. We have become very segmented. Different groups of society blaming each other.

"You might have someone who comes in on social welfare who says, 'If it wasn't for those foreigners, I'd have a house' and then you might have someone who is privately renting but working and they say, 'Well I am working but those people are getting a house for free' and then you have people with mortgages who are saying, 'Well we did it so why can't you?'"

One of his main priorities is to meet and work with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy to deliver public housing.

"I would like to work with Eoghan. I would like to see a dedicated housing programme run by a dedicated housing body controlled by the city council and we would work with the minister to deliver housing."

From McDonald's to Dublin City Council to the Mayor's office and next to the Dail, Paul agrees that he is ambitious and says the best advice he received came from his father: "Keep carrying the boxes up the hill. Don't give up when you think you have succeeded. Keep going. There are times in the elections where you think 'I have done enough' - I have never done enough."

Asked why half of his official functions have been in his prospective Dail constituency and if this is part of his campaign to become a TD, he makes no apologies. "The last time there was a Lord Mayor from Finglas was 1984. It is about sharing the journey with the people who put you here."

Paul recently launched the initiative 'Finglas Believe' to counteract negative publicity and highlight locals who have succeeded in life. So what piece of advice would he pass on? "Don't let them define you," he says. "Tell your own story. But remember, to do that you have to work hard."

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