One last mayoral engagement

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

As they finish their year as lord mayor and lady mayoress of Dublin, Andrew Montague and Sinéad Ahern are busy getting ready to start a new life – as rock’n’roll-style newly-weds

THE FORMER LORD MAYOR of Dublin Andrew Montague and his former lady mayoress, Sinéad Ahern, removed themselves quietly from the Mansion House on Monday evening. Their personal possessions had already departed for their Ballymun home, including the crateloads of vintage cups that Ahern is assembling for their wedding, next Thursday.

Her trajectory in a few months from airy, relaxed bride in a Grease-style 1950s dress to what she frowningly calls Bridezilla is a source of lively entertainment to her friends. This is a 29-year-old woman of substance, pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology, who in her spare time engages in feminist and Labour party activism with exceptional vigour.

“People would ask me what theme I was thinking of for the wedding, and I would say” – she puts on a slow, lofty voice – “ ‘It is a wedding theme: it’s a wedding.’ I thought I was the least Bridezilla person ever born. The idea of sitting down and having 120 people for beef or salmon would have been appalling.

“Then I found myself wondering about renting little vintage teacups to turn into candles and ordering little pearlescent hearts and pink ribbons on the internet for the Mass booklets and invitations, and spraying glue on to pink candles so I could put lace on them . . . I don’t recognise myself. Yes, I’m afraid pink is my theme. And roses. I am appalled at myself.”

They chose Kilkenny Castle – owned by the OPW – for the ceremony and would have liked a humanist service where God can be name-checked at least (in deference to both sets of parents). But although a new law allows for such services in selected places, it wasn’t enacted in time for the Montague-Ahern nuptials.

So a civil ceremony it has to be (unless you want two weddings, which they don’t), with the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love playing them up the aisle, and talented friends chipping in with Eva Cassidy numbers, a smidgeon of Bridge Over Troubled Water and a belt of We Go Together from Grease. Then they might ride a tandem down to the River Court Hotel for trout or lamb. Not beef or salmon because beef or salmon, basically, was the theme of their mayoral year, she says with some finality.

The former mayor and Labour councillor, for his part, will not be kitted out in John Travolta style, alas, although his year in office revealed him as a bit of a rocker. Ask for the top three memories of his year and he lists 1) meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, 2) the Dubs winning the All-Ireland and the thrill of introducing the team to 40,000 feverish fans in Merrion Square, and 3) holding Phil Lynott’s guitar.

It was number 3, achieved a few weeks after his inauguration, that made him realise “how nice it was to be lord mayor”. One of his staff rang up to check if the Lynott exhibition was still on, and next thing he was being granted a private viewing, hosted by Philomena Lynott, Phil’s mother, and being handed these precious guitars to pluck at. “That certainly wouldn’t have happened as a county councillor,” he says with a wide grin.

He had a serious agenda coming into office, however, that included the establishment of a commission on antisocial behaviour, opening up an English Market-style market in the beautiful old Victorian market building at St Mary’s Abbey, and an expansion of the Dublinbikes scheme. He was key to the drive and inspiration behind the original bicyle-rental scheme and stuck with it through the cynicism and dismissiveness.

“People used to say, ‘Ah, no, that won’t work in Dublin,’ and I’d say, ‘But they work on the Continent,’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, but they’re honest over there.’ ” In fact, he says, at Amsterdam’s and Copenhagen’s first attempts, all the bikes were stolen within 24 hours.

In the end, Dublin was lucky because of the delay, he says. It meant that all the pitfalls were known by then. Remarkably, just two bikes have been stolen in Dublin – and one of them, says Ahern, was more of a misunderstanding than a theft. On one of his last days in office, he was delighted to announce an expansion of the scheme that will add 1,000 bikes to the existing 550.

He is equally happy with his drive for a commission on antisocial behaviour. “One of the great things about being the lord mayor is that when you invite someone along, they turn up.” So he was able to speak to senior people from all the disciplines involved – apart from judges, he says regretfully. “And they don’t even have an organisation with which you can interact.” In any event, the report was launched last week, “all evidence-based or with recommendations that more evidence be gathered.”

The market renovation is progressing, but slowly, because the old roof of the listed building is flaking down and needs careful handling.

Apart from his policy goals, which also included a major report on Ballymun Regeneration, he was undertaking a staggering 10-15 events a day as lord mayor, usually from 10am to late at night. “You’re lord mayor for only one year, so you just keep pushing yourself . . . We didn’t take any holidays, just four or five days at Christmas and a few days for my brother’s wedding last summer . . . But it’s been really enjoyable.”

They made good use of the house for informal dinners, inviting people they wanted to meet over on a Monday for a salad and risotto – shopped, paid for and cooked by themselves and costing no more than €60 for eight people. He developed a passion for the house itself and would tell his guests with some reverence that they were seated at the same table where the first Irish cabinet met. “So Michael Collins sat where we’re sitting now, and Cathal Brugha . . .”

Andrew Montague’s first calling, as a veterinarian, came to a halt when he realised early on that the few baffling cases he encountered and the late-night calls were wrecking his customary optimism.

When he went back to UCD to do a master’s degree, it was around the time the internet was opening up, and he was captivated by it, eventually setting up his own website-design company. Then he won a Labour seat on the city council. It is on the Dáil that his sights are now trained. “I would have liked to have run in 2011 in the general election.” He pauses. “There were people who said I was an unsuitable candidate, for geographical reasons. I would disagree with that.”

It appears he was considered too close for comfort to Róisín Shortall’s base, and John Lyons from Ballymun got the nod, although Montague would argue that he too lives in Ballymun, with a strong record to show for it.

For several years he has been living on a councillor’s salary: €16,000, plus about €5,000-€6,000 in expenses. And he gets another €5,000-€6,000 for chairing the transport committee. It’s not a lot of money for a 44-year-old but is indicative of his determination to make a go of politics. At least the lord mayor’s salary bumped his income to €66,000 for the year.

He has had a taste of what even the perception of power can bring and leaves the Mansion House regretfully. “A year is too short,” he says. “It’s a missed opportunity. It allows for no continuity in building up relations . . . Look at the elected mayors in London; there have been just two of them involved since they began the pitch for the Olympic Games. Here we would have had 12.”

And then there’s the bride-to-be, who announces in passing that she might like to have a go at politics herself sometime. “Then I see the amount of flak that Andrew gets . . . although I get a fair amount myself.”

Meanwhile, there are those vintage teacups to be filled with wax . . . and wicks.

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