Hazel Chu: ‘The Green Party needs new leadership and a system overhaul’

Hazel Chu, the new Lord Mayor of Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Hazel Chu is the first person of colour to be elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. For the city, she wants to ‘make a difference’. For her party, she wants a new leader

The chain of office is gleaming gold. The dress is chic black. The footwear are giant padded red Reebok trainers, like mini snow-shoes. It’s not snowing outside the Mansion House – it’s pouring rain – but Dublin’s newest Lord Mayor, Hazel Chu, is already expressing her own personality.

“Do you mind if I keep these on for the photo?” she asks Alan Betson, the Irish Times photographer. “They are just so comfortable.” As soon as the pictures are taken, she vanishes temporarily to remove the gold chain; one of the two chains of office Lord Mayors wear.

Chu is the 352nd Lord Mayor of Dublin, but only the ninth woman to hold the role. She has the distinction of being the first woman of colour to be Lord Mayor: her parents are both Chinese.

Her mother, Stella Choi, who left Hong Kong for Dublin as a young adult, is also sitting in on the interview, by invitation. She married a fellow Chinese citizen and settled in Ireland decades ago.

How would you describe your mother in three words, I ask Hazel Chu.

“Brilliant. Strong. Stubborn.”

Choi’s words are for her daughter are: “Strong. Cheeky. Determined.”

It’s been a frenetic few months for Chu. Her wedding, due to take place this summer, has had to be been postponed, due to the pandemic. In February, her partner, Patrick Costello, was elected as a TD for the Green Party.

Chu, a councillor for Dublin City Council since May last year, was elected as chairperson of the Green Party in December. At the end of last month, she was elected Lord Mayor. At one point, I ask what she does for leisure, and she looks at me to check I’m not joking and then replies, “Right now, nothing!”

‘Go back to China’

Choi was 18 when she came to Ireland. “Did you receive racial abuse in Ireland?” I ask Choi.

“Oh, yes,” Choi says. “Quite a lot. People telling me to go back to China. And that was in the days before social media.”

“Did you want things to be different for your daughter?”

“Yes,” she says, looking grim. “What you want for your children is that things will be different for them; the next generation.”

As it turned out, things were not different for her daughter. Although Hazel Chu was born here in Ireland, she has periodically received racial abuse throughout her life. It become worse in recent months; when Chu publicly received a considerable amount of vile racial abuse on social media. Chu and Costello have a small daughter, Alex, together. How does she think Irish society will treat Alex, as she grows up?

Mansion House: Hazel Chu with her mother, Stella. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mansion House: Hazel Chu with her mother, Stella. Photograph: Alan Betson

“You want them to celebrate that they are different,” Chu says. “Her parents are Irish, but part of her heritage is Chinese. So people should not call out those differences, and tell people that they you don’t belong. You belong just as much as anyone else. That’s what Mum wanted for me, and that’s what I want for Alex.”

Chu speaks Cantonese, and had been speaking it sometimes with her daughter. “After the trolling last year, I stopped,” she says. “I thought, maybe if I don’t speak Cantonese to her, and she doesn’t learn it, she won’t feel as different; she will feel the same as everyone else.”

But she has started again now, encouraged by her partner, to share this part of their daughter’s culture and heritage with Alex.

“She knows more than 'carrot' in Cantonese now,” Chu jokes to her mother. “It was her main word for a while.”

Is it worth still being on social media, given the abuse that can come Chu’s way?

“Is it worth it?” She considers. “Some days yes, some days no. But I don’t think you can hide under a rock. I would love to say I would cut off all social media, and my life would be infinitely better, and I would get no more abuse, but I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think until people understand that difference is good, and being different is good, you’ll still get abuse no matter what.”

Law and PR: ‘I like arguing’

Prior to entering politics, Chu studied Politics and History at UCD. She then graduated as a barrister from Kings Inns, but never practised. What did she learn in her barrister training that has stayed with her since?

“That I like talking and arguing a lot,” she says. “The training for a barrister actually taught you how to negotiate. The one big thing I took away from the Inns is that it is important to listen as well. The best tutors I had in the Inns told me you need to shut up and listen, and a lot of barristers don’t do that.”

After Kings Inns, Chu then had a number of different jobs in the charity, entertainment, and corporate sector. They included roles in marketing and communications. What did she learn while doing those jobs that she has since found most useful in politics?

“I worked with charities and NGOs and in music, where I did a bit of everything,” she says. “With coms, it was in the corporate sector, so I learned very quickly how corporations worked internally.

You can’t be someone for everyone. You also have to prioritise. You have politicians who say yes to everything to try and make everyone happy. You can’t be that person to everyone

“It was fascinating, because I went from the music and charity sector to this very big corporate multinational and it’s very important to learn to be part of the team. Otherwise you don’t get anywhere. You learn very fast you have to be part of the team to survive.

“You take that learning away into daily life as well, and you realise you can’t survive that well on your own. I also learned that good management is about managing people’s expectations, which I hope helps in politics, because people expect different things of you in politics. The thing I learned from corporate life is that you need to manage those expectations.

“You can’t be someone for everyone; there is no making everyone happy. All you can do is what you think is best. And you also have to prioritise. You have politicians who say yes to everything to try and make everyone happy. You can’t be that person to everyone.”

A political career: ‘Why do you want this?’

Why did she want to enter politics?

“I actually held back a bit for a while,” she answers, explaining she had been considering it for a long time. “Patrick ran for council in 2014. When we were canvassing, I remember saying to him ‘why do you want to do this?’ because we were knocking on doors where we were getting the doors slammed in our face, and the Greens were not very popular then.”

Ultimately, it was the desire to “make a difference” that drew Chu towards public office.

Why did she want to join the Green Party?

“Yes, why politics, and why Green?” Choi laughs. “The Green Party was very small at that time and also in Ireland there were not many people in it. Why would she choose the Green Party?”

Was her mother surprised she joined the Green Party, or just surprised she wanted to enter politics?

“I was very surprised she entered politics at all.”

A good politician is one that will care and listen; one that is willing to be flexible but still holds on to their principles. I know that sounds almost contradictory

“Part of the reason I wanted to go into politics,” Chu says, “is because – for want of a different word – in Ireland, you don’t very often see people who are different in politics. When Eileen Flynn got into the Seanad recently, I was so happy, because you don’t see that many people from minorities, or people from different backgrounds in Irish politics.”

Chu adds that she hopes to be a role model for other women of colour and ethnicity; to encourage them too to enter politics.

As for why she chose the Green Party, she says: “Everyone always asks me, ‘was it for the environment’?” But it wasn’t. It was actually at the time what fitted for me. When I got into it, the Green Party were really championing social issues, like housing.”

What does she think makes a good politician?

“Politics is slow, and it’s a lot about compromise. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t do what you want to do. You have to build it up. People who go into politics just for power’s sake – good luck to them. A good politician is one that will care and listen; one that is willing to be flexible but still holds on to their principles. I know that sounds almost contradictory. Not in such a way that they are hardline about something and will never move or be flexible.”

The Greens: ‘We need an overhaul’

The Green Party is currently in the midst of a leadership contest, with Eamon Ryan being the incumbent leader. He is being challenged by deputy leader, Catherine Martin. Ballots must be returned by July 23rd, and the announcement will be made the following day.

Would she like to see a change of leadership?

“I was actually one of those who advocated for a change,” she says. “Do I think there is need for new leadership? Yes, I think there is. We are going into a new era where we do need changes in leadership. If our members want to choose the same leader again, well then absolutely – because he is a good leader – but things will have to change even if he stays.”

There is a pause, and then she continues: “To choose another leader; that would be a good step.”

What does she think the Green Party need to do to be more successful?

When I say social justice, I mean housing. I mean health. People being able to afford to pay for a roof over their heads and put food on the table, and not being penalised because they are the most vulnerable section of society

“We need a system change because we have grown so much. We now have 49 councillors, 12 TDs, four senators and 3,000 members, so we are effectively a big party.

“This is the corporate bit in me; thinking that we need a system overhaul. What is our strategic plan? What are we building for the party and for the people? I’m not saying the party is lost, but I am saying the party needs direction.”

I ask Chu to describe what she considers the two key messages for the public as to what the Green Party stands for.

“Climate action. That’s a massive message. But the other thing is, we can’t have it at any price. So absolutely, we need action, but you need to make sure you have the social justice aspect as well. When I say social justice, I mean housing. I mean health. People being able to afford to pay for a roof over their heads and put food on the table, and that they are not being penalised because they are the most vulnerable section of society.”

Lord Mayor: ‘I want a liveable city’

Chu is so newly elected that she and her family have not yet moved into the Lord Mayor’s apartment on the first floor. Apparently, there is a transition period going on, and some repainting. What is the apartment like, I ask?

“Would you like to see it?” she says, and briskly leads the three of us up the stairs. There are painters at work, and sofas under protective covers, and new pillows on bags in the hallway. There are actually two apartments on the first floor; one is for the Lord Mayor, and the other is for visiting dignitaries. “The Mayor of Kerry stayed here last year when Kerry was playing Dublin in the All Ireland,” she says.

For the record, the Lord Mayor’s private kitchen/dining room is surprisingly modest in size, very very small indeed, in case you were wondering. Probably smaller than your own kitchen/dining room. I can report it’s definitely smaller than mine.

Mansion House: Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
Mansion House: Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

All the other rooms are the size of hotel foyers, and have grand views of Dawson Street. The corner living room has four beautiful windows; toddler Alex’s bedroom boasts a chandelier.

It’s Choi’s first day to see the apartment, and it’s hard to know which of the three of us is more chuffed to be wandering around this lovely space, which has long been the home of Dublin’s First Citizen.

How does she define the role of Lord Mayor?

“My job is to represent the people of Dublin,” she says. “It’s not my house; it is the people’s house. [She has already publicly stated her wedding will not be held there.] It is the same as the role. The role is to represent all the people in Dublin; to shine light to areas that people tend to forget, and shine light on the good work that people do.”

The future: ‘I am not very patient’

What are her political ambitions for the future?

“Do the year here. It is a massive honour to be Lord Mayor. I am the ninth woman and the first woman of colour in this role, so there will be a lot of people watching me.

“A lot of people will be championing me and supporting me, and a lot of people will be rooting for me to fail as well. So I would like to make sure I do the people of Dublin proud. Do the role well. Make sure I make some kind of difference during the year.”

Choi has been listening for a while, and now she says, “To try to help the people; that’s a very important thing.”

“I want to do things while Mayor in terms of housing and homelessness, anti-racism, and trying to make Dublin a more liveable city,” Chu says. “Those are the things I want to do. And those are the things I want to do this year only.

“When I’m finished this year, then I will be back to my council position, so I will still be helping the people I represent, and later on. I do hope to run for general election. I know you need to be at the table writing the policies to enact the change. That’s why I asked the party to nominate me for the Seanad, and I didn’t get that, but I hope to run for general election in the future.”

The whole country is slowly emerging from a challenging period of lockdown. What did she find out about herself in lockdown?

“That I am not very patient,” she says. “Mum used the word ‘strong’ earlier as a word to describe me, but I found out over lockdown that maybe I was not as strong as I thought. Even though I knew I was lucky compared to lots of people, some days, I just wanted to be in bed with a duvet. over my head and cry a lot. I think a lot of other people felt like that sometimes too.”