How Dublin City Council’s new anti-migrant councillors will complicate the business of local government

The election of three figures calling for tighter immigration controls will complicate traditional voting structures within the chamber

Gavin Pepper (centre), who has been elected to Dublin City Council, in the count centre with supporters. Photograph: Enda O'Dowd

Next Friday, Dublin City Council will meet for the first time since the local elections to appoint a new lord mayor. All 63 councillors elected in the June 7th local elections will have an opportunity to vote for their favourite candidate, and each one can put themselves forward for the position.

In reality, however, the job will have been decided before anyone sets foot in City Hall.

A “mayors and chairs” deal is drawn up every five years by the most successful political groupings on the council, divvying up the annual job of mayor along with chairperson roles for the most popular committees such as housing and transport.

Last time around, following the 2019 local elections, Fianna Fáil and the Greens came together to form a voting pact with Labour and the Social Democrats then bringing the group up to the magic number of 32 councillors, a majority on the council.


This time, Fine Gael is on top with 11 councillors, followed by the Social Democrats at 10, Sinn Féin with nine, and Fianna Fáil and the Greens both with eight. Labour is next on four, People Before Profit-Solidarity (PBPS) two, and there’s one councillor each for Independent Ireland on the right, and Right to Change on the left.

There are also nine Independent councillors.

Councillors are not mini-TDs and there is no obligation on them to form a government. However, the business of the council is hard to manage if there isn’t some sort of agreement or voting pact.

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Traditionally, the largest party, in this case Fine Gael, does the wooing, but with just one or two seats between some parties, that won’t necessarily be in the final mix.

By late Thursday, all parties said they were “talking to everyone” in advance of the mayoral vote on June 21st.

As long as people behave and act respectfully, that’s to citizens and to fellow councillors, people’s views have a right to be heard

—  Dermot Lacey, Labour

Everyone, that is, except for three newly elected councillors: Independents Gavin Pepper and Malachy Steenson, who have been prominent figures at protests objecting to the housing of migrants in accommodation centres, and Independent Ireland councillor Philip Sutcliffe.

Their arrival could result in a cordon sanitaire and a refusal of one or more parties to co-operate with them.

Right to Change councillor Pat Dunne is very firmly of the left, but won his seat in Kimmage-Rathmines when Sutcliffe was eliminated. Sutcliffe, whose party favours greater immigration controls, ran in two areas, winning a seat in Ballyfermot-Drimnagh.

Despite their conflicting political views, Dunne secured two-thirds of Sutcliffe’s transfers. This, however, hasn’t fostered much in the way of warm feelings.

“My own personal view is that there are three councillors [who] I won’t have any dealings with whatsoever in terms of any arrangement,” he said.

Dunne voted with the Independent group on the last council, but says Pepper, Steenson and Sutcliffe would not be welcome in that grouping from his point of view.

“They can form their own grouping if they want,” he said.

It’s a view held by several Independent councillors, including Mannix Flynn.

“One thing is for sure, no one wants to sit with the three amigos; they will find themselves very isolated and if they are not careful, they will find themselves in breach of procedures,” Flynn says.

“The council is a very different arena to the side kerb.”

Dunne puts the strength of the transfer from Sutcliffe down to a “community vote”.

“As head coach of Crumlin Boxing Club, he got a community vote as well as an ideological vote. It’s the community vote that came back to me, and actually his literature didn’t say too much about what his ideology is,” said Dunne.

Sutcliffe, whose campaign was supported by the mixed martial arts fighter Conor McGregor, says he only decided to run “about seven weeks ago”.

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“I’m a novice boxer in this arena,” he says. “I’m against any illegals coming into the country no matter what colour they are or what race they are.”

He adds: “I have no problem with any person here legally. I have no problem with blacks; I deal with them every day of the week.”

Labour councillor Dermot Lacey is reserving judgment on the new councillors.

“The first thing I would say is, all 63 councillors have a mandate. The second thing I would say is, all 63 councillors have an obligation to behave. As long as people behave and act respectfully, that’s to citizens and to fellow councillors, people’s views have a right to be heard,” he said.

I think the best way to approach it is to make sure I ignore anything that is discriminatory. Anything that falls foul of ethics is not something I would be entertaining

—  Hazel Chu, Green Party

“But if people go beyond reasonable behaviour, other councillors have a right to distance themselves from unreasonable behaviour. There are codes of ethics and standards laid down in law in terms of reasonable behaviour, and there is a difference between robust exchange and abusive exchange.”

Local government is “massively more pragmatic than national politics”, Lacey says.

While Steenson, Pepper and Sutcliffe may find themselves outside the fold of any grouping on the council, they will still be members of area committees and will each be required to sit on at least one policy committee, determining the council’s strategy on issues such as housing, transport and environment, he says.

Hazel Chu, a Green Party councillor who has been followed and filmed by Pepper, says she does have concerns as to how committees will function.

“The council does involve a lot of working together, even if you don’t agree with people’s particular policies,” she said.

“I think the best way to approach it is to make sure I ignore anything that is discriminatory. Anything that falls foul of ethics is not something I would be entertaining. I’ll work with management and colleagues who want to work with me.”

Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan is clear about his party’s stance: it will not work with councillors who “have been associated with protests outside emergency provision centres”.

He is hoping to form a “progressive positive alliance” centred on issues such as housing, transport and environment.

“We have worked quite well with some parties over the last five years, individually and collectively,” he said.

“Even when there was an alliance [not involving Sinn Féin], we worked really well with the Greens and the Social Democrats, and I would hope that relationship has deepened and become the basis for a more formal relationship.”

The Social Democrats, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said they were continuing talks with other parties and individuals, though not Pepper, Steenson and Sutcliffe, on possible alliances.

Pepper said he would “not be making any statements” at the current time. Attempts to contact Malachy Steenson were unsuccessful.