Irish Times - Saturday, January 19, 2008
Profile John Fitzgerald
: Cleaning up the heart of Dublin made his reputation, but saving
the heart of Limerick might prove to be more difficult, writes
Carl O'Brien, Social Affairs Correspondent.
As he made his way
past the skeletal remains of burnt-out homes and the carcasses
of dead cars, John Fitzgerald professed to feeling a growing
sense of shock. As city manager of Dublin for the past decade,
he had seen some of the worst urban neglect: grim monuments
such as Fatima Mansions, St Teresa's Gardens and O'Devaney Gardens.
But this no-man's-land, just a short distance from Limerick
city centre, was
"I knew the
problems were serious, but it was probably worse than anything
I had seen," he says. "People were living a short
distance from the city centre, but it was extraordinary how
fearful and threatened they felt. It's tortured a lot of people.
Most had paid their taxes, done their duty to society and had
retired to a place
that was in deep trouble."
On Monday, a master
plan to transform the sprawling local authority housing estates
of Moyross, Southill and other parts of the city will be officially
unveiled. Fitzgerald, who was appointed by the Government to
oversee the regeneration of these areas, has played a central
role in progressing the plans to this point.
It's an ambitious
blueprint. It involves demolishing up to 2,500 houses, creating
two new town centres, co-ordinating responses to social and
education problems and, ultimately, breaking the cycle of disadvantage
which has gripped these neighbourhoods.
agencies involving officials from government departments, local
authorities and state agencies will be responsible for implementing
the plan. Construction is due to begin next year and the first
major phase of the project could be completed within three years.
In the notoriously
bureaucratic world of public planning and development - where
building a ring road around the capital takes almost 20 years
to complete - the plans have been put together at lightning
speed. But few who know Fitzgerald are surprised at this frenetic
"When I saw
that he was appointed to the Limerick regeneration, I thought
one thing: If he has to man a bulldozer himself, Fitzy will
get this through," says one councillor, who has observed
him in action over the past decade in Dublin.
and gets things done, but the key is he works well with people,"
says another. "He's a problem solver: if something isn't
working, it's fixed immediately. He's got a ferocious work ethic."
Few in Dublin may
realise it, but this unelected 61-year-old official from a farm
near the foothills of the Galtee Mountains is largely responsible
for the modern face of the capital. While Dublin city manager,
he helped breathe new life into a metropolis which sparkles
with rejuvenated neighbourhoods, landmark buildings and a main
street which finally befits a European capital city. Grim inner-city
housing estates such as Fatima Mansions are being transformed,
while monuments such as the Spire in O'Connell Street are testament
to a city with a newfound confidence and swagger.
It may be hard to
imagine now, but a decade ago the city still bore the scars
of decades of dereliction and poor planning. The population
of the inner city was in freefall as people decamped to the
suburbs, while local authority ghettos slid slowly into oblivion.
Some warned that
it was only a matter of time before it morphed into a US-style
"doughnut" city, with an empty city centre surrounded
by densely populated neighborhoods The lack of confidence in
the dysfunctional "corpo" was such that even government
funds for regeneration projects such as Temple Bar or the Docklands
were being directed away from the local authority and into newly
established State agencies.
to get things done had less to do with a table-thumping management
style and more to do with team-building. By surrounding himself
with problem-solvers and establishing more coherent management
structures, many in development circles say, Fitzgerald helped
to restore a coherent sense of purpose to Dublin City Council.
a very effective and unified management team with a can-do approach
that including senior professionals and administrative staff.
Everyone knew the game plan," says one senior local authority
"He was ambitious
for the city," says another. "He looked at other European
capitals and examples of good planning and said, 'We should
be competing with them.' That ambition wasn't there before."
NOT EVERYONE IS ready
to heap praise on him, though. Some local campaigners grumble
that the drive to create socially-mixed neighbourhoods in working
class areas has left a legacy of gated apartment complexes,
isolated from the local community. Others complain that developers
were allowed to throw up substandard apartment complexes for
far too long, some of which are already beginning to show signs
Fitzgerald was also
extremely fortunate. By heading up the local authority during
the heady years of the decade-long economic boom, resources
that were previously undreamt of were at his disposal.
Suddenly, what once
seemed impossible was possible. However, almost everyone agrees,
even his few critics, that life in the city has vasty improved.
For someone so powerful,
Fitzgerald is remarkably anonymous. As city manager, he presided
over a local authority with a budget of €2 billion and
a workforce of 6,000 people. Yet there is little gravitas surrounding
the man. At functions he tends to fade into the background and
purposely shuns the spotlight.
He stands in sharp
contrast to his gregarious predecessor, Frank Feely - city manager
for 17 years - whose appetite for public functions was legendary.
(When US president Bill Clinton came to visit Dublin in the
early 1990s, Feely took the stage in the full splendour of specially
commissioned ceremonial robes, while the lord mayor was forced
to wait behind a crowd-control barrier.)
In person, Fitzgerald
seems quiet and unassuming, although those who know him well
say he is good-humored and has a tremendous facility for putting
people at ease.
"He's a good
listener," says one council official. "He's not full
of bluster. When he speaks, it's precise and to the point."
There is also a steeliness
to him, however. Staff who didn't perform in the council were
quickly sidelined. And when a decision was made, he stuck to
it resolutely, often in the face of public anger. "We fought
him on the high-rise issue and thought we'd stop it," says
one local campaigner. "But he never mellowed on it. Generally,
when he said something would happen, it happened."
FITZGERALD GREW UP
in a small farm outside the village of Galbally, Co Limerick.
His father died when he was just five years of age, leaving
his mother with five children ranging in age from one to eight.
Despite the occasional
hardship, he says it was as close to an ideal childhood as you
could have. While most young men went on to work in their early
to mid-teens, Fitzgerald went to the CBS in Tipperary town to
finish his Leaving Cert. From there, he got a job in the Revenue
Commissioners, working by night to complete an accountancy course
the College of Commerce in Rathmines.
he worked in the builders' providers Chadwicks as an accountant,
before moving to Cork Corporation, where he had his first taste
of local government. The city manager, Joe McHugh, had a major
influence on Fitzgerald, who initiated a mould-breaking development
plan for the city, which helped Cork avoid most of the planning
mistakes made in Dublin.
From there he moved
to Dublin Corporation as the city treasurer, where he was nicknamed
"Johnny Cash", in order to distinguish him from his
namesake in the waste section, who was known as "Johnny
He quickly rose to
assistant city manager and eventually became manager of South
Dublin County Council in the mid-1990s, before moving on to
Dublin city manager.
A number of planning
decisions made in the mid-1990s are being examined by the Mahon
Tribunal. The tribunal heard a claim last year that he promised
developer Owen O'Callaghan that a cap on the size of Quarryvale
shopping centre would be lifted when he became manager of South
Dublin County Council. Fitzgerald told the tribunal this week
that he rejected the claims and was "annoyed and concerned"
when the suggestion was made at the tribunal last year.
These days Fitzgerald,
a widower with four grown-up daughters, divides his time between
Limerick and Dublin, where he is also chairing a regeneration
agency which will develop the Grangegorman site close to the
Looking back on his
days as city manager, he says he is most proud of the achievements
that rarely made the headlines: improving the delivery of services
to people who needed them; establishing local branches of the
council around the city; improving conditions in deprived areas.
Over the past year
and a half, during consultations with the communities of Moyross
and Southill, he has mentioned these acheivements as something
that can be replicated in Limerick.
"I told them
that whatever problems I've seen in their community, I've seen
them before. And we've been able to resolve them. The easy thing
is putting in the housing, making policing more visible. The
big test will be the social re-integration: getting services
in place and getting everyone to work together. It will happen
- it's just a matter of doing it right."
Who is he?
Former Dublin city manager responsible for re-building and regenerating
the city between 1996 and 2006.
Why is he in the
He is behind the blueprint for the regeneration of deprived
areas of Limerick city.
Most appealing characteristics:
Good-humoured, unassuming and modest.
Least appealing characteristics:
Dogged and unflinching
Most likely to say:
"With the right social mix, proper infrastrucutre and good
quality services, we can make Moyross one of the most desirable
places to live in the city."
Least likely to say:
"I give up - Moyross is doomed. Let's just pack it in and
call it a day."