Q&A: Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu

Green World talks to Hazel Chu about her first few months as the 352nd Lord Mayor of Dublin, only the 9th woman and first person of colour to do so, what difference the Greens can make in government in Ireland and diversity in Irish politics.

Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu
Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu

Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Green World

What have your first few weeks as Lord Mayor been like?

It’s been a surreal few weeks. I was elected on 29 June and the first month was trying to get up and running with everything. Normally, the problem with a one year term is you spend a large amount of the time trying to learn how things work. So the first month was a bit of a whirlwind. The role would normally be a lot of ceremonial stuff and events, but all that has been cut back because of the pandemic. But the upside of that is I have been able to focus on the stuff I really like which is policy. So within the first six weeks I set up a homelessness task force, and we have connected with the Department of Housing and the Minister has said he will take the findings of the taskforce and implement its recommendations, so that’s an immediate win.

We will be carrying out a mini Citizens’ Assembly online to do with climate action within the city and address how we can extend community energy and reduce carbon emissions in Dublin.

I met with the Archbishop of Dublin, I spoke to Pocket Forests about what we can do with tree planting around the city and I will be implementing a more regular a Lords Mayor’s awards from September, and once a month we’ll go through various categories of frontline workers that have been instrumental in the Covid-19 crisis and we’ll provide them with awards and recognition.

I’m also setting up a group to do with diversity and fighting racism to discuss what kind of events we can do but also what kind of conversations we can have. It would have been great to do these in person but it’s online now, and we’ll have to make do and see what we can do better,

Finally, I’ve chaired three council meetings quite successfully – no one has killed each other! – so that was good as well. And that’s been my first six or seven weeks.

That sounds as much as some people get done in a whole year!

Normally a lot of this stuff doesn’t get done until later on in the year or there wouldn't be time to do it as you’re out and about all the time. Thankfully, I have that time and that ability to pester people until they agree, as my other half says!

I’m also focusing on culture and tourism at the moment as Covid-19 has had a serious impact on our cultural sector and we need to think long and hard about what the near future for that sector looks like for Dublin. I was one of the people that said we needed to protect and support the night time economy. 

Why politics and why the Greens? 

Well, you don’t have much choice when you’re engaged to a Green [Patrick Costello TD]! That was a huge part of it, mainly because he has been in the party since 2009, and he joined right at the end of the last period in government. He joined and then the government collapsed in 2011 and the Green Party was massively down in numbers then. 

What he had been doing was volunteering a lot and in 2014 with no resources, no funds, he decided he would run for election. He was a child protection social worker and he worked with the homeless and on addiction, and he looked at policies and where we could do better and one way we can do that is participating and steering and shaping the policy side of things. Because the party had been decimated at the time there was no support or help so he turned to me and said ‘Hey, would you like to run my campaign?’. I went ‘Sure, why not!’.

So we started with very little hope or money, because most voters were saying ‘you were in the last government, you are the reason why I am now living hand to mouth’. There was a lot of anger still. There was a lot the Greens could have done better, and each door we canvassed made me think we wouldn't get in, but he topped the poll! This was unprecedented at the time for the Greens. 

So in 2014, we saw a few Green shoots, returning 18 councillors. At that stage I still wasn’t part of the party. It was only in 2016, that I thought, I'm pretty good at managing campaigns, why don’t I help where I can, and I was Head of Communications for a multinational at the time, so I thought I’ll join and run for Executive! I got in and was National Coordinator, which helped run the party on management level, and from there I got elected to Chair of the overall party and then I thought we have local elections coming up, so I threw my hat into the ring. Patrick was also running, so I was managing two elections in our household!

But it was all due to running these campaigns that made me realise that the Greens are the ones that most closely represent my views. As much as circumstances dictated, but also on the basis that the Greens were big on social justice and climate action. Now where we go from here is important. To be in government with parties that have opposing policies to your own you need to decide how you will retain the social justice element, as well as to decide on what you are going to do when the shit hits the fan. We need to make sure that we continue to champion our core principles, based on climate and social justice.

The Green Party has recently entered into coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. What kind of difference can Greens make in government?

A big measure of the Greens in power will be progress on climate action. The previous government in fairness tried very hard to bring in a climate action plan, and they did, but the goals fell very much short. So the Greens will be very keen to see a Climate Bill brought forward in the first 100 days of the government. With the recent judgement from the courts forcing the government to strengthen the plan it’s a real opportunity to challenge the status quo over climate change.

Climate change is not in any way a new conversation, and even if the marches and school strikes continue, climate change will continue unless we do something about it. That’s as a whole what we are hoping to do for the country, to implement radical Green changes. However, they need to be done in a way that respects a just transition – you can’t have radical Green changes that have the most vulnerable paying for it. That’s not the Green Party ethos. The Green Party has a very good platform to challenge the status quo, to act on the programme for government and ensure it’s acted on. 

What can the Greens achieve in Dublin?

At the city level, Dublin is the biggest local authority in Ireland. There’s a lot we can do having 10 Green councillors. We can straight away push through active travel, healthy living, liveable city targets, and these have all been looked at and partly achieved. There have been so many things that we looked at around the city that we have been able to achieve. On the emissions side of things, with Covid-19 that has helped to lower emissions and bring cleaner air. In terms of housing, we have been able to deliver, in terms of new developments we have supported. It hasn’t been ideal, but it has helped deliver housing we said we would. We have pushed for retrofitting, making sure that there's a sustainable element as well and have a clear goal to eradicate fuel poverty. 

I think from having 10 Green councillors, we’re able to steer things more towards supporting climate action, and in a way that allows our policies to support all residents of Dublin. Not all parties do that.

You are the first women of colour to be named Lord Mayor of Dublin. Was shaking up diversity in Irish politics ever a motivation for you when you entered politics and what more do Irish political parties need to do to represent diversity?

I am very proud of the fact I'm different, have Chinese heritage, have a different colour skin. But I shouldn't be asked that, I'm the first in the role, and I hope I won't be the last in the role. I’m very proud of it and the gravity doesn't escape me. When I walk through the council building all the paintings are of Lord Mayors who are male. I’m the 9th woman out of 352. That makes me think this is an incredible privilege but it’s also an incredible shame that we have not progressed that far at all.

Even in the Green Party, I'm proud of my party but there's so much more we can do when it comes to diversity. It’s across all parties and not just Green parties. Look at recent elections, not many people from diverse backgrounds ran. I was talking to the immigration council about this and the percentage of diverse candidates hasn’t actually risen in the last two elections. That comes down to a recruitment level and understanding where your party is when it comes to trying to get more diverse members. We are also open about the need for diversity but if your party doesn’t reflect that, if people look at your party and see there are only 10 members from diverse backgrounds, that’s a massive issue!

It’s an issue that we as a Green Party and every other party needs to grasp quickly. Politics is becoming more polarised between left and right, and while this is becoming more and more extreme in the UK and US, Ireland is not immune to it. The only way that Ireland and the generations growing up in the next two decades are going to understand that difference is good and to be celebrated is when they see people that are different in every role. When they see people who happen to be different at the table shaping policy. I’m immensely proud of Eileen Flynn, the first traveller, appointed to the Seanad Éireann. I was extremely proud when Declan Meenagh, who is a disability activist who happens to be blind, was elected to Dublin Council as well. We need to make sure society is reflected through politics. And even in our own party it is not doing that enough.

Hazel Chu is the 352nd Lord Mayor of Dublin and Chairperson of the Irish Green Party. You can find her on Twitter at @hazechu