WHEN Billy Kelleher walked out of City Hall in 2016 with almost a quota and a half to himself and no running mate to share it with, Fianna Fáil had some obvious regrets.
For the second time in a row, the party was playing it safe to ensure one seat, but this time it played it too safe.
Councillor Tony Fitzgerald was hitting the doors for Mr Kelleher at that election, and he said that the party’s reception made people realise that a second seat might be in play.
However, nominations had closed by that point, but he quickly set his sights on the next election.
“2016 gave me a very clear focus. It really focused me as a potential candidate for Dáil Éireann, and the reception I got gave me confidence to make it known to the party that I was interested,” he said.
After getting the Lord Mayor’s chain for a year soon afterwards, Mr Fitzgerald emerged as the most prominent candidate to join Mr Kelleher on the ticket, with the party needing a strict voting pact to walk a narrow path to a seat.
However, those plans changed dramatically over the last nine months.
Mr Kelleher left for the European Parliament and was replaced in a by-election by county councillor Padraig O’Sullivan. And when Mr Fitzgerald and Sandra Murphy were added to the general election ticket, it pushed Fianna Fáil city councillor Kenneth O’Flynn to go rogue and run as an independent.
While that narrow path to Dáil Eireann has become crowded, Mr Fitzgerald says that he is only focused on his own campaign, rather than getting caught up in fights inside or outside his party.
“There are 17 people on the ballot paper in Cork North-Central. I’m very much focused on my own track record. My ability to speak on behalf of the people of Cork North-Central,” he said.
When questioned on the reception of Fianna Fáil on the doorstep, Mr Fitzgerald said that the Cowen years and the financial crash are not coming up, at least for him, and reverts to his party’s talking point on the matter: the longevity of Fine Gael’s tenure.
“The downturn in the economy was global. Across the United States and Europe, the economy was taking a turn.
“The Government has been in for nine years. It has to stand on its delivery to the people.
“People want change and they know my record.
“The message I’m getting from people is that there hasn’t been a strong voice in Dáil Éireann in recent times from the northside.
“A lot of people are all talk and no action. A lot of people are turning up for protests but not providing any solutions.
“I believe that what I have done at a community level, at a council level, my role as Lord Mayor, gives me the confidence and that platform to be that voice for the people,” he said.
Given his record in recent elections, it’s easy to believe that many voters don’t associate Fianna Fáil’s sins in government with Mr Fitzgerald.
Since his first local election in 2004, he has increased his vote share at every subsequent election, even the Fianna Fáil washout of 2009.
Now, his campaign seems to be buoyed up by Micheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil.
The potential for a Cork Taoiseach appeals to northside voters, he said, even if Mr Martin is a southsider.
“Micheál has a very strong connection to the northside. His father was a bus driver on the 203 route in the Farranree area. The stories of him in the boxing arena and as a bus inspector really connects with people. He came from Farranree himself,” he said.
When posed with any policy issue, Mr Fitzgerald’s instinct is to look at community solutions rather than change delivered from the top.
Crime has emerged as one of the biggest issues of this election, and while Mr Fitzgerald said there needs to be some changes to sentencing laws and deterrents for criminal activity, he believes the real solution lies in community policing, something he had a hand in developing as a community activist long before he ever ran for election.
“In 1994, I discussed with the then-Minister for Justice, Máire Geoghahan Quinn, to invest in crime prevention.
“At the time, the Department of Finance told me and my colleagues that the Department of Justice only invested in courts and prisons and guards.
“So we broke that policy, and I was a key advocate for ensuring the Department of Justice invested in crime prevention.
“We were successful in developing the first Garda youth diversion project in Cork, and another in Limerick and another in Dublin.
“Now there are more than 150 Garda youth diversion projects,” he said.
“If you look at things like the Garda community bus, the restorative justice programme, the juvenile liaison scheme, all of those have been key in preventing crime. While it’s very hard to measure, they have been successful.
“Garda community relations have been diluted completely across Cork city.
“In Gurranabraher, we had four community Gardaí and now we’re down to two, and we’re waiting on one appointment.
“In recent weeks, the sergeant in charge of community policing has had to spread his work out to Mayfield and Gurranabraher because of a retirement in Anglesea Street.
“Groups like neighbourhood watch and the community forum, they do an awful lot of work in partnership with the Gardaí at local level and the reduction in these posts gives cause for worry to a lot of these people,” he said.
Mr Fitzgerald believes that a lot of the cause of crime comes from drug and alcohol abuse, and believes that community models that treat it as both a social and a medical issue are key to solving that problem.
Community healthcare has been one of his biggest concerns as a city councillor, both in advocating for major projects like the St Mary’s Primary Care centre and in driving Cork’s involvement in the Healthy Cities initiative, where he now serves an international role in coordinating different cities across Europe.
One of the fundamental solutions to the northside’s problems will require significant government investment, however, and that’s infrastructure.
He said that there is an opportunity with the recent boundary extension – which he is quick to point out was negotiated and finalised during his term as Lord Mayor – to create new urban centres on the northside, build more housing, and attract investment if infrastructure like the Northern Ring Road can be delivered.
“The area is really ready for investment in an urban quarter that would deliver jobs locally, but would also attract local people to stay and live in the area.
“We have traffic congestion on North Mall, which is the gateway to the city from the Sunday’s Well area. We have heavy goods vehicles coming down Blarney Street. They are going through estates in Parklands, in Onslow Gardens.
“But the northside is a clear landbank to attract further business.
“It’s an ideal opportunity for retail trade. For businesses to set up. To have people living and working locally.
“It will give people good homes, disposable income in their pockets, a good job, which will then address other issues like health.”