AFTER 12 months, thousands of public engagements, visits to more than 100 schools and a series of international trips to represent Cork city, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald will tonight mark the end of his tenure as first citizen.
The Fianna Fáil councillor from Knocknaheeny was a popular choice 12 months ago when he succeeded Fine Gael councillor Des Cahill as part of the 2014 agreement to share the role between the parties in City Hall.
He will pass the chain on to Independent councillor Mick Finn before returning to his day-to-day duties of council representation and working with the youth of Knocknaheeny.
Often flanked by his wife, Lady Mayoress Georgina, and daughters Michelle and Deborah, the last 12 months have been a challenge for the outgoing Lord Mayor, but one he thoroughly enjoyed.
An average day would start before 9am and continue until after 10pm, sometimes running even later. It involved school visits, community engagements, photo ops, launches, and meetings, representing Cork City Council in discussions on the changing city-county boundary.
Often, it brought the Lord Mayor onto the international stage, travelling to Shanghai and San Francisco, Brussels and London, and involved significant engagement with the community and voluntary sectors.
Reflecting on a busy year, he said, “Coming from our backgrounds, Georgina and I have always had a connection with the Lord Mayor’s office, inviting Lords Mayor to various events in the community. To be on the other side of the invitation was a very special thing.
“Since I came into Council in 2004, and particularly when I was Deputy in 2011/12, I realised how special the role was and how important the connection was to the people of Cork.”
Mr Fitzgerald said that this became immediately clear when he took the chain of office 12 months ago and that it strengthened throughout the year. He pointed to the school visits — a tradition started almost a century ago by Terence Mac Swiney - as a key part of this, recalling visits from his own time as a school student.
“It starts that connection at a young age and keeps it going,” he said.
“I remember my school visits and I hope that these visits will be remembered in years to come.”
When taking office, Mr Fitzgerald mapped out a number of aims for his time in office. He wanted to increase the awareness of the importance of the national anthem, something he achieved by reaching out to schools, community groups and sports clubs, with each of the school visits marked by singing Amhrán na bhFiann.’
Early years intervention and a community focus were at the heart of his aims.
Mr Fitzgerald continued: “We have tried to build bridges locally, nationally and internationally, with school visits, work with community and voluntary groups, travels and meetings with national and, indeed, international groups.”
This included talks with Lords Mayor in Dublin and Belfast, as well as meetings and work in Cork’s twinned cities, including San Francisco and Shanghai, as well leading a delegation to Brussels to secure European funding.
The US trip saw a huge delegation of business, social and political representatives travel to the west coast just a few months ago in a meeting that the Lord Mayor described as ‘crucial.’
“The meetings are important for a number of elements, from trade and social inclusion to emphasising health, securing European funding and more,” he said.
“We were also lucky enough to visit Rome to meet Pope Francis as part of my social justice programme.”
Goodwill, support and positivity were in abundance throughout the year, Mr Fitzgerald added.
This was particularly clear when it came to the role of the Lady Mayoress, Georgina. Georgina, a clerical officer at the Mercy Hospital, did not come from a public role but embraced the new position with enthusiasm.
She said: “You won’t get another opportunity to do it so we wanted to do it well. We gave it 110%. We stayed true to who we are ourselves. The hospitality we got from people throughout the year was amazing.”
The Lady Mayoress’ coffee morning, a fundraiser for Marymount Hospice, was a major turning point in the year, she said.
“I wouldn’t be used to speaking in public but the welcome that I got was amazing. We raised more than €9,000 at that event and, with the help of my daughter behind me, I was able to go up and speak,” she said.
“I was lucky in that I found something in me that I didn’t realise I had before. I stood on the stage and spoke and I surprised myself: I could do it. That gave me a kick and I settled into it after that. It gave me confidence that I didn’t have before.”
The Lord Mayor explained that the Fitzgerald family took a decision early on to make the year a family-orientated one.
The Lady Mayoress and their daughters, Michelle and Deborah, were a regular feature at public engagements, often hosting on their own right as well as accompanying the Lord Mayor at events.
“We made a decision to make it family-focused from the outset. Both my family, the Fitzgeralds, and Georgina’s family, the Healys, come from community backgrounds,” Mr Fitzgerald said. “They were the backbone to where we are today. We made the decision that it was going to be a family and community mayorality and our daughters, Michelle and Deborah, were keen to be involved in any way they could too.”
Approximately €50,000 was raised through a series of charity events over the course of the year, including the Lady Mayoress’ coffee morning, the Lord Mayor’s golf classic, the Christmas concert and more. This was distributed among a number of chosen charities.
Mr Fitzgerald said he was blown away by the volume of support both for these “We are very fortunate to have so many people committed and dedicated to the needy of our city,” he said. “You have to thank them for the work that they do and the amount of goodwill and support from other people, too.”
The sheer volume of engagements convinced the Lord Mayor that the proposals for a directly-elected mayor is the wrong step for the city.
The Green Party-led proposal has been approved by the Minister for Housing and Local Government, with plebiscites potentially taking place next summer.
If approved locally, it would see the creation of a new role, lasting for a longer term and including executive functions.
Mr Fitzgerald said it is not the right step to take.
“The unique tradition of this office is in terms of engaging with people and meeting people and if you were to add a wide range of executive functions on top of that work, it would be impossible to manage,” he said.
“Our system has worked. We have a great chief executive in Ann Doherty, who has taken a dynamic role in leading the city in an executive point of view, and her staff across all departments and at all levels.”
Tonight, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald’s terms as Lord Mayor of Cork comes to an end. Kevin O’Neill spoke to the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress, Georgina Fitzgerald, about a busy year for the city and for their family.