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From 'Traffic Tsar' to 'sarcastic' chief executive: Who is Dublin City Council CEO Owen Keegan?

Protesters and politicians called on the council chief to resign this week.

Owen Keegan has been involved in various controversies since the 1990s.
Owen Keegan has been involved in various controversies since the 1990s.
Image: PA

OWEN KEEGAN MADE headlines again this week, after the chief executive of Dublin City Council become embroiled in a controversy about student housing.

The CEO of the country’s largest local authority invoked the wrath of students for sarcastically suggesting to the President of UCD students’ union Ruairí Power that the union should enter the housing market to provide accommodation for those attending the university.

He later issued an apology for the “element of sarcasm” in his letter to Power, but only after a protest outside Dublin City Council offices calling for his resignation.

His comments also drew criticism from the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the housing and higher education ministers, and Sinn Féin councillors are currently considering a motion of no confidence that could see Keegan removed or suspended from his role. 

The country’s best-known local authority chief has had a string of controversies in recent years, but less is known about his background or role. 

The Traffic Tsar

As chief executive of DCC, Keegan is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the council. This includes implementing the decisions made by the 63 councillors elected from across Dublin’s five administrative areas. The council’s remit covers a range of matters including housing, roads, transportation, planning and amenities.

His current salary is €200,415, and his time as CEO will draw to an end in 2023, as he has already finished the initial seven-year term he was appointed to carry out and is in the additional three-year extension period. Keegan announced he was taking the extra three years at a council meeting in March 2020.

Those who fancy succeeding him will have to be recommended by the Top-Level Appointments Committee of the Public Appointments Service, and then ratified by the councillors.

Before taking up the role in 2013, Keegan held the same job in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for seven years. Prior to that, he served as Dublin City Council’s assistant city manager, before becoming the local authority’s director of traffic.

Keegan’s appointment as assistant city manager in 1993 caused a stir in local government across Ireland, as he had been working outside the civil service before that. He was noted for being the only person in the housing department who had a computer at his desk.

During his time as director of traffic, he was dubbed the ‘Traffic Tsar’ for introducing a range of measures that were controversial at the time, including bringing in clamping across the city and creating a bus lane on the N11 Stillorgan road.

Before his career in local government, Keegan was an economist for DKM Economic Consultants (which was bought by EY in 2018) and Davy Stockbrokers.

Other notable stops on his CV include working in the Department of Finance, the ESRI and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

He is an avid cyclist and was noted for cycling to the council building for work in the 1990s, when it was considered eccentric. Efforts to improve cycling infrastructure have been a feature of his tenure.

Like many things, these efforts have been divisive: cycling advocates and some councillors saying not enough is being done, while others have accused Keegan of waging a war against motorists.

The council chief also has a keen interest in canoeing, competing in the annual Liffey Descent kayak marathon more than two dozen times.

However, he says this personal interest has no bearing on Dublin City Council’s plans to build a much-publicised white-water rafting facility in Dublin’s docklands.

‘Honest’ or ‘arrogant’?

In the aftermath of this week’s controversy, councillors from across the political spectrum described Keegan as being everything from “honest”, “responsive” and “forthright”, to “sarcastic” and “arrogant”.

Some of those have called for his resignation, despite saying he is good to work with. Others noted that he could be “condescending”, with one councillor even accusing him of having “disdain for elected officials”. 

One consistent theme amongst the councillors who spoke to The Journal was an appreciation of Keegan’s intellect. Even those who feel he has not done a good job as CEO acknowledged that he has a sharp mind. 

“He’s obviously a very intelligent man,” independent councillor Cieran Perry explained, adding that for him to write  the final paragraph of the letter to the UCD Students’ Union, “when he knew what the repercussions of that would be publicly – obviously he’s either arrogant enough not to care, or knows that no further action will be taken”.

Others were happy to state firmly that they have confidence in Keegan as CEO. “I’m not going out to champion the CEO,” Fianna Fail’s Deirdre Heney said, “but I work well with him and I think he has the best interests of the city at heart.”

Donna Cooney of the Green Party suggested that Keegan can be a victim of how the public perceives him.

“He’s sometimes put across as someone who thinks he’s running the whole thing, but he doesn’t really have that manner,” the Clontarf representative said.

“He has a problem with putting his foot in it, definitely. But, I don’t think he’s an arrogant man. Although, maybe it comes across that he is and he doesn’t do himself any justice,” she added.

Another person pointed out that they know councillors in other local authorities who get far less attention from their CEO than those in Dublin City do from Keegan.

Host of controversies

white-water Plans to build a white-water rafting facility in Dublin's docklands are among Keegan's controversies. Source: Dublin City Council

Keegan has been no stranger to controversy during his career in local government – the Irish Independent ran an article titled ‘Owen Keegan’s most controversial moments’ as long ago as July 2014.

His controversial moments precede his time as head of the local authority, and date back to when he first joined Dublin City Council in the 1990s.

His first big dust-up involved getting rid of rent offices around Dublin where local authority housing tenants used to go to pay their rent. Keegan instead allowed rent to be paid at post offices, a move which prompted rent collectors to go on strike.  

The ‘Traffic Tsar’ days also weren’t short of controversy as clamping, bus lanes, new traffic signs and roundabouts all put noses out of joint.

Keegan was also a central figure in the original Croke Park/Garth Brooks fiasco in 2013, when many jilted Brooks fans laid the blame for the debacle squarely at his feet, because the council didn’t give the country singer a licence for the five gigs he desired.  

More recently, it’s only two months since he faced criticism for saying that “well-intended” homeless volunteers were sustaining people sleeping in tents on the streets of the capital.

Keegan faced fire for similar comments in 2019, when he said that providing good homeless services creates demand for them because those who avail of them may be reluctant to leave. 

The council boss also faced calls for his removal in 2015, when he said the Poolbeg Incinerator project would not be halted by political opposition, despite two local authorities rejecting it.

But perhaps the chief executive’s most high-profile controversy is the mooted white-water rafting facility in George’s Dock. The project, which the council approved in 2019, has been described as a “grotesque vanity project”, a “political obscenity” and a “white elephant”.

The council has hit out at the “hostile” commentary surrounding the project and plans to push ahead with the €25 million development.

‘The system is the problem’

A consistent complaint levelled against Keegan, both this week and in the past, is that he is appointed by the civil service rather than elected by the citizens of Dublin.

He’s been labelled an “unelected, highly-paid, bureaucrat” and an “unaccountable administrator” whose decisions are not supported by a democratic mandate.   

And councillors who spoke to The Journal this week expressed almost universal dissatisfaction with this system.

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A directly-elected mayor was the most popular solution, while the idea of a Minister for Dublin appointed by the Government was also floated.

“Invariably, where it’s a choice between council policy – as decided by councillors – and government policy, it will be government policy that Owen Keegan follows, particularly in relation to housing,” Sinn Féin’s Mícheál Mac Donncha said.

“We need a situation where senior council officials are going to be on the side of the councillors. Owen’s latest controversy is the straw that broke the camel’s back and that’s why we’re calling for his resignation,” he added.

Dermot Lacey of the Labour Party said Keegan’s appointment by the civil service is akin to “Brown Thomas appointing the managing director of Arnotts”.

He claimed that the Top-Level Appointments Committee – which appoints the DCC CEO – is made up of “insider civil servants and pro-department people”.

owen-keegan-director-of-dublins-traffic-parking-meters-money-mobile-phones Owen Keegan (left) and then Lord Mayor Dermot Lacey (right) launching a phone parking payment service in 2003, during Keegan's tenure as Director of Traffic. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

“I want a chief executive who is not a friend of the department. Because in Ireland, the real problem is the Department of Housing and Local Government, that is the disastrous fault line in our system,” Lacey said.

That’s where our housing problem starts, that’s where our financial problems – at local government level– start, that’s where our planning system is a failure.

“Focusing on the individual of Owen Keegan is a waste of time, and those councillors who are tabling the motion calling for his resignation are, in my view, simply publicity seeking,” Lacey added.

No confidence motion

Nevertheless, there has been talk this week among certain groups – notably Sinn Féin councillors – about removing or suspending Keegan from his role.

Sinn Féin holds eight council seats while members of People Before Profit (two seats) and some independent councillors have indicated that they would support a motion calling on Keegan to resign. The Social Democrats (five seats) have requested a special meeting of the council to address the controversy.

The signatures of 21 councillors are required to trigger a Section 146 resolution, which could pave the way for the removal or suspension of the chief executive – meaning six more signatures would be required, beyond councillors from the parties above.

However, three quarters of the 63 councillors would also have to support the resolution for it to pass, and it would also have to be approved by the Minister for Housing.

Sinn Féin’s Mac Donncha says Keegan’s survival will depend on Fianna Fáil (11 seats), Fine Gael (nine seats) and the Labour Party (eight seats).

But members of those three parties indicated that they would not support the motion and said it would fail.

Most councillors accepted that any such motion would not be successful. Even some who have called for Keegan to resign suggested it would garner less than half of the votes it needs to pass.

Fine Gael’s Paddy McCartan said the controversy is “much ado about nothing” and joined Lacey in accusing Sinn Féin of a publicity stunt.

“This is Sinn Fein initiating a populist roundabout that seems to be in vogue at the moment, where anyone is fair game, but I think it demeans us as councillors to even suggest that the chief executive of Dublin City Council should resign for a throwaway sarcastic remark that he apologised for,” he said.

Another councillor who spoke anonymously criticised the government ministers who commented on the issue, saying “the whole country is being directed by Twitter”.

“The Social Democrats and others outside civic offices calling on the chief executive to resign just to get their faces on Twitter. I think it’s shocking,” they said.

Ultimately, Keegan seems safe to see out his term until 2023 - that is, unless a fresh controversy erupts that makes his position untenable.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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