Down to business: Mayor James Collins at his desk in City Hall Picture: Michael Cowhey
AS I sit down with Limerick’s new Mayor James Collins in his offices overlooking the River Shannon, he proudly shows me his digital watch, which displays a number in excess of 14,000.
“That was the number of steps I did yesterday,” he tells me, in reference to his day of canvassing with his party leader Micheal Martin.
Getting out and about will be a theme of Cllr Collins’s mayoralty, he says, pointing out this interview with the Limerick Leader represented the first time he had been in his new office.
“I’ve been so busy out and about, but that’s my style. I like to be out, involved, pro-active and meeting people. My objective is to spend as little time sitting at my desk for the year as possible,” he explained.
The City West councillor, who runs his family bar at the Dooradoyle Road, became the fifth mayor of Limerick City and County Council, elected as part of a deal between his own party and Fine Gael.
Living in O’Connell Avenue, he was raised in Dooradoyle, spending his formative years in Patrickswell.
“I used to hitch from Patrickswell to the Crescent, and then used to get a bus over to St Munchin’s College in Corbally,” he recalls. “I got to know people from Patrickswell, Crecora and the hinterlands, and they used to pick me up.”
Naturally, with a surname like Collins, he was always going to be very politically-minded.
Indeed, among his cousins are sitting TD Niall Collins and long-serving Newcastle West councillor Michael Collins, this year’s deputy mayor.
His father is former Limerick West TD Michael Collins who ran the Railway Hotel for many year, and he’s a nephew of former government minister Gerard Collins.
But it was not until he was back in Limerick, aged 37, five years after a spell in business in Dublin, that he got into politics.
Back then, Limerick was reeling from Dell’s decision to shift the lion’s share of its operation to Lodz in Poland.
“It left Limerick in a pretty dark place. A lot of my customers were in negative equity, and wondering where the money was going to come from. It was a sharp, sudden shock that made it so difficult.
“I looked around and people approached me, and maybe recognised some of the things I had done in the past. So I stood for election in 2009,” he recalls.
With Ireland hurtling headfirst into a devastating recession, the electorate turned on Fianna Fail and its coalition partner, the Green Party.
Despite this, Mayor Collins was comfortably elected to the old Adare area, and was just four votes off being returned on the first count.
He went on to top the poll in 2014 in the newly created City West area, and has been a high-profile presence in Fianna Fail locally, being its General Election candidate alongside Willie O’Dea, and also the party’s group leader in the metropolitan district.
In the 2014 election, Fianna Fail went from increasing its representation in the city from just one councillor to five.
Although Fianna Fail became the largest council party, Limerick remained under no overall control, forcing a grand coalition.
The way the Soldiers of Destiny and Fine Gael have carved up the top positions between them has caused ire among the opposition groups.
On this, he said: “We were a bit strategic in how we looked at the constituencies and how we picked our candidates. To get three in City East.”
In what is no doubt a thinly veiled reference to Sinn Fein, he said: “Other parties chose to put up just one candidate and top the poll, and be the headline makers in the constituency. But then when you come to electing a mayor, and they don’t have enough councillors, they complain.”
The mayoralty is the most senior position Cllr Collins has held during his nine years in local politics – but he does not see it as the end of the process.
“It’s a great honour for me. It gives me the opportunity to further some of the issues I’ve been involved in so far. Maybe it helps you – you have a bit more profile , and a bit of a platform to push along some of the things we’ve been trying to do,” he said.
In his opening speech, Mayor Collins set out his stall – and it was a big one.
“We’ve started the recovery, we’re not there yet. We have created a lot of jobs, 3,000 last year. I keep saying we need to create 3,000 every year. We need to think big, we need to think strategically.
“We had a big idea, now we have a movie studio. That’s the level of ambition we need to have.”
It’s often overlooked that Mayor Collins is an employer himself, with 30 people on his books at Collins Bar.
This gives him a unique insight into the challenges facing business people.
“I know what it’s like to get to the end of the month and try and figure out how I am going to pay the bills. There are a lot of employers in Limerick city, particularly in the retail industry, and they are struggling.
“As a councillor, I have tried to help them out in terms of their rates. If you paid your rates you get a discount. That was a change in mindset from the council, and some of the local authorities in the country are trying to copy us.”
The mayor is also a member of the Limerick Twenty Thirty company, which is being charged with transforming huge swathes of the city centre.
This has been supported by money from the Council of Europe Bank, and the European Investment Bank, which has pumped hundreds of millions in loans into the local economy.
Without the stabilisation of the city’s finances, he doesn’t think this would have been allowed.
Prior to going into politics, the mayor worked in Dublin, for Anderson Consulting.
It was here he met his now wife Eileen, a Limerick woman, and sister of his council and party colleague Jerry O’Dea.
They returned to Limerick in 2000, in order to live in a city where they could enjoy life.
And it was here they reared their four children, Eoghan, 16, Thomas, 14, Daniel, 11, and Beibhinn 8.
In 2004, Mayor Collins opened the family bar on green space in Dooradoyle, describing the swift seven month construction as “one of Ireland’s first rapid build projects”.
But he was stunned to find that busloads of children from the area were going to Croom, rather than remaining in the city, a situation which is only being remedied now.
“We haven’t got our thinking right around this,” he said, “the planning has gone wrong here”.
“Croom is a great school, but we were bussing schoolkids out from the city. We should have a good school in Croom, and a good school in Raheen and Dooradoyle.”
Unlike a lot of politicians, Cllr Collins says he is not tribal, pointing to the fact he worked with former councillors, the late Richard Butler, Fine Gael and Labour’s Tomas Hannon to bring the Mungret park to fruition during the last council.
“There is always the cut-and-thrust of politics. There is no reason you cannot work cross party.
“If there is something we need to co-operate on, we will,” he pointed out.
Away from work, he likes spending time with his wife and children – indeed, the day after he was elected mayor, Cllr Collins headed off to Kilkee, where they went for a swim at dusk in the Pollock Holes.
The new mayor, although he won’t admit it, will no doubt have one eye on the next Dail election – which could even come during his year in office.
“When a general election comes, I know that I will be ready. I am confident I will give it everything I have – and I will give it a really good shot,” he concluded.