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Love him or hate him, you cannot accuse city chief Owen Keegan of biting his tongue

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Dublin City chief executive Owen Keegan’s sarcastic comments this week to students protesting about the council allowing student accommodation to be used for short lets for tourists are not the first time he has landed himself in hot water.

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n a letter to the UCD students union, the Dublin city boss said he was surprised students hadn’t entered the property market if they thought they could provide lower-cost student accommodation.

There were protests and calls for his head as a result, and on Wednesday he apologised for the remark.

His ‘matter of fact’ approach is one of Owen P Keegan’s trademarks. There are times it works to his advantage in getting things done, and times when it does not.

Sometimes he can even sense the furore his words will cause coming down the tracks but it’s as if he can’t help himself. Say, in a Newstalk radio interview in August when he prefaced his remarks by noting he would “get into trouble for saying it” before offering his opinion that homeless people living in tents “adds to the perception of an edginess to the city”.

He was slammed by homeless charities and some councillors called him “embarrassing”, “out of touch” and “callous”.

DCC’s website tells us Keegan, who turns 65 next February, was appointed chief executive in September 2013, having served as county manager of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) from February 2006.

The Dubliner has ample qualifications, it would seem, including degrees in public administration, economics and civil engineering.

Before joining DLRCC, he had worked for Dublin City Council in such high-profile positions as assistant city manager and then director of traffic. Before starting life climbing council career ladders, he had worked as an economist for DKM Economic Consultants/Davy Stockbrokers, the Department of Finance, the ESRI and for two periods in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

As chief executive of Dublin City Council, he is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the council and the implementation of decisions.

Last year his contract was extended for another two years. His salary is €202,419.

In his role, Keegan is also the director of two companies set up by DCC. These are the City of Dublin Energy Management Agency (CODEMA), and Ballymun Regeneration Ltd. He does not get paid for these roles.

It was his role as ‘traffic tsar’ with DCC that first brought Keegan to the public’s attention.

He was and is a keen cyclist and his quest to increase the number of cycle lanes and bus lanes earned him a reputation as being ‘anti-car’. He introduced clamping for illegal parking in 1998.

But it could be argued he was ahead of his time. A growing recognition of the reality and dangers of global warming has led to a shift away from fossil fuels and the private car is being seen as unsustainable.  

While clamping might have been a fairly straightforward concept, his introduction of new city traffic signs in 2001 backfired.

Colour-coded traffic direction signs were erected around the city, which aimed to get rid of the confusion experienced by visitors to the capital.

But the 500 signs, based on colour-coded inner and outer orbital routes – with each junction on the inner and outer orbital routes having a unique code number – were too complex. Then transport minister Seamus Brennan ordered the signs removed, at a cost of €200,000.

In 2014, Keegan’s name was associated with the massive Garth Brooks gigs saga, which eventually led the country singer superstar pulling out of plans to play here because he was not allowed to play five nights. The resultant loss of revenue for the city was estimated at €50m.

He appeared in front of an Oireachtas Committee to explain the controversial decision and issued a staunch defence of the council’s role in the debacle.

The council chief insisted a number of compromises were put forward and that the concerns of residents were more important than the windfall the concerts would have provided to the city. He said the rules governing planning and licensing precluded him from granting the five concerts.

“If the integrity of the planning system is to be maintained, it is important that the interests of no single individual or organisation, no matter how cherished a place they occupy in the hearts of the nation, are allowed to unduly influence that system,” he said.

In 2019, Keegan backed plans for the controversial €23m white-water rafting project for the docklands.

The project divided opinion, with some saying it was a “grandiose vanity project” for Keegan, a veteran kayaker who has competed 25 times in the Liffey Descent race.

This week, Keegan did not resign over his comments to students but did point the way to the mechanism councillors can use to heave him if they wish.

Has he gazed once more into his crystal ball? It remains to be seen.

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