The race for city’s directly-elected mayor
An inside look at local politics – from the pens of the politicians themselves
Cllr Catherine Connolly — a strong candidate if there is to be a contest for a directly-elected mayor.
By The Insider
Minister Phil Hogan’s eyes were still adjusting to natural light last week after spending the duration of the recent referendum campaign locked in the basement of Government Buildings.
Controversy over his handling of the Toilet Tax, Household Charge, and water meters had made him a liability for the Yes campaign, and Fine Gael decided to make him “disappear” in a manner hitherto associated only with their Sinn Féin counterparts.
Last week though, he emerged from the dank surrounds of the Merrion Street basement in the wake of the referendum campaign and immediately turned his attention to the burgeoning issue of local government reform.
Big Phil seems eager to avoid further controversy and has circulated a questionnaire to every councillor in the State in a bid to secure some degree of consensus before he wields his crude hatchet in the direction of cost savings and reform throughout the local government system.
Among the questions posed to councillors is whether they believe local authorities should have a directly elected mayor, the inclusion of which would suggest is a prospect to which the minister is giving serious consideration.
If it comes to pass, who would the citizens of Galway city trust in such a role, given that it would involve executive powers and require more than just a flair for the ceremonial, some ribbon-cutting prowess, and an ability to hold a note for the occasional song?
With the prospect of a directly elected mayor on the agenda, Insider has taken the opportunity to look back on the mayoralties of some councillors past and present to assess who among them might have been best suited to the new role.
Terry O’Flaherty (2003-04)
Cllr O’Flaherty’s tenure as mayor coincided with the opening of the wastewater plant on Mutton Island, which consigned to the past the sight of swimmers in Salthill fleeing from the water at the sighting of a brown trout close to the shore in a scene reminiscent of the movie Jaws.
She is due to assume the chains of office for a second time later this month, and it will be her next term as mayor rather than her last that will test the former PD councillor and present her with a great opportunity to shine in the role.
The Volvo Ocean Race finale will place Cllr O’Flaherty in the spotlight and she will be mindful of the political capital that Cllr Pádraig Conneely harvested during the stopover event during his term as mayor in 2009.
Catherine Connolly (2004-05)
When someone reports that the chain came off their bicycle, it’s usually safe to assume they’re referring to a minor mechanical fault, but in Cllr Connolly’s case, it was more likely to mean that the mayoral jewellery had slipped from her crossbar when she came to a sudden stop.
While some incumbents revel in the plush surrounds of the backseat in a mayoral Mercedes, Cllr Connolly dispensed with much of the pomp associated with the office and was just as likely to arrive at an official function on the saddle of a bike.
An impressive speaker with a comprehensive grasp of key issues and widespread appeal, she proved to be a formidable and occasionally outspoken mayor who was unafraid to espouse controversy in the interest of the common good.
Brian Walsh (2005-06)
Now a TD, the then-councillor Walsh was still wet behind the ears when he became the city’s youngest ever mayor upon taking office in June 2005.
His tenure will be best remembered for his intervention in the Eyre Square debacle, which ultimately succeeded in getting builders back on site after a long standoff with the council and gave the amenity back to the people.
The Fine Gael TD also presided over the introduction of the city’s first park and ride facility for Christmas 2005. However, he would be unlikely to be in the running for directly elected mayor, having won a seat in the Dáil in February 2011.
Niall Ó Brolcháin (2006-07)
The Green Party councillor took the chains of office at an unfortunate time in the lead up to the 2007 General Election, and demonstrated the potential of the mayoralty to do much harm as well as much good.
His time as mayor coincided with the outbreak of cryptosporidium in Galway and his decision to stand by officials in their handling of the crisis, rather than criticise the shortcomings of their response, attracted bad press in the run-up to the election and contributed to his failure to win a seat in the Dáil.
He broke with tradition by opting for a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius instead of one of the executive marques as the “mayor mobile” in 2006 and later auctioned the car on eBay with proceeds above the cost of the vehicle going to charity.
Tom Costello (2007-08)
The amiable Labour councillor oversaw an understated and relatively uneventful mayoralty. Effective in the chair, he seldom courted publicity during his time in the office.
Pádraig Conneely (2008-09)
The outspoken Fine Gael Councillor consistently maintains a high profile but was particularly ubiquitous under the magnifying glass of the mayoralty during the Volvo Ocean Race stopover in 2009. He revelled in the additional attention but is widely recognised as having played a key role in selling the city to the organisers of the Ocean Race and securing its return in 2012.
He carved an ambassadorial role for himself out of the mayoralty and will count amongst the highlights of his year at the helm his visit to the White House as a guest of President Obama in 2009.
Declan McDonnell (2009-10)
The ability with which Declan McDonnell delivered his speeches at public events when he became mayor in 2009 was first class. Then, as he grew into the role, it became third class and continued to disimprove until – by the end of it – he appeared to be reading his speeches at a secondary school level. It was his second time in the chains, and perhaps the novelty and zeal that is apparent during the mayoralties of some rookies was the missing ingredient during Cllr McDonnell’s second tilt in the office.
Michael Crowe (2010-11)
Michael Crowe’s disastrous run in the recent General Election both summed up and capped off a disappointing term as mayor for the Fianna Fáil councillor last year.
He found himself paddling against the tide of public opinion when he opposed the establishment of a continental Christmas market in 2010, and was forced into an embarrassing U-turn having been labelled by local media as ‘the Grinch’.
Cllr Crowe was also accused of having a conflict of interests arising from his property portfolio by Catherine Connolly, who described him as “the most ignorant chairman I have ever had to deal with” before Cllr Crowe stormed out of a council meeting in January 2010.
Hildegarde Naughton (2011-12)
The jet-setting incumbent has gone down well in the course of her extensive travels abroad since last June; being photo friendly and never shy of sharing a song to enliven a late-night party. But in the chair a series of incidents has seen the councillor who played Calamity Jane in a musical in 2009 retain the nickname since her election as mayor last year. She has won plaudits for her performances abroad but her Fine Gael colleagues would be the first to agree that she has struggled to chair council meetings and would have concerns about her handling the additional responsibility that a full-time mayoralty would demand.
Who is best?
Having reflected on the mayoralties of good and bad that Galway City Council has had to offer, Insider believes that one in particular has stood out from the flock and would be worthy of holding the position of directly elected mayor.
Cllr Catherine Connolly has demonstrated the independence, integrity, and intelligence that would be required in the exercise of the extended powers that the new role would entail.
A strong showing and a painfully narrow defeat in the last general election compounds her position as a solid tip to land the position should Hogan’s deliberations result in the creation of a new office.