Walking through Galway city centre with Niall McNelis is something of a stop-start experience, albeit a most cordial nature. He seems to know every second person we pass, and given he has just been elected Mayor of Galway City, a lot of people want to wish him well. “I swear, these are not plants!” he jokes. “It’s not staged! But I have been flabbergasted by the amount of good will.”
McNelis has been a city councillor for the Labour Party for close to a decade, and becoming mayor is a role he feels honoured to hold. “I was born and grew up in this town, it’s a huge honour to represent the city,” he tells me as we sit for our interview on Tuesday morning. “It is a ceremonial role, but the office is respected, and it does open doors and give me an opportunity to highlight certain issues.”
'Transportation problems are holding the city to ransom'
The Mayor believes the defining issues of his year in office will be the port, Ceannt Station, and Bonham Quay developments; the Galway city bypass; and the re-pedestrianisation of Shop Street and accompanying sewage repair works. In essence, Mayor McNelis believes that without the controversial bypass, development in the city as a whole is impossible, making construction of the roadway vital for the city’s future.
“When we talk about the port, or any of the other developments, we need to talk about the bypass and transport,” he says. “It can take an hour and a half get from Knocknacarra to Parkmore some mornings; Doughiska to Barna can take about two hours sometimes; that’s madness when you can get from Galway to Dublin in two hours.”
Mayor McNelis says the consultants have “everything ready to submit the new plans for the bypass”, after which they will need to be approved by Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the Government, but he acknowledges there will be legal challenges, and “hardships for families” who will lose their homes as a result of the bypass’s proposed route and resulting compulsory purchase orders. “But the city is being strangled by traffic congestion," he argues. "Until we get this sorted, nothing else, be it the Tuam Road and Dublin Road bus lanes; development on the zoned land in Ardaun; or the Galway City Transport Plan, which also has proposals for bus lanes and one way systems, will happen.”
Mayor McNelis describes himself as a “positive person”, but with the bypass such a long running, and deeply controversial proposal, it remains a difficult sell to the public. Some are deeply opposed to it, others have become cynical about whether or not it will ever be constructed.
“We need to communicate the positives of why the bypass needs to happen,” he says. “Transportation problems are holding the city to ransom. Yes, we absolutely need to get people changing their habits, and to start using public transport, buses, and cycling and walking to work, but there are always going to be people for whom the car is the practical choice, and to environmentalists I say, traffic congestion is seeing commuters stuck in their cars for much longer than they should, waiting for traffic to move, and all the while burning diesel and petrol - and none of that is good for the environment.”
'I often think we should erect a sign on Shop Street during the races showing a high heel with a red line through it, warning people not to wear high heels as they’ll get caught or the heel will break on the surface'
In May, Irish Water announced major upgrade works were to take place on the sewage systems on William Street, Shop Street, High Street, Cross Street, Augustine Street, and Flood Street to tackle storm water overflows, odour issues, and sewer flooding. The €2 million project, in partnership with the Galway City Council, will be undertaken by GMC Contractors.
The works are due to be carried out from July to October, with a second phase from January to July 2019. Where appropriate these works will take place at night time. There will also be no works on William Street/Shop Street/High Street during July and August in order to avoid disruption during the peak tourist season, nor will work be carried out in December to avoid traffic congestion during the Christmas period.
Coupled with this, is the re-pedestrianisation of Shop Street, with its current surface - which will need to be uprooted to allow for the sewage works - replaced completely. According to the Mayor, the favoured replacement surface is asphalt.
“I often think we should erect a sign on Shop Street during the races showing a high heel with a red line through it, warning people not to wear high heels as they’ll get caught or the heel will break on the surface,” he says. “But in all seriousness, this work needs to be done. One of the problems is there is a ‘fatberg’ in the sewage system, from the build up of fat and grease, sanitary waste, and general waste, and that has to be removed. We also need to deal with the ‘swimming pools’, those large bubbles that rainwater gets trapped in on Shop Street.
'There is no point in creating big jobs if you don’t have accommodation to house the people, and transport issues sorted so they can get to work easily'
“That said, I have a lot on concerns as well. This work will take a long time, it’s a major undertaking, and there will be disruptions. Irish Water and Galway City Council need to be talking to the rate payers, stakeholders, and the business community who will be affected by this. We need to look at the times the works are going to be carried out between July and October, and as always, communication is key and they will have to communicate to business what is happening and when it is happening.”
Mayor McNelis believes the port, Ceannt Station, and Bonham Quay developments [an artists impression of the latter is depicted above], among others, are vital to Galway’s future, development cannot be solely for office and retail space, but must also include accommodation - including social/council accommodation.
“The Crown Control site will meet a lot of accommodation needs, the Corrib Great Southern site has zoning for retail and accommodation, and that will come before planners this year. It may also come before councillors. For the city to grow, we need to utilise every bit of land we have, but not just office and retail, there has be accommodation and social housing. We need to have that 20 per cent social housing mix.
"We also have an opportunity to grow the city, turn it around to face the sea. People want to move to Galway, but there is no point in creating big jobs if you don’t have accommodation to house the people, and transport issues sorted so they can get to work easily.”
Political observers (and cynics ) will note that the Mayor’s duration in office leads him into the 2019 Local Elections, due to be held on May 24, and that he will also be/have been Mayor around the time of the General Election, also expected next year - he is the Labour candidate for Galway West.
“We might be using the posters twice!“ he laughs. “Labour is re-building, but party branches have been re-established in NUIG and GMIT, and I think we’re off the ‘bold step’ with the electorate. The party has a good organisation and machine in place. if an election was called tomorrow, we’d be ready for it.”
Returning to his term as ‘first citizen’ Mayor McNelis says he wants his approach to have “the personal touch” and he has no desire to “take himself too seriously”. He mentions Palestine and mental health as issues of which he is supportive. He also says the city “needs to have an adult conversation” about drug abuse and if an injection centres should be considered.
“If I want to achieve anything this year, I hope it will be that Galway is a special place to live,” he says. “We have to create a caring society that is fair and where, if somebody wants to go back to education, say, there are the supports to do that. We need to have a living wage, more than a minimum wage.”