On Friday June 7, at the first meeting of the new city council, the 33-year-old Independent city councillor, Mike Cubbard, was elected Mayor of Galway city - in the process becoming one of the youngest people ever to hold the position, since it was founded in 1485.
It is the culmination of a 10-year career in local politics, or more accurately, the next step along the way, in the journey of one of the most respected, and popular, politicians in Galway city.
“When I started out, I never thought I’d be mayor of the city I’m from, the city I love, the city I’m proud to call home,” he tells the Galway Advertiser. "Secondly, I proudly come from a working class background. I believe I’m an average Joe Public, and I think it sends out a message that politics is not for the elites only.”
Being working class is central to Mike Cubbard’s identity, and he regards his elevation to Mayor as a challenge to preconceived ideas about a person’s place in society or to how far their ambitions should run.
“My working class identity is probably the most important thing,” he declares. “People have a perception that politics is for the higher echelons of society, but I believe it’s not. I believe decisions taken by politicians more often affect those from a working class background. I’ll give you an example: when I was 16, 17, 18, applying for my first jobs, you had to put Newcastle on your address when you were applying. If you put down that you came from Westside, you were never even looked at. There were parts of town where, if you put down your real address, you were not looked at by employers.
“When I became mayor I stood proudly and said, ‘I’m from Westside.’ That raises questions for those would have said in the past, ‘You’re not good enough for this job because you’re from Westside.’ I’ve always believed in myself. I believe in my community. I believe class is a huge thing, for me personally, and I’m damn glad to say who I am and where I’m from. To those who come from similar communities and backgrounds across Galway, who may have lost faith in politics, I believe I can give them a voice."
'I can relate to young people'
Mayor Cubbard believes he can also be a role model, and an advocate, for young people. “Before the election, I spoke did Q&As with classes in The Bish, and found that the kids were interested in speaking to me and what I was about,” he says. “I believe, as someone who is 33 - closer to 32 than 34 I might add! - that I am someone who can relate to young people. Once, young people and their opinions were not considered. If I do one thing over the next 12 months, it will be engage with young people in the schools, and make them feel that being mayor is something they can aspire to."
Youth was one of the key factors in May’s Local Elections, which was noticeable for the number of younger candidates who took part. Indeed voters showed a willingness to trust younger voices, with Mayor Cubbard, the 23-year old Soc Dem Owen Hanley, and 30-year-old Fine Gael candidate Eddie Hoare all being returned.
“It’s great to have a good balance of younger and older in the chamber,” he says. “We have some excellent councillors returned who have many years experience, and adding in Eddie, Owen - and Pauline O’Reilly of the Greens - there is a good mix. In the past, there may not have been that mix there. I would have raised issues about river safety and mental health, where I would have had good support from councillors like Mairead Farrell - unfortunately Mairead lost her seat, but no doubt she’ll be back. It’s good to have that mix of people who can understand what’s happening on the ground in 2019. That’s a welcome development.”
A political journey
Mike Cubbard first stood for election in Galway City Central in 2009, polling a very respectable 474 votes (9.17 per cent ). In 2014 he topped the poll with 13.36 per cent, and was elected on the third count with 911 votes. In May, he had his greatest result to date - topping the poll with 1,293 votes and being elected on the first count.
Mayor Cubbard admits he "does not come from a political family". His desire to run for the council came from a frustration at the lack of working class representation in City Hall. “I got involved because there were politicians, and I would see them commenting on my local area, but I never saw them around the area, and they came across speaking down to people and not engaged. You wouldn’t see them with their sleeves rolled up. I thought, maybe I can do a better job.”
The Mayor is also keen to acknowledge and thank those who have been such enormous support to him. “I have to thank those who helped put me here,” he says, “my wife Karen [pictued above], three boys Ryan, Adam, and Ben, my campaign team, and in particular my employer, O'Leary Insurance Brokers, who have been a huge support in allowing me balance working and being mayor. They are very understanding.”
Transport, housing, environment
The key issues of the 2019 Local Elections were transport, housing, and the environment. The day after the election count was completed, the re-elected councillor was back at work in City Hall.
“I started on Tuesday, and the first thing was environmental issues,” he says. “I am working on an issue regarding licensing agreements issued to sports clubs using a football, hurling, or soccer pitch, from the city council. I’ve asked them to change our policy so that when a licence is issued to a club, a condition attached to that is no plastic bottles are used for drinks, etc. Instead, the council would fund a reusable bottle with the club crest for every member. That comes from 18 years as a youth coach, and seeing bags and bags of bottles after every training session, after every match, all bagged up. It’s a complete waste.”
In terms of transport, the Mayor wants to see greater emphasis on bus services. “Our bus routes are not good enough,” he declares. “We still, in 2019, have no buses to Ballagh, Circular Road, or Menlo, yet they are huge catchment areas. So, on one hand we cannot be saying, ‘Let’s improve public transport usage’, but then not provide buses. Also, people are not going to be standing in the rain for a bus. We badly need more bus shelters, and I don’t accept the nonsense from the NTA, refusing us funding for those. Unless we get more bus routs and bus shelters, people will not use buses."
Housing, or rather the lack of it, and accommodation in general, is one the great crises facing, not just Galway city, but the State itself, and the Mayor is adamant City Hall must play its part in delivering social and affordable housing. However, an obstacle to that is the Government’s addiction to the belief that ‘the market will provide’, a belief that has failed to stem the growing crisis in any way.
“Governments of the past were able to get away with that as people in the past weren’t as engaged with politics as they have been in the past number of years,” says the Mayor. “Now we have a younger generation of politicians coming through, and slowly, as we elect a body which resonates with what’s happening on the ground, there will be more pressure put on Government to actually deliver, as I don’t believe in waiting for the market. In all due respect, we’re elected, not the market. We’re elected to provide, that’s the reality of it, and it’s only an absolute lot of codswallop to suggest the market will fix it. The market won’t fix it.”
Alongside this is the Mayor’s determination to tackle the scourge of accidents along the River Corrib leading to drownings. “We have 15km of waterways in the city that are completely unprotected. If you had an open cliff in the city centre, you wouldn’t leave it open, you’d close it off. The dangers of the Spanish Arch are there same as an open cliff. I will be pushing for flood defences and I’ve been given a commitment that that will happen later this year. If I leave one legacy behind me as mayor I hope that would be one.”
A general election run?
The next election will be the General Election. While no date has yet been set, it is expected within the next six to 12 months. Having dipped a toe in the water in 2016, Mayor Cubbard is seriously weighing up his options for another run at the Dáíl.
“It’s my intention to contest the next General Election,” he declares. “Gathering almost 1,300 votes in the central ward was a huge achievement, but if I’m to believe what I’ve been told, there was a similar number of people turning up at the Ballybane boxes looking to vote for me there. I know I've good support in Mervue and Knocknacarra, so we'll see. I’m not well known in the county, but we’ve started a bit of work on that, and I’m confident there won’t be a household in Galway West who won’t know Mike Cubbard before polling day at the next General Election.”