The recession not only makes things hard, it makes them near impossible. Money is needed to achieve results in transport, infrastructure, and the environment, yet progress must be made in all these areas if Galway is going to come through the economic downturn relatively unscathed.
The new Mayor of Galway, Independent Galway City East councillor Declan McDonnell, who was elected to the post at Monday’s special city council meeting, believes he and the new city council, can and will, make progress in these vital areas.
Cllr McDonnell’s election to the post of Galway’s first citizen marks the formal emergence of the new pact in City Hall involving Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the three Independent former PDs. However the objective of the new pact is not just to control who should be mayor, the three groups involved also intend to influence and shape the direction of the city over the next five years.
Cllr McDonnell was first elected as mayor in 1999 and he is looking forward to his second term in the post.
“It feels great,” he tells me. “It’s a great honour for me, my wife Mary, our children and grandchildren. I’m also the seventh mayor from Mervue. Michael Smith was the first one, Bridie O’Flaherty was mayor twice, her daughter Terry O’Flaherty was mayor, Brian Walsh was, and I was mayor twice. Very few people get to be mayor on two terms.”
This year also marks the 18th anniversary of Mayor McDonnell’s entry into City Hall - a distinction he shares with Labour councillor Tom Costello. Both men are now ‘father of the house’.
As mayor, Cllr McDonnell wants to see a council chamber that is characterised by efficiency, ideas, and constructive discussion, rather than by bickering, insult trading, and meetings being abandoned.
“I hope this will be a council where we work together for the future of the city in difficult times,” he says. “We once had the name of being a ‘working council’ so I hope people will work with me and that the meetings will run smoothly. I think it will. The way Cllr Catherine Connolly chaired the meeting on Monday was exemplary. I think that’s a good sign.”
The economic landscape has changed utterly since Mayor McDonnell’s first term in 1999. Back then the Celtic Tiger was hitting its stride, money was starting to pour in for all kinds of projects, and the good times were about to roll. A decade later the Tiger is extinct, government coffers have dried up, and a sense of gloom has fallen over a population that now worries about money and jobs.
Is the post not something of a poisoned chalice because of this?
“It will be difficult but the office and the honour of being mayor is separate from the financial side of things,” he says. “It’s up to me to do my best to work with whatever we have. The Volvo Ocean Race showed what a success the city can be. It went beyond all people’s expectations. It may be a case where we can only do four of five things where we might wanted to have done more, but let’s do them right, and market and promote the city and develop Ceannt Station and the docks. The real challenge for the city over the next 12 months will be to create jobs and attract business to the city.”
With that in mind, the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil/Independent former PD alliance have come up with a 10-point-plan for the city over the next five years. Chief among these is the completion of the Galway City Outer Bypass.
“Traffic and infrastructure problems continue to plague our city and an integrated traffic management plan needs to be immediately developed,” said Mayor McDonnell. “This includes park and ride, both east and west, light rail (GLUAS ) and above all else the complete development of the Galway City Outer Bypass.”
Mayor McDonnell and his allies also want to see progress on the development of the harbour/marina in conjunction with the Galway Harbour Board.
“We need to capitalise on the success and benefits the Volvo Ocean Race brought to our city,” he said. “The redevelopment of the harbour is an absolute necessity for the city’s growth and is an issue I will be focusing on Why not a leg of the America’s Cup or a tall ships race?”
Mayor McDonnell also wants to see more social and affordable housing become available and for council to lobby the Government to deal with absentee landlords.
“There is huge requirement in our growing city for more social and affordable housing,” he said. “In my last term as mayor I oversaw the pilot programme to build affordable houses in Rinn Luachra and that programme resulted in the development of 700 additional affordable houses. It will again be a priority of mine during this mayoral term, but affordable must mean affordable.”
Mayor McDonnell and his allies also want to see the development of Ceannt Station; fast track the solving of the water crisis; boarded up houses being brought back into stock more quickly; put Galway at the top of the environment league; improving Galwegians’ quality of life; and reinstating the Salthill Airshow.
Before the new council had held its first meeting this week there was controversy as Labour and Fine Gael exchanged bitter words over the formation of the new pact. Each side accused the other of acting in bad faith. Labour felt that as the largest party it had a right to be involved in any new grouping. Fine Gael alleged that Labour was being greedy in wanting four mayoralties over the five years.
“I didn’t find that Labour were being greedy at all,” says Mayor McDonnell, who held talks with both groups, before making his decision. “I am pro-business and so are Labour but I found it easier to work with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Labour and I have different ideas on the Galway City Outer Bypass and the development of Ceannt Station so I chose to go in with more like minded people.”