County Mayor: We must show that Cork really means business

County Mayor: We must show that Cork really means business
County Mayor Cllr Seamus McGrath and his wife Gayle. Pic: Eddie O'Hare

Evening Echo political reporter David Linnane sat down with County Mayor Seamus McGrath to discuss his year with the mayoral office. Mr McGrath will finish his term as mayor next week. 

AS he faces his final few days as Mayor of County Cork, Seamus McGrath reflected on the balance that has to be struck between local issues and big opportunities for Cork.

As the first citizen of County Cork, he travelled across the world to help strike deals and promote Cork as a destination for business and tourism, but he was just as interested in the issues that concern the locals, like littering and footpaths.

For many, the biggest moments of his year would have slipped under the radar, but were no less important for it.

On a visit to the Jiangsu Province in China, he signed a new deal with the local governor to initiate the second part of a three-phase strategy to build links between there and Cork. With a population of 80 million people and a massive economy, he said that this was on the same scale as signing a deal with Germany.

"That's significant when you look at the population and the potential market there. I think it's important that we continue to build those links. You're trying to build foundations to build on here and to continually build on that relationship. I signed that agreement with the governor of the province, who represents a population of something like 80 million. It's not unlike signing something with Angela Merkel," he said.

This was just one of many trips abroad to promote Cork during the year, like a trip to Boston to meet with MassBio to promote Cork as a destination for life sciences businesses, which have already had huge success in Cork.

"It's important that we are getting out there, that we are making ourselves known, and the opportunities that we have here. We're very fortunate with the economy we have. We're very attractive for foreign direct investment (FDI) and we can see that with the huge number of pharmaceuticals and IT companies and medical devices and so on," he said.

Mr McGrath said that Cork was in a strong position to make a case for itself to businesses, especially with Brexit taking the UK cities out of the single market, and Dublin facing major infrastructural and capacity problems.

"Dublin has, in many ways, maxed itself out. So we in Cork need to be out there fighting to get investment in. It's important that we are driving the southern region, as a city and a county. That's something that those connections in China are vital for, to show that we are here and we are open for business," he said.

But it isn't enough to just go abroad and promote the Cork economy. Work needs to be done at home too to keep it growing in a manageable.

Cork's infrastructure problems might not be on the same scale of Dublin's, but Mr McGrath said that he was keen to push for better investment in infrastructure, and that is being seen with the council's investment from the Local Infrastructure and Housing Activation Fund (LIHAF) and the exploration of new ideas like a spin-off company that would be able to take on big projects itself.

Mr McGrath said that the most challenging part of his term was chairing the meetings to develop the council's new multi-year local area plans, which will guide investment and growth across the county.

"You're dealing with thousands of issues. You're dealing with over 1,000 submissions. It is huge. As chair, I had to sit through all of those meetings, where other people had the freedom to go in and out. But we got it done, and it was a great experience," he said.

He also gave credit to other bodies in Cork that have succeeded and helped push Cork forward, specifically Cork Airport.

"In my term, and I'm not taking credit for it by any means, it was great to see the airport get a lift. You had the Norwegian flights, the Wow! flights, the Zurich flights. You had a number of new routes added over the year, and passenger numbers are up. I've been able to speak at lot of events at the airport. I've met the people off the plane and welcomed them to Cork, and I'm delighted that it coincided with my year as Mayor," he said.

However, he said that he was very aware that he had to focus on the "bread and butter issues" that people cared about. That was something he promised last year when he was elected, saying that he wanted better responses from the council on issues like littering, potholes, housing, and dereliction.

One of his initiatives was a dereliction pilot scheme, which will see towns like Passage West get specific attention and funding to tackle the problem. Other problems have been addressed by pushing for priorities in the annual council budget.

"We're in a better space, from a financial point of view. We are able to do a lot of the things we were unable to do a few years ago. There's a public lighting programme back up and running. There's a footpath upgrade programme back up and running. Housing remains a huge challenge, but I'm glad to say I opened up the first scheme the Council's new tranche of schemes, out in Fermoy. We met the tenants and handed over the keys last week. It's a scheme of ten units, and there is a lot more going through the tender and planning stages," he said.

Mr McGrath knew both the limitations and the opportunities of the office when he began and said that he wanted to make realistic goals for the local area, while also pushing Cork forward.

"There's no pie in the sky stuff. You're only in it for 12 months, and you have no executive powers. You're there in a representative role. I've tried to be as active as I could and put forward a positive image, and get out the message about what Cork has to offer, and about the County Council," he said.

County Mayor Cllr Seamus McGrath and his wife Gayle. Pic: Eddie O'Hare
County Mayor Cllr Seamus McGrath and his wife Gayle. Pic: Eddie O'Hare

BIG YEAR PERSONALLY, AS WELL AS PROFESSIONALLY 

THE last year was also a big time personally for the McGraths, with a new addition to the family arriving earlier this year.

Mr McGrath's wife, Gayle, gave birth to their first child, Jenna, just a few month's before his term as Mayor began. Earlier this year, she had their second child, Averie. 

Being Mayor of the biggest local authority in the country and the father of two girls under 18 months has been a challenge, but he said that it has kept him grounded too.

"I started out the year with a five-month-old and ended the term with a 17-month-old and a four-month-old. I did the nappies. I did the night feeds. It definitely keeps you in place," he said.

However, he said that it was difficult, especially for his wife as he wasn't always around to help out at home.

"It was tough on my wife, Gayle. I think she could have enjoyed the year more if she had more freedom. You get invited to a lot of things as Mayor, and she went to very little because of the family. It's two-pronged because she wasn't able to enjoy it and she had extra work. She looks at the diary every week and sometimes it wasn't always easy," he said.

He paid tribute to his wife and the rest of his family for the work they have put in while he occupied as Mayor, but said that both he and Gayle are looking forward to getting some spare time again.

"I'm looking forward to getting back to the cut and thrust of local politics, but I'm looking forward to having a bit of spare time too. There are things you put on hold. Simple things. There are hedges that need to be cut. We haven't even booked a holiday because there is so much I have to do when I finish up as Mayor," he said.

As well as getting more time with his family, Mr McGrath said that he is looking forward to getting back to his work as a local councillor too, especially with the skills he has learned in the last year.

"I don't think it will be difficult. I've been a councillor for 10 years and I enjoy the work.  I don't think I'll be pining after the role. It's been a challenging year, but when you go through that, it obviously improves your skills and ability to deal with things."

Tim Lucey, chief executive of County Cork, with County Mayor Seamus McGrath. Pic: Eddie O’Hare
Tim Lucey, chief executive of County Cork, with County Mayor Seamus McGrath. Pic: Eddie O’Hare

MCGRATH NOT CONVINCED BY PROPOSAL FOR DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYOR

HAVING served his one-year term as Mayor, Mr McGrath said that he has yet to be convinced by major reform proposals like directly electing the office-holder or giving them a longer term.

"It is what it is now, and that's what we understand it to be. I'm not sure about a five-year term. It's good that councillors have the opportunity of being Mayor of the course of a term. You get different areas represented. Last year's Mayor was from the north, I'm from the South, Alan Coleman was from the west," he said.

However, he said that if the Mayor was given greater powers, then you would need to give them more support and a longer term.

"It is a ceremonial role and a representative role. You don't have direct powers. If you were going down the road of giving executive powers, you would have to go longer," he said.

He said that he is open to the idea, but would need to see a well-thought out proposal before he would back it.

"A five-year term, with executive functions, is an entirely different concept, and I've never seen that concept laid out in full. How you would deal with the chief executive or the council. If you have executive powers, where does that leave the chief executive? I think there are a lot of questions unanswered. I think the role as it is works well. But I'm open minded to looking at change," he said.

Mr McGrath said that one of the best skills he has picked up as Mayor was learning how to speak to people on their own terms at events.

"Very often you're speaking at an event, whether it's the annual dinner of a sea angling club or the coast guard dinner and you're not exactly an expert yourself, but you have to speak, and be meaningful to the people there. You can't go and give a speech that's abstract or irrelevant to what they're doing. What I've learned is, whoever, you're speaking to, do a little bit of research. You're going up there and you're speaking to people who know all about what they do. They are experts in their field, and you're addressing them. That's a challenge, but I've learned how important that is," he said.

When asked if he had any advice for his successor, Mr McGrath said that being yourself is the most important thing.

"Every Mayor has to bring something to it. The last thing the new Mayor needs to do is look at how I carried out my duties. He or she needs to look at themselves and the way he or she wants to approach. It's a fantastic honour, but make sure that you respect it for the honour it is. You're representing more than 400,000 people.  But be yourself, put your own stamp on it, set your own agenda, work hard at it, and always respect the honour that it is," he said.

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