ELECTED unanimously in the summer, Fianna Fáil councillor Gillian Coughlan has settled into her role as County Mayor and is keen to bring a brisk and positive air to the role and, by extension, to the council chamber.
Every meeting begins with a can-do attitude and ends with an affirmative conclusion.
“In many ways, it is like a classroom,” the history teacher said.
“When the camera is on, for online meetings or blended meetings, you are trying to enthuse and engage and it is important to be organised.”
Mrs Coughlan is depended upon to run the meeting, as she is the classroom.
“As chair, I like to keep order and ensure everybody has the right to speak. It’s important that standing order is upheld.”
Blended meetings have some councillors present in the chamber, while others are attending remotely.
Mrs Coughlan said she was “very glad” to have members present.
“It can feel isolating when the meetings are completely online. Politics, for me, is about people. There is an energy when you have a room of people working towards a goal and I feed off that. It is the energy of the councillors that keeps me going.”
While the role involves fewer evening appearances, dinners, and award ceremonies in the Covid-19 era, Mrs Coughlan said she has enjoyed attending functions and events as the County Mayor.
“I can’t overstate the regard with which the mayoral chain is held in, it is kept in high esteem, and it is a tribute to the work of all the people in the council.”
Describing some of the ceremonies she has attended and places she has visited, Ms Coughlan said she will never forget visiting Ballydesmond.
“I was the first mayor to officially visit Ballydesmond and the welcome I got, I will never forget, the kindness and generosity, it was an honour to be the representative of the local authority on that occasion, as it is on every occasion.”
While Covid-19 has impacted on her mayoral duties, Ms Coughlan also spoke of the impact of the pandemic in the community.
“I have known people who have died of, and from, Covid. I have grieved with families who have lost someone to Covid. It has has a huge impact on the physical and mental health of so many people.”
The County Mayor said the price the public has had to pay to keep everyone safe has taken its toll on communities.
“Social, arts, and service industries are suffering hugely and I think young people, in particular, have been hit hard. I think there have been rules made in haste that have had a knock-on effect.
Ms Coughlan said she was concerned about the lasting effect the pandemic could be having on young people.
“They have had to make huge sacrifices; all the fun of being young has been taken away. Adults sometimes forget that kids are sitting at home, there is no match to go to, no social events. Nothing.”
The County Mayor said it was not about blame, but about empathy.
“Children must play; it is an essential aspect of childhood.”
Discussing a momentous ruling for the local authority, Mrs Coughlan gave her views on the High Court decision in November that saw Cork County Council win a judicial review overturning an order from the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPW), in relation to planning for a retail outlet village (ROV), or Kildare Village-type retail centre, in Carrigtwohill.
While she was delighted with the ruling, because it reinstated the right of the local authority to make planning decisions within their remit, Mrs Coughlan said that she was not convinced an ROV was the right move for the county. “Cork city is traditionally linked to retail in this region. Retail is already under pressure and I think proliferating and creating competition might not be the best idea.”
In saying that, she said she thought the centre could be built in another county, if it is not built in Cork.
“In this respect, I can see merit in the ROV, but I would prefer if the city and towns were the drivers of retail. There is great shopping right through the county, some magnificent boutiques, and with the change in retail and online shopping, I would be concerned town centres will struggle.”
From one contentious issue to another, Ms Coughlan spoke about the ongoing struggle of engaging with Irish Water and pushing for progress with the body.
“I am elected to Cork County Council and Cork County Council must answer to me, that’s the idea. Irish Water is not accountable and there needs to be a mechanism of accountability there.”
Mrs Coughlan said it can be very difficult to get answers on larger infrastructural issues and the members end up asking the county engineer to investigate the matter for them.
“The county engineer has enough to be doing outside of pleading for answers to queries.”
The County Mayor said that collectively, as a council, there was frustration around the lack of accountability surrounding Irish Water.
“It is the most frequent complaint we get in the chamber.”
Dealing with frustrating conundrums is a constant of a politician’s life, as the County Mayor detailed the slow, ongoing saga around providing broadband to rural parts of Cork county.
“Connectivity is the elephant in the room. I am despondent at the lack of progress on this issue, it has been a problem for a very long time.”
Mrs Coughlan said there are areas in Cork, deemed ‘non-viable’ by commercial entities, that will not even be surveyed by the National Broadband Plan (NBP) until 2026.
“Something has to change, maybe the private sector may help and step in. Access to broadband is an essential service.”
With increased work from home, there is an opportunity to grow the economy and vibrancy of County Cork, but without broadband access, it is just not possible.
“It is creating a two-track Ireland: Those who have broadband access and those who do not. It is debilitating in the modern world to be without.”
Taking a break from the politics, Mrs Coughlan told The Echo she was looking forward to a quiet Christmas in Bandon with family and friends.
“I will be spending Christmas with my husband, Don, and my three children, Ronan, 12, Maeve, 17, and Aidan, 23.”
She will be enjoying a traditional Christmas, attending Mass as a family and sitting down to a feast of turkey and ham on Christmas Day, after examining the presents left by Santa for young Ronan.
“It’s great, it’s a bit of time to relax, enjoy each other’s company and savour the stillness of Christmas Day,” Mrs Coughlan said.
Looking ahead to 2022 and the rest of her time as mayor, Mrs Coughlan said one thing she wanted to achieve was stronger links with Northern Ireland.
“It is something that is not traditionally done, but over the past year, I’ve become concerned about the politics between North and South and while it might not be our problem here, it could be.”
The mayor said the more we, as a people, understand each other, the more we can learn from each other.
“It is better for society.”