Monday 22 July 2019

Green agenda for Joe

New face on the Council, Cllr Joe O'Brien talks to Ken Phelan about his green agenda on Fingal County Council and how he intends to pursue it

Newly elected Green Party councillor for the Balbriggan ward - which includes Balrothery, Balbriggan, Skerries and Loughshinny - Cllr Joe O'Brien has his targets set high for his five year term in office.

From pushing for work on the council's Draft Climate Action Plan, the Castlelands development, the Balbriggan to Skerries Greenway, and the provision of schools in the area, Cllr O'Brien has his work cut out.

Here, he speaks of his recent election to the council, the issues which he feels are most pressing in his constituency, his work with The Immigrant Council of Ireland, and why he became involved in politics: 'I had put a lot of work into the local elections.

'I came very close five years ago, and painfully so, I'd readily admit, just missing out on the last seat.

'So I'm glad I stuck in there, and stuck with it. It was a huge relief, but I'm delighted as well that the people who supported me all along got a little bit of a reward as well, with a Green councillor in the ward for the first time in a while.

'It's my first time as councillor, I've been engaging with the council a lot over the past number of years, but it's the first time I'm officially at meetings and officially as councillor and have the title, so that has already been different, in terms of response levels and so on.'

He says: 'When you're knocking on doors quite a lot, like I was in the run-up to the election, you're doing the numbers in terms of the number of people that are going to vote for you, so I was cautiously optimistic that whoever said they'd vote for me would vote for me, that I would get in.

'The feedback was the best I've ever had on the doors.

'You're always surprised when something that big changes, but I suppose the indications were very good for the weeks running up to it.

'The campaign went well, I have to say - the only time I felt a little bit worried was when I decided not to poster in the town in Skerries and along the main street in Balbriggan.

'Some of the other candidates did it in Balbriggan, but I was kind of the only one that didn't do it in Skerries, so I was a bit worried at that.

'But I think it worked quite well, people appreciated it, that we didn't put up an unnecessary amount of posters.

'The campaign was good, the feedback was good on the doors, and when you're hearing that, it gives you more energy as well.

'So I was quite happy with how it went.'

Asked how he was adjusting to his new position on the council, Cllr O'Brien says it's hard to tell, as there hasn't yet been a full council meeting since the local elections took place.

The council, he says, has not found its own 'rhythm' yet; although, he says, there will be a meeting later this month, the council breaks for summer, so that another meeting is not expected until the autumn.

At the moment though, he is 'settling in' and finding out how things work internally, such as the council's IT system and council procedures.

At the same time, he is quick to point out, queries are consistently coming in from constituents, which he is dealing with on a daily basis.

Asked of which issues were coming up on the door during the local elections, he said: 'Green party issues are usually fairly clear, in terms of what we're about, and it depends then on the local area what issues are more important for the individuals there.

'In Balbriggan, it's really about sustainable development, and development that's done with the whole community in mind, and that was very much on people's minds in Balbriggan, with the Castlelands plan on the horizon.

'In Skerries, it was a little bit different, Skerries is growing quite a lot as well, there's more need for sports facilities, the community college is bursting at the seams, so these kind of things were popping up across the board.'

He says: 'In some ways it might sound like a minor thing, but road safety was coming up, and it's quite a Green issue.

'We want people to be able to walk and cycle as much as possible, but one of the overarching things was that people didn't feel safe to do so.

'So that's something I'd like to work on a lot more on the local council, in terms of children walking to school and commuters walking to train stations, making it easier for people to walk and cycle.

'That's one of the big projects for Fingal County Council, the whole greenway plans up along the coast, and further inland as well, and that's obviously something we'd be very interested in pushing.'

On some of the most pressing concerns for Balbriggan and Skerries, he says: 'I think it's infrastructure for both really. For Balbriggan, the biggest issue for everybody in Balbriggan at the moment is the Castlelands development, and the rejuvenation strategy.

'So obviously there was a lot of positivity around the rejuvenation strategy and Fingal are very committed to it, but then at the same time the proposals for Castlelands didn't quite fit with the spirit of the rejuvenation strategy.

'In Skerries as well, infrastructure of the town is growing, our water system isn't able to service all the houses in Skerries at the moment, we're at the end of a water line, and that's a bit of a problem.

'But obviously transport infrastructure is an issue, trains are getting more packed, and the key issue for Skerries is well is sports facilities as well.'

Originally from Cork, and now living in Skerries, Cllr O'Brien has worked for The Immigrant Council of Ireland 'for almost twenty years.'

A long-term Green Party supporter, Cllr O'Brien, frustrated by his own limitations in bringing about political change, decided the only way he could further the party's policies was to get involved in political life himself, as he says:

'I've been working in the NGO sector all my life, and I'm someone who enjoys trying to make a positive difference.

'Some years back when I was working and campaigning while in the NGO sector, I got to meet a lot of politicians, and I realised that I could do this job as well and possibly do it better.

'At the same time, it was really clear that the Green Party was the only party whose policies I agreed with one hundred percent, and whose policies I felt were the most important.

'I suppose I realised how important the position of politician is, in that they get to make key decisions.

'They have a lot of influence in terms of how policies are created, and how we look after the planet.

'So when I saw that I said, if I'm true to myself in terms of somebody who wants to make a positive difference, then eventually I'll have to get involved in politics because that's the key place where change is made.'

Cllr O'Brien has been knocking on the door of elected office for some time now and has put his name on the ballot paper at both the local elections and General Election before.

This time was the first time he managed to get over the line as he was swept up in the so-called 'Green Wave' in these local elections.

Cllr O'Brien says he plans to cut back on his hours with the Immigrant Council of Ireland later this year to allow him more time working on the council.

Having won the mandate of the people, though, how does he intend to prove himself over the next five years?

He said: 'I want to be a good public representative and I want to be responsive to people.

'I want to support all the various community and sports organisations in the towns and villages, but I also want to bring it to another level as well and tackle some of the big strategic issues within the confines of the council.

'One of them is the Climate Action Plan, another one is the delivery of the greenway; you're not going to get that all delivered in five years, but you can get some key sections of it delivered I hope, and I think political will is important to make sure that happens, and to push the Executive to make sure it happens.'

Fingal Independent