A delegation of two councillors and two officials from the New Ross Municipal District (NRMD) is to head to Danville, California this week despite the protestations of their fellow councillors. The trip will see Cathaoirleach of the NRMD, Councillor Michael Sheehan, Councillor John Fleming and two unnamed officials travel to America to attend the Eugene O’Neill Festival from September 16-22.
Eugene O’Neill, America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright, lived in Danville and the concert celebrates the Friendship City relationship between Danville and New Ross, Ireland, from which O’Neill’s father James emigrated However, with the country in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis, there was strong opposition to the trip at the monthly meeting of Wexford County Council (WCC) in Carricklawn. Having spent the previous night in a tent outside WCC’s housing department as part of a party protest, Sinn Féin’s Tom Forde was the first to voice his disquiet about the timing of the trip.
“I have previously raised question marks over other delegations and I’d like to request in future that we have a report on what benefits to the area economically and what we stand to gain from them,” said Cllr Forde. “We all have to be aware we’re in a cost of living crisis and we can’t take it too lightly when we send delegations off. I’m not comfortable voting for this when I don’t know when benefits it will bring, but I would ask that we get a report in future before we approve something.”
Fine Gael’s Diarmuid Devereux was also unhappy about the prospect of WCC sending a delegation to America at a time of great economic stress. “I’m not comfortable with this either, I’m actually totally opposed to it, and I want it recorded that I’m voting against it,” he said. “It’s not a reflection on the NRMD and it’s not a reflection on those who may be going it’s just that people are looking at politicians like us to send out signals on how we’re going to alleviate the situation families in Wexford are in at the moment. Sending a delegation to California for what is basically the launch of a festival makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.”
Defending the decision to go to America Cllr John Fleming offered some clarity for those who believed it was a pointless exercise. “As someone that’s involved in the Eugene O’Neill festival, the last time we went over they came back here with 60 people and they spent a week in New Ross, stayed in our hotels, and we expect that to grow and grow from here on, that’s the pay off, that’s the benefit,” said Cllr Fleming.
After Cllr Cathal Byrne also voiced his opposition, Cllr Jim Codd said it would be difficult for the average person to make sense of a trip to America at this time. “At a time when people can barely afford to heat their houses and fill their cars we need detailed explanations of the benefits of this,” said Cllr Codd. “I appreciate Cllr Fleming’s attempt to offer an explanation but it should be priced, we should know how much it’s going to cost.”
Independent councillor Davy Hynes agreed with Cllr Codd, stating, “We’re going to have some very tough times over the next couple of years, there’s so many people in our communities frightened out of their wits over the winter that’s coming, we need to think about everything very clearly from now on.”
And this theme was continued by Cllr Jackser Owens who felt the trip was out of keeping with the message coming from central government. “I’m against it, I have a lot of respect for the lads from New Ross, they’re entitled to do that if they want to do it, but at this time, when we have Minister Ryan wanting to stop people putting up lights at Christmas and people are struggling it makes no sense to me.”
New Ross councillor Bridin Murphy, who had been invited to Danville, said that “in the context of the difficulties people are having coming up to Christmas I don’t think it’s the right time for us to be making trips abroad.”
However, there was defence for the trip from her fellow New Ross councillors Pat Barden and Anthony Connick.
“I’m not on the delegation and have never been but I know the lads have been over there before,” said Cllr Barden. “But it’s a no-brainer, there’s four people going and 60 coming back, maybe even more, maybe up to 100 coming next year. That is not a cost to the NRMD, it’s an economic growth; we’re hearing some ridiculous statements coming from the far side of the house.”
“Pat hit the nail on the head,” added Cllr Connick. “I went the last time, I’m not on it this time, but we have a relationship with those people who actually come over a couple a times a year, 63 came the last time. They stayed in New Ross and spent money in New Ross. There’s four going out, 60 coming back, I’d take those odds any day.”
Further support came from Fianna Fáil councillor Pip Breen who said you had to “speculate to accumulate” and, having been invited, it would be “bad form” if the delegation didn’t go.
Chair of the NRMD and one of those going to Danville, Cllr Michael Sheehan stressed that their presence in Danville would benefit all of Wexford in the long-term.
“The quid pro quo is that there’s going to be a return journey to New Ross with approximately 60-100 people coming to stay in Co Wexford. We often talk about supporting local theatres, businesses and I can’t think of a better way to do that. St Michael’s Theatre will be full, the restaurants will be full, hotels, the economic benefits will be huge.”
Further support came from Cllr Michael Sheehan before Chief Executive of WCC Tom Enright outlined his thoughts on the trip and its potential benefits.
“If you look back over the years when we went through the last financial crash, lots of locations shut down and didn’t go anywhere and I think that was to their detriment, local authorities lost out because of that,” said Mr Enright. “Back in 2014 when we reached out to Savannah, Georgia we had a deficit of almost €12m but we felt it was the right thing to do.
"As you know we’ve since had huge success with Georgia Southern University, so we need to be careful we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s important we have these connections, they help us with foreign investment and we need to keep them. I’m not going myself but I do think it’s important we keep this connection alive, we get a much better return and it’s the local businesses who get it not the council and that’s what we want to see.”
A decision on whether the trip should go ahead was subsequently put to the floor with councillors narrowly voting in favour of it. In October of this year The Eugene O’Neill International Festival of Theatre will take place in New Ross.