TWELVE years after first being elected to Clare County Council, Cratloe’s PJ Ryan became mayor of Clare last Friday afternoon.
An independent Councillor, he is very much of the Fianna Fáil gene pool, and first stood for election for that party, staying in the race until the final count in 2004.
However, when the party hierarchy decided his face didn’t fit five years later, he decided to go it alone.
“They had this selection thing, they sent people down from Dublin to select the candidates, people that knew nothing about the candidates or what they were involved in. Michael Begley and myself lost out, so I decided I’d go the independent route. I’ve been elected three times as an independent.”
Both sides of his family were rooted in Fianna Fáil, but he says he didn’t seriously look at going back into the party.
“No, the thing about it is, why would you change a winning team?” he quips.
For years now Clare County Council has had a power sharing arrangement, which means that positions such as mayor rotate between representatives of all groupings, be they independents, members of small parties such as Sinn Féin and the Greens, or the larger and more established Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
On Monday, Councillor Ryan praised those who brokered the current agreement, reached following the 2019 local elections.
“The people who drew up the agreement and got the positions sorted out, it’s not a very easy task. You had Ann Norton, Clare Colleran Molloy, Gerry Flynn, Joe Cooney, Tony O’Brien and John Crowe.
“They were the six people who negotiated it, I threw my name into the hat and I was lucky enough to be selected to serve as Mayor for the third of the five years.”
Seemingly always in crisis over the last decade, Shannon Airport is going to face a huge challenge as the pandemic recedes.
There is some consensus that aviation will take a few years to recover, but it is likely to be particularly hard for smaller airports and Councillor Ryan said its success is vital to the county’s prosperity.
“Shannon Airport is very important to the county for employment and connectivity, when Shannon is going well, Clare is going well.”
He says there is some cause for a little optimism, but really a substantial recovery is going to require help from the State.
“There is a small bit of light at the end of the tunnel in the last couple of weeks and hopefully we can build on that. There will be a new chair appointed to the board, maybe a new board appointed and we’ll start off.
“At the end of the day whatever we do locally, we need to have a change in aviation policy. There’s no point in having one airport in the eastern side of the country with 33 million passengers and Shannon starved of traffic.”
He feels that every effort needs to be made to encourage people from the region using Dublin Airport to put Shannon first.
“The CEO Mary Considine is doing her best to get things up and running again, incentivising airlines to come into Shannon. Maybe part of that would be helping the public a bit, maybe reducing parking fees a bit, maybe offer two free days, to entice people to use Shannon.
“One of the major problems, and I don’t know how we overcome it, is we have an awful lot of buses leaving Clare every day taking passengers to Dublin Airport and I don’t know how we short circuit that.
“They keep saying Shannon doesn’t have the passenger numbers, but how could you have the passenger numbers with 27 or 28 buses going from Limerick to Dublin every day and a lot of buses leaving Ennis as well? We have to find some way of drawing them towards Shannon.”
Housing is the other big challenge he sees facing the county.
“We have a county development plan at the moment and I think we need at least to hold onto whatever land we have zoned at the moment, and if possible to increase it.
“The shortage of housing is a problem. Clare County Council are making inroads at the moment, we don’t want too much social housing either, we need affordable housing.
“I think there are a lot of people who are earning enough money to be able to pay for an affordable house, in a reasonable bracket.
“I meet young couples every day who are paying a substantial amount of money to rent a house and even three quarters of what they’re paying in rent would pay for a mortgage.”
Councillor Ryan is concerned that a shortage of materials could provide another obstacle to finally getting a handle on the housing issue.
“Steel, timber, cement, they’re all creeping up in price. Brexit has had an effect on that, as well as Covid. A lot of the materials were sourced from the UK and that’s problematic now at the minute, because importing from the UK is becoming a problem.”
Self employed, running an oil business, he says that the freedom of being his own boss is helpful to him when it comes to doing the work of a councillor, but it would be quite hard if he didn’t have the support he does.
“I suppose when you’re at the stage in life I’m at, it’s a help, but I wouldn’t like to be a young businessman getting into politics.
“I’m lucky enough that I have two sons working with me, they are able to keep the show going when I’m away. But if you were a young businessman with a young family you’d find it very, very hard to be involved in local politics.”
In recent years the role has become much busier than previously. “Since 2014 things have changed an awful lot, the workload has increased, there’s more and more work to be done. The housing problem is a big part of my week, every week, trying to keep housing sort, keep on top of applications and that sort of thing.”
The reason things changed at the time they did was because local government was reformed, with the abolition of town councils.
“There was less people to go to. Shannon had a town council, Ennis had a town council, Kilrush had a town council, that’s a lot gone from the county.”
Busy as it is, he does find local politics satsifying. “Sometimes it can get stressful, but there is a great buzz out of helping people.
“I have a particular interest in helping the elderly, with housing grants, adaptation grants, all that kind of thing.99.9% of people are very appreciative of what you do for them, so there is a bit of a buzz out of that. If you’re community orientated you get a buzz out of it.
“Sometimes you have to take a bit of flak as well, things don’t often go the way you’d hope they’d go and it’s not easy to please all the people all the time.”
He feels that the areas where the councillors have influence has actually decreased in recent times, and he feels this should be reversed.
“Our powers seem to be diminishing over the last few years as well. We seem to be taken out of the equation a bit.
“It is essential that there be accountability, but with the accountability you need to get a bit of extra power first. I’d like to see more powers in planning and housing, I think they’re very important issues in the county.”