Galway County Councillor and new Mayor of County Galway Thomas Welby has politics in his DNA; his late father, Tom, served as a councillor for 17 years.
Cllr Thomas Welby was first elected to Galway County Council on 11 June 2004 and was elected Mayor of County Galway on the same date this year. As well as having a particular significance in his political career, the date 11 June is also tinged with sadness, as it was on that day in 2003 that his father Tom died suddenly.
“My late father got to be the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Vice-Chairperson, of the council in his time, so I’ve taken it one step further along the line and I’m sure no doubt he’d be looking down, smiling away,” says Cllr Welby.
His father served as a county councillor for almost two decades and Cllr Welby was heavily involved in his last election campaign in 1999. Despite this, he comes from a strong community background rather than a political one and cut his teeth working with the local Tidy Towns committee as well as being part of a steering group responsible for reinvigorating the community council in Oughterard.
Community development remains high on his agenda and his priorities for the year ahead include road transportation and water quality, as he argues that, while there has been a lack of investment in the area in the past, the value of Lough Corrib, both as an amenity and in terms of drinking water, cannot be underestimated.
Having joined the now defunct Progressive Democrats in 2003, Cllr Welby ran unsuccessfully in Galway West in the 2007 General Election alongside constituency colleagues Deputy Noel Grealish and Cllr Donal Lyons.
He ultimately resigned from the PDs in 2008 and, reflecting on this, Cllr Welby says he felt there was a disconnect between the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government and the public at the time, and that Health Minister and party leader Mary Harney’s decision to end the automatic entitlement to a medical card for people over 70 was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.
Running as an Independent in the 2009 Local Elections, Cllr Welby topped the poll in the Connemara Electoral Area, with over 2,500 votes, but failed in his election bid at last year’s General Election.
He remains a proponent for strong local government and feels that local authorities are the “poor relations of any sort of democracy at the moment”. “The funding has been stripped to a level that it’s very hard to deliver the services,” he says, highlighting year-on-year reductions in local authority funding.
Stressing that councils cannot provide the same services with less money, he says that “phenomenal pressure” is being placed on staff and resources required for services such as local authority housing maintenance.
Local authority reform and specifically the amalgamation of Galway County Council and Galway City Council could go some way towards alleviating such pressures, according to Cllr Welby.
“Above any of them, Galway would be the easiest because the county council has shared services with Galway City Council in relation to water, sewerage, and we’re intrinsically linked with roads. Personally I think it would be a natural amalgamation,” he says, acknowledging that the move would lead to a reduction in councillors, who should then in turn be bestowed with more powers.
In terms of his other priorities for the year ahead, the self-employed retailer considers the year-long tourism initiative, The Gathering and Ireland Reaching Out, a reverse genealogy project that began in South East Galway, to be vital in encouraging visitors to Galway City to spend more time and money in the county, where many businesses are “hanging on by their fingertips”.
Pointing out that more people have been lost to emigration from the West than anywhere else in Ireland, Cllr Welby feels that harnessing Ireland’s Diaspora could prove hugely beneficial for the region. “The more people you have lost, the more opportunities you have to bring people back,” he says, adding that his own grandfather had 16 siblings, 12 of whom emigrated to the US.
Given the recent success of the Volvo Ocean Race Grand Finale, Cllr Welby is hopeful that The Gathering may similarly prove beneficial for County Galway. “When you see what Let’s Do it Global did in Galway…there’s no doubt about it, when we as a society pull together, we can achieve a lot.”