The new Mayor of Ballyshannon, Phonsie Travers, is in a better position than most to reflect on the many changes he has witnessed in the town where he is now first citizen - for the third time in his political career.
Earlier this week his Fine Gael colleagues ordained that he would represent the town as mayor when the agm of Ballyshannon Town Council took place, and they have opted for a very safe and experienced pair of hands.
Phonsie at one time was tipped for much higher political office, but he remained true to the principles that saw him first elected in 1985 and for the past 28 years he has been a keen advocate for the Erne town. He waves the flag for the ‘friendly town, the kindly spot’ but he’s a realist, and he accepts that Ballyshannon, like so many other towns and villages in the county, is going through a very tough time and he knows people are hurting, economically and through the pain of seeing loved ones forced to leave the town of their birth.
“I hope we are able to sustain the number of people we have already in employment in Ballyshannon, but we will do well to do that.
“Nearly every month now you hear of some business closing down in Ballyshannon. We welcome new businesses that are going to open in Ballyshannon, but unfortunately looking back over my 28 years in politics, it is fair to say that things for Ballyshannon, have not changed for the better.”
However, he’s quick to balance that view and he also recognises the excellent work being done by groups and individuals in the town. He has particular praise for the Ballyshannon Regeneration Group led by Barry Sweeny, the son of a former Town Commission colleague, John.
“This group are out in all weather, sometimes between ten and 15 people, doing their bit to clean and tidy and I think that it is to people like Barry and the Regeneration Group we need to look. They are showing a ‘can do’ spirit and that is vital.”
He also praised the efforts of Backing Ballyshannon and he suggested that Ballyshannon must work together to ensure a better future for everyone.
Mayor again next year?
There was some speculation that Phonsie would in fact defer the position until next year but he may well be mayor again next year. 2014 is expected to be the final year for the council to operate as the order looks set from on high to disband all or most town councils. Whatever may happen in a large council such as Letterkenny, it looks all but certain that town councils such as Buncrana, Bundoran and Ballyshannon, will cease operating after 2014.
Phonsie sees town councils ending, but he predicts that a new model of district councils, in the case of south Donegal stretching from Bundoran to Glencolmcille, will come into vogue:
“Town Councils are going to be abolished. Without being political it wasn’t Phil Hogan who started the ball rolling on this, it was Noel Dempsey and John Gormley. They were the people who began to talk about the reform of Local Government and within that white paper on the reform issue, they looked at abolishing town and urban councils. At the time most political parties agreed that town councils would be abolished.”
Aware that his ministerial colleague Phil Hogan is taking the blame for the move to close town councils, Phonsie, a wonderful match commentator in his time with North West Radio, unsurprisingly throws in a football metaphor to defend ‘Big Phil’: “Phil Hogan is only carrying the ball that was already there. Some think the announcement will be made in the next two weeks, I suspect it will be September.
“My own view is that we will mirror Northern Ireland and we will have a district council, stretching from Bundoran to Glencolmcille and I think we will have four or five district councils in Donegal. Perhaps a major council like Letterkenny will be retained, but elsewhere there will be district councils across the county.”
Phonsie is well aware that all local authorities have critics and he has no problem with that, but he also points to the good that local councils such as Ballyshannon, with a very limited budget, can do.
“The positive work done in the past would not have happened without the town council. Now there is no money to do things. However, despite all its problems I think Ballyshannon is a great town and there are many great people in the town doing great work on its behalf.
“If Ballyshannon Town council is abolished, and I feel it will be, the deed is done, we still will have a lot of people who will continue to work for the good of Ballyshannon.”
Like his predecessor, Cllr John Meehan, Cllr Travers, says that Ballyshannon Town Council’s most important role very often is to be a forum to highlight issues and to encourage enterprise and community spirit.
Phonsie understands the key part of the role, “We have to show leadership and to be a voice for all the people and that, primarily is what I intend to do.”