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Moving Mayo forward

The Interview
Dr Katie Sweeney, Mayo VEC

Moving Mayo forward

The interview

Pat Conway

In the darker days of the Irish economy it was infamously remarked that Ireland’s best exports were its people.
In those bad old days Dr Katie Sweeney would almost certainly be lost to Mayo and probably Ireland. But it must be a sign of the times that she has been recruited as the new Chief Executive Officer of the Mayo Vocational Education Committee.
The fact that she was not snapped up to work in Dublin may also reflect the emerging attraction of Mayo over the capital and the other big cities.
Taking the VEC job is also another chapter in an impressive career that has been focused on Mayo.  For the past six years  she was Head of Centre at GMIT, Castlebar.  Before that she  was Head of Continuing Education and Lecturer in Mathematics on the Mayo campus.
In the early 1990s she was senior lecturer and research scientist at the Dublin Institute of Technology and Trinity College Dublin.
She has also lectured at the Stockholm University of Health Science. She has a BSc Honours Degree in Mathematics and Microbiology from NUI Galway. This was followed in 1989 by a PhD from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in the field of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology.
Dr Sweeney was born in Britain but at the age of four she moved back to Achill with her parents Thomas and Mary Ann. She is proud of her home county. 
“I am from Mayo, living in Mayo and working for Mayo – it doesn’t get much better! I strongly promote all the positive attributes of this wonderful county and do so at every available opportunity,” she said.
Dr Sweeney has not let her career dominate. She lives in Castlebar with husband John and three children; Seamus, Marianna and Kathryn.
“As a family, we are strongly involved in cultural activities within the county, particularly music and singing. John is from Louisburgh and as a result we also spend a lot of time there. We value the opportunities we have living in such a unique and spectacular environment. We all share common interests in music, culture, fishing, farming and pride in our community. Who could ask for more!”
Dr Sweeney retains strong links with Achill. While people can now live in rural Ireland, she said places like Achill face challenges.
“There are major concerns around the demographic decline of such communities within the county and the west of Ireland. These require immediate attention by all agencies. Such areas, with proper infrastructure, are ideal places for people to relocate to and start up micro industries or start–up companies.
She believes people with connections to the small communities should be actively and aggressively encouraged to ‘look west’ as outlined in the Western Development Commission’s (WDC) strategy.
“Business people who have connections with a community tend to have a strong commitment to and work harder for success in their home place and as a result employ local people” she said.
Dr Sweeney is on the board of the  the WDC since last year. She believes that the commission can provide funding for businesses and communities that find it difficult to get backing from a bank. But she believes that one initiative stands out.
“One of the most exciting ventures of the WDC has been the development of the ‘Look West’ Campaign. ‘Look West’ is a promotion and advertising campaign, which promotes the western region as an attractive place to live and work. The intention is to attract a broad range of people and skills to live and work in the western counties,” she said.
In the top job at the VEC Dr Sweeney will be expected to supply educated and well trained people for potential companies. She is  looking forward to to the challenge.
“I am absolutely delighted to have been nominated and appointed as the new CEO of County Mayo VEC. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to assume this pivotal educational role in my own county.  I am a proud product of the Mayo VEC education system,” she said.
Dr Sweeney paid glowing tribute to her predecessor, Joe Langan. She says he was both mentor and colleague in the development of education.
“He displayed tremendous vision for education in County Mayo, which was always delivered in a spirit of inclusion and partnership with all stakeholders and agencies,” she said.
Dr Sweeney said the vision for County Mayo VEC is to be the leading provider of educational opportunities, enabling lifelong learning. She  believes that the VEC has a big role in helping communities.
“The communities of Mayo and individuals of all ages have a significant role to play in sustaining this region and contributing to Ireland’s aspiration of becoming a knowledge- based economy. Our aim will be to provide and support an environment, which is structured for optimal learning. I look forward to working with all communities within the county to deliver on these objectives,” she said.