Politics of the community
NOEL Campbell’s political ambitions died the moment he was promoted in the civil service; killed off by a fundamental tenet of the system that had elected him … democracy.
For almost five years, he represented the bright new face of Sinn Féin on Castlebar Town Council. If his election in 2004 surprised some hard-bitten pundits, his performance over the years reflected the perceptiveness of his supporters in their choice of candidate.
He championed the rights of the underprivileged, pleaded the causes of his constituents, vigorously challenged government insensitivity, and won the respect of officials and Council colleagues for his fairness.
He was fully aware that promotion in 2006 to documentation officer at the Country Life Museum in Turlough signalled the end of his career as a public representative. And he had resigned himself to the inevitable.
The statute was unambiguous: … “a civil servant must maintain a reserve in political matters and not put himself forward on one side or another and, further, that he should be careful to do nothing that would give colour to any suggestions that his official actions are in any way influenced, or capable of being influenced, by party motives.”
Campbell’s work was never in danger of being compromised by his role as a town councillor. He did not give out contracts and had no major budget to disperse. Managing a collection of objects in stores at the back of Turlough House convinced no one – not even his boss – that the civil service was likely to be destabilised by his inclusion in public life.
That did not dissuade ‘a leading political figure in Mayo’ from ensuring that Campbell’s head office at the National Museum was fully informed of the situation. “I was not impressed,” said the Sinn Féin man. “It was an issue that would have come up anyhow, but that was a bit of a low blow.”
The Castlebar man has no quibble with the relevant statute, and resigned his seat on the Council. “That is an old statute and it is not a bad statute; in fact, it is a good law and I wasn’t going to look for an exemption from it. Once you start getting exemptions all it proves is that the law is an ass.
“It does, however, need to be updated; it certainly needs to be looked at in terms of what people do in their job. I am at the level where you can’t be involved in politics but at the same time my job is not really that important that it would affect such involvement. There could be a case to be looked at, but I totally accept that is the law and that is it.”
Aware that the issue would sooner or later arise, the councillor commenced to review his three years in office at the time of his promotion. “Like every project you have to look and assess the time you spent on it and ask was it worth your while.”
He was long enough there to learn that people did not always appreciate the work of their representatives. Even though their responsibilities were being continually eroded at town council level it was no picnic for the committed councillor.
After a full day’s work you spent two or three nights and every Saturday on council work, listening to complaints, tending to requests, answering the phone, trying to solve someone’s problem. You get an allowance of about €3,500.
But he is glad of the experience and proud to have been the first member of the party to gain a seat on the Council.
For two or three years before his election he attended council meetings regularly. He sat there and took notes. He also distributed leaflets door to door. He was as active as if he were a sitting member of the Council.
“It was an eye-opener. I am from the Pontoon Drive Estate and it is the only estate I had known. There are 100 estates in Castlebar and when you are going around them and going into the houses and talking to people and you see what conditions some people are living in it would make you think.”
He went up to a block of flats while canvassing for a colleague in another election and ‘that was something else. It is great to see it ripped down’.
You get into a lot more scenarios when you go around like that, he said. He didn’t have a care in the world, but many to whom he talked were laden with problems. He would try to help them out as best he could and those he couldn’t help he put in the way of someone who could.
At NUIG where he studied History and Archaeology he got involved with Sinn Féin and formed a cumann in the college. Later he joined the party in UCD while completing his HDip.
Back home, membership of the party was small. He was anxious to get involved locally to see if what he was reading in the papers was correct. “It is very easy to see stuff and complain about it but quite a different thing to say ‘right I’m going to do something about it’. I threw my hat into the ring. I did not expect the vote I got. If I got half of it I would have been happy. I got the same first preference as Johnny Mee and people were shocked at that.”
He worked closely with the experienced Labour councillor, Mee, and with Independent, Michael Kilcoyne, dealing with developers about completing housing estates, the very bread and butter issues like community amenities, playgrounds, playing pitches etc. “They were some of the biggest issues. Out of five phone calls three of them could have been about estates and the conditions in which developers left them. He still finds it incredible that road-widening problems at New Line first raised in 1985 are still on the agenda and likely to be so two councils hence.
Campbell has urged more volunteers to help out with local projects. During his stint, voluntary groups with assistance from the Council undertook some of the biggest and best projects in the town.
One of his high points was helping out such a group organising a Féile on the Mall. People could have no excuse for not undertaking a couple of hours of voluntary work every week.
By and large, he said, party politics was left out of the Council during his term. The previous council was not that lucky but the group with whom he was involved in the last four years got on pretty well. They got a lot of work done and did not play to the media. They concentrated on the jobs they had to do and a lot of good stuff was achieved. “When it comes down to bread and butter issues it is very hard to make party politics of it even if you want to.”
In the present economic conditions Castlebar, he said, was in a battle to hold on to jobs. An IDA official had told them a couple of years back that the days of Volex were finished. No more industries with a thousand jobs would be setting up. Get one for 50 or 60 and jump at it, was his advice.
There is no rail service down the west coast or to Galway or Cork from Castlebar. There isn’t even broadband. “Outside of a few locations in the town centre you cannot get broadband and that is essential to any business. Industrialists will turn up their noses to a town that does not have it.
“The Government had turned away from the west. There have many quangos and groups set up to look into the development of the west but it is plain as the nose on my face that funding allocated to the west by Europe did not come here, but was re-distributed to the south-east. It is totally unfair and we are now paying the price for it.”
For the next few months, Noel Campbell will thrust himself into the Sinn Féin campaign to get Thérèse Ruane elected to the Town Council. She will be co-opted to his seat on the Town Council soon.
And the party is not dismissing the possibility of having two more candidates join Gerry Murray on Mayo County Council after the June elections.
“Sinn Féin could have the balance of power and if any authority needs a shake-up it is Mayo County Council. You have a situation there where you have Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael holding on to the reins of power, and while they all have been elected, it comes to a point where they start getting stale. The likes of an Independent or Sinn Féin is drastically needed to shake it up.
“Johnny Mee worked well with me in the Town Council and he is also working well with Gerry Murray, the sole Sinn Féin member on the County Council, and either of them would tell you that you need someone else there to second their proposals, otherwise they fall on deaf ears.”