'Proud to be Cathaoirleach during these challenging times' - Cllr Donaghey
International Women's Day is tomorrow, March 8. This week the Donegal Live published a number of interviews with women who have been influential in their particular fields to tie in with the celebration.
Breaking the mould has been a continuing characteristic of Donegal Cathaoirleach Rena Donaghey’s political career.
She is the longest serving Fianna Fáil politician in Donegal. 2021 marked her 27th year in electoral politics.
Rena is currently the first female Fianna Fáil Mayor in Donegal, where there have been only three female Mayors in 121 years. She was also the first female Cathaoirleach, in Inishowen.
When she was elected to Donegal County Council in 1999, Rena was the only woman elected in the Inishowen Electoral Area, and was one of just three woman councillors elected in the whole county.
22 years later, plus ça change, including Rena, there are now four women councillors on Donegal County Council: Cllr Noreen McGarvey (Fianna Fáil), Cllr Marie Therese Gallagher (Sinn Féin) and Cllr Niamh Kennedy (Independent), out of a total of 37 councillors.
Speaking to Donegal Live just before the local elections in 2019, Rena said: “The representation of women in Local Authorities across the State has been consistently low. Currently, there are just three women Councillors on Donegal County Council. In addition, there are no women at all on Donegal County Council’s Senior Management Team.
“There are too many barriers, which inhibit the participation of women in politics, including an absence of family-friendly policies and the lack of confidence and support in general, which women often feel in male-dominated Comhairle Ceantairs. The lack of childcare facilities is a big factor too and, maybe, the lack of finance.
“Women make up the largest percentage of community groups but this is often not reflected in decision-making committees. While I would recommend a career in politics, there would need to be more supports for women, who may be caring for children and older people.”
Rena who is married to Patrick, has four children and four grandchildren and was born on a small farm in Tullydish in Buncrana. Her mother and father were Mary and Edward McCallion.
Rena described her year as Cathaoirleach, which ends in June 2021, as “very difficult”.
She said: “It is extremely busy. Since we went into Level 5, all of the Council meetings have been carried out via Zoom. We might have five or six Zoom meetings a day, which is a lot of screen time, and it is not the same at all as a physical meeting. I would prefer to have physical meetings, where you can meet up with the Directors afterwards and you can get more work done. You can also get talking to your colleagues, to collaborate with them on issues.
“On a Zoom, because I am the Mayor, I am chairing most of the Zooms, so I have to make sure I am on top of my brief. When you are the host of a Zoom, you cannot take even a short break, you have to be there all of the time. It requires a lot of deep concentration, even for your eyes. You are going out of one Zoom and into the next one. There is no time to get so much as a breath of fresh air between meetings.
“The Donegal County Council work is definitely getting done, however, Covid-19 played had a significant impact on our lives and on our businesses and on the economy and the opportunities available to young people and our capacity to maintain public services and invest in infrastructure and projects. That is challenging.
“The Roads Department is a big part of Donegal County Council's service provision. The money has been allocated for 2021. However, our roads' men are all stopped. They are not out working but we have to have the money drawn down, the planning and the programmes done and the budget spent by November. That is very, very difficult when the work might not start until April, May or June. And once you come into October, it is not the time to be tarring roads because you have not got the heat. Covid-19 has certainly had a serious impact on all of that,” said Rena.
Rena said she was proud of the fact Donegal County Council has been maintaining all of its public services, in spite of Covid-19.
She added: “The Council has also supported the businesses and done its best for the economy. The commercial rates were waived and there was the support grant and the vouchers and the PUP (Pandemic Unemployment Payment) from the Government, which was a great help.”
It has also been a difficult 12 months personally for Rena, due to the loss of her brother.
With evident emotion, she added: “Although his death was not Covid related, he died very, very suddenly, the first of seven of us, from a brain haemorrhage. His death was made all the more difficult by the lack of physical support of friends and neighbours, that means so much to us when we do lose someone.
“And even the funeral, you are given tickets to give to people to go to the funeral and it is terribly hard to decide who you give the tickets to. It is just very difficult to lose someone during the Covid times.”
On a more positive note, Rena hoped the Covid-19 working restrictions would expedite a discussion on remote working conditions and remote learning.
She said: “People are leaving the cities and coming to Donegal because we have so much to offer, after all, work and schooling was able to continue here during lockdown. Commute times and carbon emissions could be reduced.
“That is why we need so many digital hubs, like the one planned for Buncrana. We need to retain our skilled young people in Donegal. The roll out of broadband needs to happen as quickly as possible to facilitate this.”
“In spite of the challenges of 2020 and 2021 I have really enjoyed my year as Cathaoirleach so far. It has been great to have the opportunity to lead the county through these difficult times,” said Rena.
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