*Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG) pictured at his home in Ennis. Photograph: Tom Micks

JUNE’s local elections in the Ennis Municipal District have been blown wide open as Cllr Johnny Flynn (FG) has confirmed he has withdrawn from the race.

A two-time Mayor of the Ennis MD, Cllr Flynn was tipped as the favourite to top the poll for the second time in his career in politics. He was first elected to Ennis Town Council in 2004, remaining there until its abolition in 2014 while he has prevailed in three elections to Clare County Council (2009, 2014 and 2019).

In an exclusive interview with The Clare Echo, the Ennis native announced the shock decision that he would be not going forward for re-election and criticised the Ennis 2040 Designated Active Company (DAC) for stripping power from elected representatives. As if often the case when meeting Johnny, he was surrounded by documents and policy papers prior to the interview, this time it was the Clare Climate Action Plan that was under his microscope.

He is married to Catherine who runs Flynn’s Pharmacy, they have four adult children, Patrick, Thomas, Jack and Kate, all of whom are engineers in different disciplines. “We have a lot of experts in the house when they all come home, they’ve been fantastic, they are great human beings, great people”.

Last June, he was selected alongside Cllr Mary Howard (FG) and Cllr Paul Murphy (FG) as Fine Gael’s candidates in the Ennis MD for the 2024 local elections. “I’ve served for twenty years and I’ve been honoured to serve for twenty years, ten years as a town councillor in Ennis and then fifteen years as a county councillor, there was an overlap for five years. After twenty years it is for personal rather than political reasons that I’ve decided not to put my name forward for election on the 7th of June but I wish all of my colleagues and candidates well who are stepping forward, it is great people are willing to”.

As Mayor in 2015, he was a key figure involved in the bid which resulted in Ennis hosting the hugely successful Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 2016. Ennis’ Purple Flag designation is another area he played an influential part along with securing funds in the region of €20m for the state of the art redevelopment of both Scoil Chríost Rí in Cloughleigh and the CBS primary school. A roundabout in Cappahard and a mini-roundabout in Corrovorrin Avenue are among other projects he campaigned strongly for. Lobbying for the Dublin Bus to be brought into Co Clare with a stop at Ennis is another feather to his cap.

Life in local politics has had its ups and downs, he reflected, “I must say, I’ve made a lot of friends, I hope I haven’t made too many enemies, I worked with some fantastic town councillors who gave great service to the town of Ennis and obviously I’ve worked with some extraordinary and capable county councillors, I haven’t always agreed with some of the decisions but that is democracy. I’m going to focus on my family, I’m fortunate to have four grown-up adults, recently I became a grandfather to Molly who is our first grandchild, I want to go back playing sport, I played an awful lot of sport but I found politics is very time consuming, I’ll make myself available to a few committees volunteering which I haven’t had time to do”.

He hopes to dust off his “rusty rackets” and return to playing tennis. “I played an awful lot of soccer in my teens and inter-varsity soccer, I loved hurling and football but I wasn’t good enough really for the hurling or football. I played handball for Clare in the National League in the 40×20 and loved it, I played squash, racketball, tennis and badminton”.

Health was also a consideration in his decision. “I had a cardiac issue from being diabetic, I have prostate cancer the last few years and I’m recovering from that, you get to the stage where you’re not like the wind you’re not renewable, you have to face up to realities and the twenty years has taken up a lot of my personal and family time so it is great to be able to look to a grandchild, I’ve four adult children, I’ve two brothers and three sisters who I’m close to, I’m looking forward to spending time with family and I want to engage in a voluntary basis”.

Johnny, Jack & Catherine Flynn. Photograph by Eamon Ward

After the local elections in May 2019 and his election as Mayor in the Ennis MD in June of that year, the Tulla Rd resident did have a health scare. “The thing with diabetes and conditions is a lot of stress isn’t healthy, I’ll still be stressed but for personal reasons I felt I had given over twenty years, there are people who have given longer and greater service and I’d like to thank them because I’ve seen fantastic officials working in Ennis and Clare County Council, I’ve seen fantastic councillors in both the Town Council and County Council, it’s been great working with people”.

When launching his foray into politics, Johnny billed himself as a ‘no expenses, no junkets and no top-up payments’ councillor, a label he has kept. This stance was due to the cynical view towards politicians in light of the Mahon Tribunal. “On average after tax my net cost over the years as a town councillor was around €5,000, as a county councillor my net cost after tax and PRSI was around €10,000,” he calculated.

He acknowledged that he was fortunate to be in a financial position to take such a stance and to live in close proximity to the Council headquarters as opposed to travelling to long distances for meetings. “To be perfectly honest by me taking that position I don’t think it took away from my ability to be a councillor primarily because I had worked for twenty five years in local government as an engineer, I research stuff I don’t need to travel to see something, I research it. My fellow councillors that are driving in and out of all parts from the extremities of the county should get paid for travelling, I’m only over the road. The pay can be a deterrent for people because you couldn’t support a family on it”.

Flynn’s decision to exit politics is one that will cause a big shock across the county. “Some people might be glad to see the back of me. It is for personal reasons that I’m doing it. It is interesting that the idea of local government is that it’s an organisation there to support the needs of people, if the organisation starts meeting its own needs or if there is an organisation that isn’t listening to its customers or politicians representing these people then you are in a bit of difficulty, I do have a serious problem with Ennis 2040 and what they are proposing for the town. I will be continuing to work with Save Ennis Town which is a non-party, voluntary community group to challenge what is a private company that is not accountable to the elected members of Clare on what their plans are, that would have been a serious consideration in my decision not to go again,” he admitted”.

From the launch of the Ennis 2040 strategy in October 2021, the qualified civil engineer was one of three elected members sitting on the Board of Ennis 2040 DAC but he resigned from this post in September 2022 after submitting an objection to An Bord Pleanála to Clare County Council granting the green light to a data centre in Ennis which was one of nine transformational sites identified in the strategy.

Cllr Johnny Flynn with the Ennis 2040 document. Photograph: Chris Copley.

He told The Clare Echo, “I was on the board up until September 2022 and I thought they had a lot of good stuff planned for it but because of company law I can’t discuss what goes on inside the board meetings, you have fiduciary duties which are financial duties to this private company if you are a board member, if the board makes a decision for the benefit of that company you can’t go out and act against it, I felt there was a conflict there and I resigned. I’m very concerned with their plans for Abbey Street car park, for Parnell Street car park in particular”.

Financial decisions of the DAC need to come under scrutiny, the law graduate believed. “It has recently been disclosed that they spent €2.2m of a €10m loan the Council gave them, for that money Our Lady’s Hospital and all the grounds could have been bought for a third of the price, that money could have been used to provide housing, job opportunities, the Information Age Park is beside it with sites serviced where you could build the office blocks they are talking about, the Boys National School could have been bought for less than that which is a vacant derelict site, it is the wrong building in the wrong location for both Abbey Street and Parnell Street, because of my frustration in how that is operating. Unfortunately the Government abolished the Town Council ten years ago which was a flaw, I worked with fantastic town councillors for the betterment of the town, we’ve gone to a Municipal District structure which is working very well for most of the rural districts but now we have a private company created which is deciding on the future of the town so we got rid of a democratic town council and replaced it with a private company in my view and what is the role of a local politician in that, I’d prefer to act as a concerned citizen in dealing with what their plans are”.

Ennis 2040 has taken away powers of elected officials, Flynn maintained. “It has polarised the elected members, people are either for it or against it. We handed in a survey that was signed in writing and online of 3,700 signatures last September asking them to stop their process but that has been ignored by the Ennis 2040 DAC board, they are ploughing on spending public money, doing something that in my view nobody wants”.

He said, “the creation of private designated active companies (DAC), it appears as if we’re not trusted to do certain things as elected representatives and that private companies have to be set up to do things which should be done by the Executive and the councillors together, there is an erosion of powers and we’re a very centralised little country in comparison to Europe, the abolition of the Town Council was a dreadful mistake”.

Since resigning from the Board of Ennis 2040, Cllr Flynn has been one of its most vocal critics. He was one of 23 councillors who voted in favour of the Council drawing down a €10m loan to establish the DAC. While sitting on the Board, he said “my opinions were aired appropriately” and that he “made submissions against the zoning of the car parks”

Cllr Johnny Flynn, Joan Duggan, Cllr Pat Daly and Cllr Tom O’Callaghan. Photograph: Tom Micks

When asked if he flagged concerns with the riverside developments of the Ennis 2040 strategy prior to its launch in October 2021, Cllr Flynn responded, “The development of the Ennis 2040 strategy is a very unusual document, it is only a guidance document and it has no statutory basis, it is a 240 page guidance document which has these concepts. The Abbeyside concept was for the development of both sides of the river, for me until I saw the detailed design that they were not looking at the option of the vacant derelict site on the other side I wasn’t that concerned but when I saw it wasn’t being considered for what was proposed or some of the other transformation sites.

“There was some fantastic ideas like the idea of a ten minute town, one of the ideas in the proposals was there would be 550 car parking spaces built on the approach roads into Ennis so that commuters and people working in town would be facilitated, there was a multi-storey car park proposed for the public car park of Temple Gate which was going to be led by Clare County Council and delivered by 2025 that was in the timeline, there was a lot of things which I saw in it that should be done first. At our public meeting last May when over 200 people appeared, one person gave a very good contribution and said let the Council or Ennis 2040 do the work and that if in five years or ten years time there is no car parked in the Abbey Street car park then build on it or develop it”. Abbey Street car park’s importance as a civic space was stressed by Cllr Flynn.

During his two decades in politics, nothing has engaged and enraged the business community of Ennis town as much as Ennis 2040, he felt. “25 years ago I was Director of the pharmacy in business on O’Connell Street, at that stage there was a massive redevelopment of the street, it was dug up for over a year and we were told there wouldn’t be another big dig for another 100 years but you can see there is a huge amount of work going on in O’Connell Street, not one of the businesses objected to that Part VIII planning application because businesses want to see progress but they want to see it organised and managed in a way that they can stay in business, part of the reason why there was no opposition there was the planning permission was granted on the basis that there would continue to be one-way traffic on O’Connell Street”.

He continued, “To see the extent of how businesses are concerned about the car park here in Abbey Street and Parnell Street, the plan is to go down and remove the taxi rank in Parnell Street, to remove 70 parking spaces there and build two blocks of apartments, businesses are on their knees because of the cost of living and of COVID, they are very concerned”.

Medical grounds prompted Johnny to step down from his role as Chief Fire Officer in Limerick when he became an insulin dependent diabetic. He then worked as a fire and engineering consultant, one of his jobs included serving on the design team for the Carraig Donn and Easons building in Bank Place. “Neither of those two buildings like the Rowan Tree had any car parking so they were charged very significant monies to use the Abbey Street car park. The Queens hotel doesn’t have any car parking and they have paid a lot of money over the years every time they have extended or built the nightclub for the use of the car park, all the buildings around Abbey Street car park if you look down have contributed between €750,000 and €1m for car parking located in the Abbey Street car park or adjacent to it, for the Council who have collected that money and then take away the car parking is very questionable in my view, you can’t charge for the provision of a public service and charge heavily for it only then to remove it. From a business perspective, a lot of businesses are very concerned about their future, they are not afraid of change, anybody in business you have to change or adapt because your customers or product range will adapt, discounting the opposition to things as saying certain people don’t have a vision or they are afraid of change is not the right way to listen to people”.

Cllr Johnny Flynn. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Given his stance on Ennis 2040 and his attempt to stall the sale of the Quin Rd Business Park, Cllr Flynn had garnered huge support from the business community. This together with his work over the past two decades had left his vote in a very healthy position. He revealed that part of his decision to announce his forthcoming departure is to quieten those in the Chamber who have accused him of ‘playing politics’ on Ennis 2040. “I was very fortunate that people gave their trust to me and their votes to me, I did top the poll on one occasion and I was always very close to the top. It is for personal reasons that I’m stepping away, I am fairly enraged by the Ennis 2040 DAC and what they are proposing and talking about, I find it very difficult as an elected public representative to open local newspapers and find unelected officials are declaring through PR pieces of what is going to happen in the town without discussion, consideration or proper consultation. It is frustrating, it is hard to know how an election will go, one of the reasons why I’m withdrawing is I want to continue raising the issues while I’m elected and people not to be able to say he is only raising those for electoral reasons, I believe strongly in what I have been standing for, I am not taking those positions to try get elected so by withdrawing from the competition, I’m trying to prove the credentials of what I’ve been saying”.

Monthly meetings of the Ennis MD have become very tense whenever there is reference to Ennis 2040 with instances of elected members trying to interrupt each other becoming more common. “The polarisation of the Chamber due to the Ennis 2040 has been difficult for everybody, people are entitled to their views but it has become quite heated because of the public reaction and the business reaction to it is obviously local politicians are hearing it from constituents and businesses so the temperature has risen. I must say all of the people in the Chamber worked extremely well in our role in the development of the County Development Plan particularly the volume for Ennis, the last Mayor during that process was Cllr Clare Colleran Molloy (FF) and she was brilliant”.

Such is the level of tension that Cllr Ann Norton (IND) was almost put forward to challenge Cllr Flynn to become Deputy Mayor last June, a move that may have scuppered the Council’s power sharing arrangement. Cllr Norton opted not to go forward but there was criticism within Fine Gael circles following speculation that Cllr Murphy and Cllr Howard would not be supporting Flynn had a vote taken place.

A 4-3 vote last March to proceed with a €1.1m spend on building a temporary car park in Francis Street, which was later scrapped, added to the rift. “I was very concerned with that because at the time it looked like it would be a commercial development with possibly a few apartments overhead, I thought it was an awful waste of public money, in the Chamber I brought up my concerns and that was the start of the rift because three of us voted against that proposal and four voted for it, it was to go to the County Council for sale and for the final decision but it was taken off the County Council agenda quite rightly because of the attention that was brought to it and the work of others including the Francis Street Alliance. To try and prevent the polarisation, the following month which would have been April last year, I, Cllr Pat Daly (FF) and Cllr Tom O’Callaghan (FF) put down a notice of motion asking that Ennis 2040 would reconsider its plans and stall its plans to look at alternatives to Abbey Street and Parnell Street, that meeting had quite a heated debate and a vote, unfortunately the vote was 4-3 which meant Ennis 2040 continued and the Council Executive continued to proceed to spend public money on those plans,” he reflected.

Democracy has been eroded by the actions of Ennis 2040 DAC, he believed. “Since Mullaghmore state agencies can’t build without applying for planning permission so a Part VIII requires the Council or any State organisation to apply to the local authority for planning permission and it is up to the Councils to vote on that, that Part VIII was going to come before us and the 28 councillors in Clare but it appears now that Ennis 2040 are bypassing that local process and going straight to An Bord Pleanála, again an erosion of democracy in my view because it is taking it out of the hands of local councillors. The train has left the track and it appears Ennis 2040 are going to proceed all the way, the car park in Abbey Street and Parnell Street was dug up for foundation analysis / archaeological assessment, they are going full steam ahead and it is going to end up in An Bord Pleanála, the voluntary group I am involved in will engage in that process, unfortunately it is out of local government’s hands then”.

Cllr Pat Daly and Cllr Johnny Flynn. Photograph: John Mangan

“It can only be stopped if the shareholder of Ennis 2040 which is effectively the Chief Executive instructs the board would be my view or if the board as a private company, it is a private limited company, I’ve viewed a barrister’s opinion who say it is not a subsidiary of Clare County Council, a private company can’t be a subsidiary of a statutory County Council, you can’t have a commercial arrangement because the Council isn’t a commercial company so a private commercial company can’t be a subsidiary of something which isn’t the same as it,” Johnny said.

Even if seven persons attached to Save Ennis Town became the elected members of the Ennis MD, he felt they would be unable to prevent Ennis 2040 powering ahead. “We’ve been told €2.2m has been spent already on drawings, designs, plans and investigations, they are showing no indication of stopping and considering. In 2013 I spoke out against the white elephant, the decision was made by Ennis Town Council and in 2014 with the establishment of the Ennis Municipal District I raised it again at the first or second meeting that we would consider it, we were told we couldn’t because the loan was drawn down, it was built by Clare County Council but based on a decision from Ennis Town Council, it is an example of when the train has left and we’re told we can’t stop it”.

Reflecting on his time in politics, Johnny said the highlight was “meeting people and hearing their story”. He explained, “being able to do something to make things better for that individual, there are all these things, as an engineer I’m very interested in infrastructure, it is a human level, meeting people, if they have a problem in some way being able to direct them or advise them, a lot of people aren’t aware of what their entitlements are or how to navigate the system, it is very rewarding, it can’t be frustrating when it doesn’t work out for people but it is very rewarding that you can help a person or family to achieve what they should achieve by right”.

Were the Town Council to come back into existence, Johnny would be tempted back to politics in the future. “My late father Pat was a meteorologist, he said a person’s life is like a book, you close one chapter and open another one,” the sixty seven year old reflected.

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If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

Subscribe for just €3 per month

If you’re here, you care about County Clare. So do we. Did you rely on us for Covid-19 updates, follow our election coverage, or visit The Clare Echo every week for breaking news and sport? The Clare Echo invests in local journalism and we want to safeguard its future in our county. By becoming a subscriber you are supporting what we do, will receive access to all our premium articles and a better experience, while helping us improve our offering to you. Subscribe to clareecho.ie and get the first six months for just €3 a month (less than 75c per week), and thereafter €8 per month. Cancel anytime, limited time offer. T&Cs Apply. www.clareecho.ie.

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