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Laois County Council elect new chairperson as Thomasina Connell takes over from Conor Bergin

Laois County Council has elected a new chairperson to lead the council for the next 12 months.

At today’s AGM, Fine Gael’s Thomasina Connell took the chain from her colleague Conor Bergin.

Councillor Connell was proposed for the role by Councillor Willie Aird and that was seconded by Councillor Barry Walsh.

Independent Councillor Ben Brennan was nominated by Sinn Féin’s Aidan Mullins and that was seconded by Independent James Kelly.

A vote was required with Councillor Connell winning 13-5.

The position of vice-chair has been filled by Cllr PJ Kelly. He defeated Independent James Kelly in a vote by the same margin.

Although representing two different Municipal Districts, both Cllr Connell and Kelly are originally from Ballybrittas – about a mile from each other.

Incoming chair Connell spoke about her hopes for the coming year.

Cllr Connell said: “It is an incredible honour and privilege for me to address this meeting today as Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council and to be afforded this opportunity to represent the collective interests, needs and aspirations of our great County.

“I wish to thank my Council Colleagues for voting to bestow on me this enormous privilege to serve our County.

“Thank you to my Fine Gael colleagues in the Portlaoise M.D., my proposer Cllr. Willie Aird and seconder Cllr. Barry Walsh who are great support to me and it gives me great pleasure that they nominated me today.

“I also want to acknowledge and thank my colleagues in the Chamber, of all partiesand none, for their support today. I look forward tocontinuing to work with you all, for the benefit of the people of Laois during my term.

“I would like to acknowledge and thank our outgoing Cathaoirleach, Cllr. Conor Bergin for his great work during what has been a difficult year, which saw us through what we hope to be the last days of this challenging pandemic.

“On that note, I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the great effort every member of our community has made and in particular the enormous contribution of our frontline workers since March 2020.

“As things now return to normality, we are also conscious of members of our community who have lost loved ones and we spare a thought for those who were unable to grieve in the usual Irish tradition due to the imposed restrictions.

“In contemplating the role I take on today, I have considered my own political journey which started out over 15 years ago at a Fine Gael event where I signed up as a member and thereafter attended a meeting in The Gandon Inn, welcomed by former Cllr. Tom Mulhall, and Charlie Flanagan TD, here today.

“Little did they or I know I was to contest a General Election a few years later and thereafter seek to be nominated as Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council.

“I am very grateful for the opportunities politics has given me and for the many positive experiences I have been fortunate enough to have.

“Since entering politics formally in 2015 I have been committed to positively promoting our County, thatis so rich in heritage, culture and strength of community.

“Building on what is best about our County allows us the chance to carve out our own place in Ireland.

“At its core, Laois is a county of strong and vibrant communities, both urban and rural.

“It is from this well of human connection that we have always derived our strength and from which we must nurture and build around.

“Tolerance, inclusion, economic opportunities and efficient public services remain key to keeping our communities strong.

“It is my intention that my year as Cathaoirleach will be marked by my endeavours to include all communities across our County; to hear the concerns they voice and listen and act on the issues they raise.

“I intend to define the coming 12 months to deliver for the people of Laois and enhance the lives of all of our citizens.

“For the past 25 years Ireland has seen a rapid rise in immigration, welcoming people from all over the world.

“In fact, 15 years ago today, Portlaoise became the first town to elect a black mayor, Rotimi Adebari.

“Both Portlaoise as a town and Laois as a County continue to welcome and support people from all over the world, and particularly in recent times those who have come here from Ukraine.

“I am proud of the efforts everyone in our County has made to welcome and integrate those who come here seeking a new life, a new start, shelter and refuge.

“Our society as a whole is reaping the benefits of diversity and inclusivity in our schools, workplaces and in our local sports and social clubs.

“I am keen to focus on delivering for our County over the next year particularly in the following key areasHousing, Public Transport, Business & Enterprise, Community Projects and Integration & Inclusion in our Society.

“Laois County Council, together with AHB’s is on target to deliver in excess of 530 homes before 2026 and while this is commendable I believe we can do more by getting vacant homes back into use, making the planning process for one off housing less complex and encouraging increased development of private housing.

“I believe that we need to create the framework for the delivery of housing in a sustainable way, that will lead to building thriving communities.

”The best way to do so is to ensure that there is an adequate supply of quality housing and that we have a mix of housing in all areas – private, affordable and social; that we prioritise middle and low income working families in helping them to access secure, quality accommodation.

“In terms of Transport, Active Travel remains a key priority and we need to see the continued roll out of cycleways and lanes throughout Portlaoise and the wider County to encourage adults and children alike to use bikes as their chosen mode of transport.

“As Portlaoise is Ireland’s First Low Carbon Town, it is critical that The Portlaoise Town Bus Service is advanced.

“Our own Local Enterprise Office based here in Laois County Council needs to be commended for the work they do in promoting entrepreneurship and helping local dynamic start ups to survive and thrive.

“SME’s are the lifeblood of the Irish Economy and it is key that all available assistance and opportunities are given to new business.

“Laois has benefited hugely too from the tranche of multinational and homegrown companies who have chosen our county to locate themselves: to name a few – Greenfield Global, Glanbia, Zeitgeist Spirits, Allwood Architecture have all taken places in the Enterprise Park at Junction 17 and at our IDA Business Park.

”I am determined to ensure that the right conditions remain in place to ensure Laois continues to be a great place to do business in – adequate supports, remote working hubs, quality broadband and access to funding.

“Finally, on a personal level – I would like to thank my family, especially my Mother Mary and sisters Julie and Barbara who have always supported me in my political endeavours and given endless support during both my election campaigns.

“My partner Tristan for his unlimited patience and support. Like so many whose partners are not involved in politics yet make so many sacrifices to allow us to do what we do, thank you.

“To my friends and supporters for all their help over the years and for sharing this special day with me.

“In particular, I can’t help thinking how much my late father Tom would have liked to be here, he always instilled the value in taking a chance and I think he would be pretty happy with today’s outcome.

“I look forward to discharging my duties as Cathaoirleach of Laois County Council to the best of my ability and to working for everyone in our Community over the coming year; this day in 1846 Charles Stewart Parnell was born and it seems appropriate to quote him today: ‘Without the help of the people our exertions would be as nothing’.”

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Stradbally native Alan Hartnett is a graduate of Knockbeg College who has worked in the local and national media since 2008. Alan has a BA in Economics, Politics and Law and an MA in Journalism from DCU. His happiest moment was when Jody Dillon scored THAT goal in the Laois senior football final in 2016.