Two Galway TY students set their sights on a very different type of work experience this year, spending a week in the European Parliament with MEP Maria Walsh – and as Cróna Esler reports, they learned even more than they bargained for.
When it comes to sourcing work experience as part of the Transition Year curriculum, the majority of students opt for a placement that is on their doorstep, but every once in a while, a few really think outside the box.
Galway teens Maeya Cunningham and Mary Biggins are two such examples, recently spending a week in the European Parliament in Brussels, as guests of Midlands-North-West MEP Maria Walsh.
Both students of Galway’s Coláiste Iognáid – the Jes – Maeya and Mary have been best friends since first year, and so it came as no surprise to their families when the girls decided they wanted to go on work experience together.
The location of the placement, however, was by no means run of the mill, but when the suggestion first arose, their parents were fully supportive, and were confident it would be an experience the girls would never forget.
While Maeya hails from Barna and isn’t far from the Jes, Mary actually lives in Headford, but chose to attend the Sea Road secondary school as her mother is a teacher there.
Coming from Headford, of course, Mary doesn’t live far from Maria Walsh’s home in Shrule and so the teenagers were well aware of the local connection to the European Parliament and had been keeping an eye on Maria’s progress in the local and national media, and indeed through her social media presence.
“We were both really aware of Maria and thought it would be a great opportunity and something fun to do in Transition Year. We wanted to go over to the Parliament, to see how everything works over there, and explore if it might be a job we would like to do in the future,” Mary recalled.
“We approached Maria for work experience because we wanted to experience something totally new. I had seen Maria on Instagram and other social channels and always thought she was really inspiring,” Maeya added.
Despite a general awareness around Maria Walsh as an MEP, the girls are the first to admit that they really had no idea about life in the European Parliament prior to their trip.
“Before visiting, I had a small interest in politics, but I didn’t know a lot about the European Parliament. I just knew it was a place where big decisions are made and that a lot of politicians work there. When we went to Brussels, it was my first time in a political setting. I had seen how the Parliament looked on television, but it was much cooler in reality,” Maeya added.
During their week in Brussels, the teenagers were welcomed into Maria’s team and given an introduction and background on the European Parliament and its workings.
Mary and Maeya were also lucky enough to be in the Belgian capital for a Mini Plenary. The majority of plenary sittings take place in Strasbourg, with Brussels playing host just three times each year.
Across all meetings, votes and other business, the students were given the opportunity to shadow the MEP for the week. Maria also invited them to attend committee sittings, where they heard directly from the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders.
Here, they also got to witness how the translation boxes work in Parliament and were fascinated by the speed at which business is done, and how quickly politicians switch between different languages.
In order to get a better understanding of their own constituency, the girls also took a closer look at the 13 counties in the Midlands-North-West, learning about the various issues and challenges that can arise across the region.
A visit to the Parlamentarium, Europe’s largest parliamentary visitor centre, was also on the agenda for Mary and Maeya, with the museum offering a fun and interactive look at the workings of the European Parliament. As well, they took a trip to the House of European History, a museum and cultural institution focusing on the overall history of Europe, rather than having politics at its core.
A whirlwind experience by all accounts, the week in Brussels was a far cry from their classroom in the Jes.
“We were exposed to so much in terms of how the Parliament operates, the topics Maria works on, and so much more. We really didn’t know what to expect before we arrived.
“The week gave us such a huge insight into life in Maria’s office and how busy she and her team always are. We learned about how the 705 MEPs vote and it was really interesting to see it all in real life.
“Looking back, I now realise how little I knew about the European Parliament going over, and how much more sense everything makes now,” Maeya continued.
As well as their new-found knowledge, the Galway girls have come away from Brussels with huge appreciation for the European Parliament and personal admiration for MEP Walsh.
“Maria was brilliant and so welcoming. I think she’s very brave in her job and there’s no doubt that it can be a very difficult and stressful position. I really think she’s so inspiring and that she works on some really important topics,” said Maeya.
“I found the whole week really interesting, and I learned so much. Without a doubt, this has been the highlight of Transition Year and we’re both so grateful to Maria for enabling us to have this experience.”
Interestingly, what began as a novel work experience idea has culminated in so much more. As well as leaving lasting memories and creating political awareness, the experience has stirred some political aspirations for both Mary and Maeya.
“The week taught me a lot about politics and it’s definitely something I would consider when I’m older,” Mary admitted.
“I have such a great understanding of the European Parliament now,” Maeya added. “I’m still young and haven’t fully decided yet what I want to be when I’m older, but after the week in Brussels, politics will definitely be one of the options on the table.”
Watch this space…
(Photo: MEP Maria Walsh, Maeya Cunningham and Mary Biggins in the European Parliament).
Galway ‘masterplan’ needed to tackle housing and transport crises
From the Galway City Tribune – An impassioned plea for a ‘masterplan’ that would guide Galway City into the future has been made in the Dáil. Galway West TD Catherine Connolly stated this week that there needed to be an all-inclusive approach with “vision and leadership” in order to build a sustainable city.
Deputy Connolly spoke at length at the crisis surrounding traffic and housing in Galway city and said that not all of the blame could be laid at the door of the local authority.
She said that her preference would be the provision of light rail as the main form of public transport, but that this would have to be driven by the government.
“I sat on the local council for 17 years and despaired at all of the solutions going down one road, metaphorically and literally. In 2005 we put Park & Ride into the development plan, but that has not been rolled out. A 2016 transport strategy was outdated at the time and still has not been updated.
“Due to the housing crisis in the city, a task force was set up in 2019. Not a single report or analysis has been published on the cause of the crisis,” added Deputy Connolly.
She then referred to a report from the Land Development Agency (LDA) that identified lands suitable for the provision of housing. But she said that two-thirds of these had significant problems and a large portion was in Merlin Park University Hospital which, she said, would never have housing built on it.
In response, Minister Simon Harris spoke of the continuing job investment in the city and also in higher education, which is his portfolio.
But turning his attention to traffic congestion, he accepted that there were “real issues” when it came to transport, mobility and accessibility around Galway.
“We share the view that we need a Park & Ride facility and I understand there are also Bus Connects plans.
“I also suggest that the City Council reflect on her comments. I am proud to be in a Government that is providing unparalleled levels of investment to local authorities and unparalleled opportunities for local authorities to draw down,” he said.
Then Minister Harris referred to the controversial Galway City Outer Ring Road which he said was “struck down by An Bord Pleanála”, despite a lot of energy having been put into that project.
However, Deputy Connolly picked up on this and pointed out that An Bord Pleanála did not say ‘No’ to the ring road.
“The High Court said ‘No’ to the ring road because An Bord Pleanála acknowledged it failed utterly to consider climate change and our climate change obligations.
“That tells us something about An Bord Pleanála and the management that submitted such a plan.”
In the end, Minister Harris agreed that there needed to be a masterplan for Galway City.
“I suggest it is for the local authority to come up with a vision and then work with the Government to try to fund and implement that.”
Official opening of Galway’s new pedestrian and cycle bridge
The new Salmon Weir pedestrian and cycle bridge will be officially opened to the public next Friday, May 26.
Work on the €10 million bridge got underway in April 2022, before the main structure was hoisted into place in early December.
A lunchtime tape-cutting ceremony will take place on Friday, as the first pedestrians and cyclists traverse the as-yet-unnamed bridge.
The Chief Executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, previously said the bridge, once opened, would remove existing conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists and traffic “as well as facilitating the Cross-City Link public transport corridor over the existing 200-year-old bridge”.
The naming of the new bridge has been under discussion by the Council’s Civic Commemorations Committee since late last year.
One name that has been in the mix for some time is that of the first woman in Europe to graduate with an engineering degree – Alice Perry.
Ms Perry, who was from Wellpark, graduated from Queen’s College Galway (now University of Galway) in 1906. The university’s engineering building is named in her honour.
The bridge was built by Jons Civil Engineering firm in County Meath and was assembled off-site before being transported to Galway. Funding for the project was provided in full by the National Transport Authority and the European Regional Development Fund.
(Photo: Sheila Gallagher captured the city’s new pedestrian footbridge being raised on the south side of the Salmon Weir Bridge in December. It will officially open next Friday, May 26).
Minister branded ‘a disgrace’ for reversing land rezoning in Galway City
From the Galway City Tribune – Minister of State for Local Government and Planning, Kieran O’Donnell was labelled a “disgrace” for overturning councillors’ decisions to rezone land in the new City Development Plan.
Minister O’Donnell (pictured) confirmed in a letter to Council Chief Executive Brendan McGrath last week that he was reversing 25 material alternations made by councillors to the CDP 2023-29. He made the decision on the advice of Office of Planning Regulator (OPR).
Minister O’Donnell directed that 14 land parcels that were subject to land-use zoning changes by councillors as part of the Material Alterations to the Draft CDP should be reversed.
He directed that a further 11 land parcels in the city should become “unzoned”.
The Minister found that the CDP had not been made in a manner consistent with recommendations of the OPR, which required specific changes to the plan to ensure consistency with the national planning laws and guidelines.
At last week’s Council meeting Cllr Eddie Hoare (FG) asked for clarity on the process by which councillors could rezone the lands that had been changed by the Minister’s direction.
Cllr Declan McDonnell said, “What he [Minister O’Donnell] has done is an absolute disgrace”.
And he asked: “Do we have to have another development plan meeting to deal with it?”
Both Cllrs Hoare and McDonnell wondered what would become of the lands that were rezoned or unzoned by the ministerial direction.
Mr McGrath said the Council had put forward an argument in favour of retaining the material alterations in the plan, but ultimately the Minister sided with OPR.
He said if councillors want to make alterations to the new plan, they could go through the process of making a material alteration but this was lengthy.
The Save Roscam Peninsula campaign welcomed the Minister’s decision.
In a statement to the Galway City Tribune, it said the direction would mean the Roscam village area on the Roscam Peninsula will be unzoned and a number of land parcels would revert back to agriculture/high amenity.
A spokesperson for the campaign said: “the material alterations made by city councillors following lobbying by developers continued the long-standing practice of councillors facilitating a developer-led plan rather than an evidence- and policy-based plan that meets the needs of the city.
“The Minister’s direction is an important step in restoring confidence in the planning system. It is clear from the City Council’s own evidence on future housing projections that there was no requirement to zone these lands for residential purposes in order to meet the needs of the targeted population increase up to 2029,” the spokesperson added.