25 June 2009 Edition
NAVAN MAN: An Phoblacht talks to the Meath town's first Sinn Féin mayor in 80 years
Mayor Joe Reilly: ‘Never give up, never go away’
NAVAN TOWN has just got its first Sinn Féin mayor in 80 years when COUNCILLOR JOE REILLY accepted the chain of office. It was an historic moment for Sinn Féin in Meath and another landmark in a life that has had more than its fair share of epic moments.
Joe Reilly is a household name in the republican family the length and breadth of Ireland and he came to broader prominence in July 1976 after one of the most daring jailbreak attempts in the history of the 26-county state. Joe talks to ELLA O’DWYER about the journey that has brought him from a prison cell to more auspicious accommodation in the mayor’s chambers.
15 July 1976: Joe Reilly escapes from Green Street Special Court in Dublin along with four comrades. Unfortunately, they are all quickly rearrested with the exception of one – and it wasn’t Reilly, who was returned to Portlaoise to serve the remainder of his sentence along with an additional ten years for the escape attempt. Mind you, it didn’t deter him from his political pursuits and on release in 1985 he delved into Sinn Féin activism in Navan.
“I was released from prison in 1985 and got involved in Sinn Féin about three weeks after getting out,” Joe recalls. “I campaigned in the local elections of June 1985. The candidate for that election was Jimmy Lynch and he got 88 votes in Navan Town Council. Then, in 1994, I stood for the local elections and took a seat on Navan Town Council and I was elected to Meath County Council in 1999.”
Joe has been re-elected to both Navan Town Council and Meath County Council ever since.
In the local elections, Cllrs Joe Reilly and Peadar Tóibín ran again in Navan, both holding their seats on Navan Town Council, with Reilly topping the poll. The following Monday, Joe became Mayor of Navan – a first for Sinn Féin in 80 years. On the importance of that achievement, Joe says:
“It’s important. It signifies the growth of Sinn Féin in Navan Town. For me, getting the mayor’s role represents republicanism at the heart of politics in Navan and it’s an honour to represent the people of the town as mayor.”
Reilly intends to use his additional political clout to advance the development of Navan, a rapidly-growing town with ever-increasing demands on its infrastructure.
“The population of Navan is about 27,000,” Joe says. “It’s the fifth largest town in the state so the demands on the infrastructure are huge and not adequately funded by government.
“I’ll use the role to push for the completion of the Navan Development Plan and the opening of the M3 which will create opportunities for employment and economic development in Navan. We will continue to fight for the economic and infrastructural development of Navan and we will demand that proper housing standards are provided for all.
“Meath has been neglected in terms of job creation. In recent months, myself and Peadar Tóibín met with representatives of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Quinn Direct to highlight that neglect.
“Then there’s the issue of a proposed new regional hospital. We have been heading up the push to have the hospital built in Navan. It would not only mean access to proper medical care in the region but would also bring employment into the town.”
The Town Hall in Navan is a far cry from some of the other establishments Joe has inhabited (and has tried to vacate) – places like Portlaoise Jail and Green Street Courthouse but he’s not one to be phased about any site of struggle.
“All of my life I’ve been involved in the republican struggle and this is just another phase in building a united Ireland. All my political life – whether it be in Portlaoise Prison, Green Street Courthouse or from the first election campaign I worked on when we got just 88 votes, to now where I became mayor - it’s all just part of one struggle. The chambers for me – whether it be the town or county chamber – are vehicles to get my work done outside those buildings and on the ground.”
So what’s the advice of this veteran republican to the rising generation of political activists?
“My advice to any younger republicans is to keep their eye on the ball and keep focused.
“There’s the republican vision of the united Ireland and the ‘Ireland of Equals’ based on equality. That’s the focus we must have and people shouldn’t bring their own personalities into that project.”
On the Sinn Féin personnel in his constituency, Joe Reilly has nothing but good to say.
“We’ve got high-quality potential candidates coming through here in Meath - talented young people who are committed to the struggle and who’ve proven their worth through hard work.
“There are very good people coming in after me: well-motivated. They’re learning their trade at the moment and there’s potential for a Dáil seat in the future. But you can achieve an awful lot as a county councillor too. I don’t spend my days sitting in the council chambers. You have to get out and work with the community.”
As party colleague and Joe’s nominator for the mayorship, Peadar Tóibín says, Joe Reilly is “grounded and level-headed”. Reilly is a republican and proudly a Navan man.
“I like working with the people in my community,” Joe says. “I like working with people. The council chambers are not the pinnacle of my work. They’re just vehicles for getting results.”
Joe Reilly may be a household name in republican circles because of the high-profile escape attempt, or maybe because he was in jail, or maybe because of his long years in political office, but Joe offers his own theory on the matter:
“It might be just that I refuse to go away.”
ADAMS: Joe lends a shoulder
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
- This special edition which focuses on Irish Unity, features articles by Pearse Doherty, Dr Thomas Paul and Martina Anderson.
- Pearse sets out the argument for an United Ireland Economy whilst Pat Sheehan makes the case for a universally free all-island health service.
- Other articles include, ‘Ceist teanga in Éirinn Aontaithe’, ‘Getting to a new Ireland’ and ‘Ireland 1918-22: The people’s revolution’.