High flier gets set to land in top city role

Sharon O'Connor, new Chief Executive of Derry City Council.
Sharon O'Connor, new Chief Executive of Derry City Council.

When pressed for examples of Sharon O’Connor’s best work, Down locals often refer to their massively successful annual Festival of Flight, attended by tens of thousands of people. If her CV is anything to go by, Derry’s new Town Clerk and Council Chief Executive is a real high flier herself.

Ms O’Connor, previously head of culture and economic development at Down District Council, will take over some time towards the end of this month. Earning £107,500 plus expenses, the Lambeg native will be under pressure from ratepayers to ensure the City’s £36m budget is spent wisely. According to those she served and worked with in Down, Derry should have little to worry about.

Cadogan Enright, a Green councillor and Derry native, told the Journal: “Down’s loss is Derry’s gain.”Jim Masson, managing director of Down News, described Ms O’Connor as “positive, with no back doors or sharp edges. She’s efficient, well-liked, and good at managing projects.” Janice Symington of the Down Business Centre said the incoming council chief is “a very competent, very able person: she ran a very efficient department.”

Patrick Cassidy, head of Down Business Forum and owner of a Downpatrick shoe shop, was equally eager to praise the incoming official. “She’s a tough individual, whatever she aims for she tends to achieve...she’s a good person to have on your team.” Mr Cassidy expected Ms O’Connor to adapt quickly to increased responsibilities and a vastly bigger budget: “she has the make-up to succeed wherever she goes, and I wish her well”.

At Down District Council, councillors seemed impressed with O’Connor’s 11 years of service. The SDLP’s Jim Doris, chair of the committee tasked with reviewing her department, describes her as a “very enthusiastic officer, a very good ideas person”. With jobs and Derry’s City of Culture year at the top of the council’s agenda, Colr. Doris’s other remarks are encouraging: he emphasised her skills in attracting industry, and her determination in pursuing successful local arts projects.

After completing her studies at the University of Ulster, Ms O’Connor worked in the private and voluntary sector until her appointment to Down Council in 2000. O’Connor also received training at the prestigious Federal Executive Institute in the US. She is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and won the IOD’s award for public sector director of the year in 2010. Ms O’Connor is a former member of the BBC’s Broadcasting Council and currently serves as a director of the Northern Ireland Transport Holding Company, the body responsible for running Translink. In a further encouraging sign ahead of Derry’s eagerly awaited year as City of Culture, Derry’s next council chief has been a much-praised board member of the Arts Council since 2003.

With such a wealth of experience, it’s puzzling that Ms O’Connor may be set to receive a £500-a-day mentor for her first 12 months in the job. Reports suggest the resources and policy committee of Derry City Council was set to vote on this proposal yesterday evening. At the time of going to press, the Journal was unable to verify the nature or fate of the idea. Councillors on the committee, chaired by Waterside councillor and former mayor Gerard Diver, refused to comment ahead of the meeting. Derry City Council also chose not to make an official response. When asked why these discussions were kept from the public domain, the SDLP’s Colr. John Boyle said the council’s staffing arrangements are generally kept confidential for the sake of staff.