Rare cross-party support for 31-year veteran of City Hall... but his in-tray’s already huge
He is described as a “safe pair of hands”, but he has taken on one of the biggest jobs in local government – which comes with one of the biggest pay packets.
Belfast City councillors have given a resounding welcome to new chief executive John Walsh.
He will start his new job on Monday, taking over from Suzanne Wylie, who left the council in January for a post with the Jersey government.
The selection process involved a preliminary interview, an assessment centre stage and a final interview.
His exact salary has not been disclosed, but will be somewhere between £130,000 and £147,000 – more than the First Minister’s salary of £121,000. Last year Ms Wylie was reported to be earning just over £170,000 a year.
Currently serving as city solicitor and director of legal and civic services, Mr Walsh has nearly 31 years of experience with Belfast City Council. While he already holds a senior position, it is not a role that has often required him to be in the spotlight.
Despite the numerous political clashes at City Hall, Mr Walsh appears to be starting his new job with a healthy amount of cross-party support.
Members of the council’s strategic policy and resources committee said he would face big challenges in the role.
SDLP councillor Donal Lyons added: “He knows the place inside and out, so I think he’ll be a good pair of hands.”
He warned the challenges facing the council would be inflation and the cost-of-living crisis.
“That’s going to have a major impact on the city. Other areas are the general services we provide in terms of general cleanliness and economic regeneration,” Mr Lyons said.
He added that Mr Walsh was not likely to be someone who considers himself “in charge” of City Hall.
“He’s always been very clear that he’s someone following political instruction,” he said.
“But it is useful to have someone with a legal background that understands the process about where things are developing.”
Asked if he saw a major difference between Mr Walsh and his predecessor, Mr Lyons replied: “I think John and Suzanne always worked very closely together and very well, but John’s his own man and will have his own view.
“Suzanne was a very gifted communicator, great at selling and representing the city in different forums.
“John now has an opportunity to build on that work and add his own skills as well.”
Sinn Fein’s Ronan McLaughlin congratulated Mr Walsh.
“I know the interview was a competitive process, and fair play to him for getting through it,” he said.
“I suppose the big challenges we have ahead will be the refresh of the Belfast agenda. We still have to deal with the after-effects of Brexit, so there’s huge challenges coming up for the council.”
The DUP’s Brian Kingston said Mr Walsh’s appointment brought continuity.
“I think he understands the nuances of working across party groups on the council. He will bring his own style to the role, but he was also very much a part of Suzanne’s time as chief executive,” he said.
“How the council operates has grown and improved over the years, and John has very much been part of that process through things like community planning and working with statutory bodies and the community and voluntary sector.”
Mr Walsh said he was “honoured” to take the position after a long career with Belfast City Council.
“I know it’s a role which will have its challenges, but it also brings many opportunities,” he said.
“I’m very proud to work for the council. I know just how committed its staff are to serving the city and its ratepayers. I’m excited to take up this post and work alongside our elected members to continue to deliver on our ambitious plans for the city.”