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by Sofia Villegas
15 February 2024
Councillor Owen O’Donnell: Getting to know you

East Renfrewshire Council leader, Labour’s Owen O’Donnell

Councillor Owen O’Donnell: Getting to know you

What is your earliest memory?

Frankly, I’m not sure if it is a false memory or an embedded one. I was around two and my family had moved into a new council house in the east end of Glasgow because our older one got condemned. And I remember going to our old house, seeing this big red door broken down, debris everywhere and saying to my mother, “Look, Mum, it’s all broked.” I didn’t know how to say the word properly.

What were you like at school?

I was an enthusiastic and very academic student who wasn’t interested in sports. I was a bit clumsy, and my coordination wasn’t great. I also felt a bit different at school, so wasn’t part of any big social circles. 

And did you grow to like sports as an adult?

Yes, I got into running in my late 30s for stress management and I did tons of half marathons. 

Who would your dream dinner date be with? 

I have to go for two – Kate Bush and David Bowie. I was obsessed with Kate Bush in my teenage years and was very privileged to see her perform her last gig in Hammersmith. It was the most stunning gig I’ve ever been to.

What is the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?

I can’t think of anything specific, but in more general terms, it would be the Glasgow mentality of the 1980s. It was about belittling people and not wanting you to be different, think differently or have ambition. I left the city after university because of it.

Councillor O’Donnell at 21 graduating from the University of Glasgow, 
accompanied by his father

What led you into politics?

In terms of motivation, it was the school I went to, which was in the east of Glasgow – a very deprived area. I was the only boy in my year to get any O-Grades and so many kids, particularly boys, were left behind. My best friend from primary school got into drugs very early and killed himself as a teenager, and many have ended up in prison. And it doesn’t need to be like that. 
I was lucky and have had a very successful career. So, for me, it’s about giving back and helping the least advantaged get out of their situations.

And did you stand for elected office immediately?

Not at all – I’m an ‘accidental politician’. I joined the Labour Party the day after Neil Kinnock got beaten in the 1992 general election but didn’t get involved in local politics until 2007. I never intended to stand but was persuaded after the party couldn’t find enough candidates for the council elections at the time.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

I’m a proud Celtic season ticket holder and go to every game with my son. To be honest, I don’t really feel guilty about it, and sometimes it is a pain rather than a pleasure.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

I’m quite obsessed with Roman history so I would go back to the time of Augustus or Hadrian. It was a politically interesting era. People were obsessed with preventing anyone from having too much time in office to be corrupted by power, and we could learn from that approach.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?

To travel when you’re young. When I was in my mid-20s, I was able to travel extensively. I went to India, Nepal, Thailand, Hong Kong, Beijing, Australia, and New Zealand. I also later visited Mexico and the United States. It just broadens your perspective of the world hugely. 

What skill should every person have?

To be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I would also say to have the courage to think for yourself and trust your gut. 

What is the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?

I’m going to go off a bit on this one. It was the emotional trauma of my son unexpectedly being born with Down syndrome, which was more of an emotional shock than a physical pain. 
But as a parent you learn to get on with life, make the best of the hand you’re dealt with, and do the best for your son. I learned huge amounts from it, and I’m a better person because of it.
All that said, I wouldn’t change anything – he’s the jewel in our life. He’s been an inspiration for me. It’s that sort of unconditional love that is very rare these days. 

What is your top film of all time?

It depends on my mood, but I would have to choose the classic Wizard of Oz. It is still enchanting no matter what time goes by. 

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