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After 22 years, she found herself in the political wilderness, but now, after an amazing comeback, MLA Dolores Kelly accuses SF of a vile smear campaign

By Stephanie Bell

The veteran SDLP politician speaks candidly about her shock at losing her seat in last year's election and being verbally attacked over her Stormont severance pay.

Only a matter of hours after her epic election comeback last weekend, Dolores Kelly realised she really was back in the hot seat when at Mass on Sunday she was inundated with people asking for her help.

"I left Mass with a list of issues the length of my arm," she smiles, clearly delighted to be back doing the job she loves and which she believed, at 57, she probably wouldn't get the chance to do again.

The former deputy leader of the SDLP was gutted when her political career came to an end in the Assembly election in May last year after she lost out to Sinn Fein's Catherine Seeley in the Upper Bann constituency.

After 22 years in public life, serving on Craigavon Council where she became the first nationalist Mayor and then as an MLA on numerous Stormont committees, the popular politician was stunned to suddenly find her phone no longer ringing "at all hours of the day and night" and her email inbox slowly emptying.

She describes it as being like bereavement.

After years of being on call 24/7, it was a shock to suddenly find herself taking it easy.

Now after months of the quiet life - spending time with her husband, four children and two grandchildren and rediscovering the pleasure of gardening and cooking - she is thrilled to be back at work and already is as busy as ever.

However, her decision to stand again proved to be a controversial one as she found herself the victim of what she describes as a smear campaign over the severance pay she received after losing her seat last year.

The situation became ugly when people started to verbally abuse her and her team in the street and on social media.

Dolores is bewildered at what she sees as being "singled out" when a total of 33 MLAs received payments after not being returned to Stormont last May.

She says: "I felt like I was being singled out for different treatment and to a certain extent I decided to say nothing and that it was best to stay quiet, but I was angry and frustrated by it.

"It just shows the power of language and how it can stir up things. Most people are good but I wonder what sort of people can sit at a keyboard and give abuse and call you names when they have never met you and don't know you.

"Do they even know the impact their actions have on individuals and their families? I had people verbally abusing me on their doorsteps and in the street ... it was shocking.

"I hadn't done anything wrong. I had given up a 22-year career in the health service to do something which every four years was unstable and I worked hard at it.

"People are saying I had no right to stand again but I broke no rules. I received a wind-up payment of £22,000, which went towards keeping my staff and the office open for another four months and the rest was severance pay.

"It is very tough when your integrity is being impinged and I felt I was being treated differently to other MLAs. Sinn Fein did try and use it to discredit me on the doorsteps."

As a young career woman, Dolores, who lives in Aghagallon outside Lurgan, had no aspirations to go into politics.

She started her career as an occupational therapist working in the psychiatric department of Craigavon Area Hospital and then worked in a day-care rehabilitation centre in Banbridge before moving to manage a day-care centre Portadown.

She was chairperson of her local parish council in Aghagallon when the SDLP approached her and asked her to stand as a candidate in the local council elections in 1993.

She was expecting her fourth child at the time and after being successfully elected she continued to work full time, while serving as a councillor and raising a young family of four.

She says: "I always had a belief that what you put into society is what you get out and I always had an interest in politics and history and current affairs, although no aspirations to be a politician.

"I would have volunteered in my community and my mother and grandmother would have got me to help elderly neighbours with filling in forms and making sense of the statutory agencies. When I was approached by the SDLP, it did seem to come naturally because of my family background."

Dolores then successfully stood for the Assembly in 2003 and went on to serve on a number of committees.

One of her many achievements was helping to establish the prestigious Chinese Confucius Institute in Northern Ireland.

The Institute aims to develop academic, cultural, economic and social ties between Northern Ireland and China.

She says: "It was an opportunity for our young people and industry to build links and get a better understanding of China and this offer from China to put £3 million into establishing the Institute here was on the table but they couldn't get it through the civil service.

"I actually worked with Jonathan Bell at the time on it and with Queen's University and the University of Ulster to get it set up and I'm very proud of that."

Her many roles in government as well as her constituency work saw her put in 14-hour days while juggling family life.

She thrived on it, which is why suddenly finding herself out of work with long days to fill last May came as such a shock.

Going into that election she says she was aware it was going to be a tough battle and the day of the count proved one of high tension as the results seemed to swing her way one minute and then back to Sinn Fein.

She recalls how knowing that fellow Upper Bann colleague, Doug Beattie, was attending the funeral of his young grandson that day, helped keep things in perspective.

She says: "Sinn Fein was building Catherine Seeley, (right) up and so I knew it was going to be a tough battle. It was up and down on the day of the count and I had my family and campaigners there and I was trying to hold it together.

"I remember getting a tension headache and my sinuses all blocked and when it was clear I wasn't going to win a family member suggested I go home.

"I left and went to Tesco and bought Sudafed and pain killers and I remember sitting in my car with the window down to get some fresh air and I just thought 'I'm not going to win but I'm not going to run away' and I went back in.

"There was a highly charged atmosphere and real pressure from the media; you never knew when a camera was going to be pointed at you.

"My daughter was there with her two sons, one of whom was just six weeks old and I was conscious that Doug Beattie was burying his grandson. I just thought, 'yes I had put my heart and soul into 23 years of public life but I have some family here and they are all in good health and that man is burying his grandson'.

"I'm a firm believer in things happening for a reason. I do have faith."

Spending the first months winding up her office kept her occupied for a while but almost immediately the phone stopped ringing and Dolores felt bereft while trying to find new ways to fill her time.

She says: "I had worked nonstop for 40 years and suddenly I didn't have a job to go to.

"I had no routine and no structure and from being used to the phone ringing 24/7, suddenly there was silence.

"It amazed me how you could be in such demand by people and then you are no one to them and they just walk past you very quickly. However, many people were supportive and your family gets you through.

"I then started asking myself where I went wrong. It is like bereavement and I had to come to terms with a huge loss in my life.

"I had given it so much and put all these hours in and suddenly I had all this time to fill.

"I enjoy gardening so I started to do that and hoked out all my old cookery books and started to cook new recipes and bake bread.

"I spent more time with my grandchildren and my father who is 84 now. I was able to call with him every day. I did fall back into that role of family life but I didn't like not having a job."

After six months, she had just started to get her CV together and was planning to look for a job again when things changed dramatically at Stormont after the "cash for ash" scandal broke.

When she realised there was going to be another election she had doubts over whether or not she should stand again.

She says: "By the time there would have been another election if the Assembly had run its course I would be coming up to 62 years of age and would no longer have a profile and although in politics they say 'never say never', I'm not sure I would have wanted to stand in five years' time.

"I just thought if I lose this time that is it and I will draw a line under it and move on with my life.

"I couldn't believe it when I was elected and I was back in. On Monday going up to Stormont, it felt quite surreal.

"I have no office and have to start looking for an office again and there are new procedures which I will have to learn but there were things I was working on in my local constituency which I didn't get to finish which I am looking forward to going back to.

"I just hope that we can return to the values and principles of the Good Friday Agreement, of collaboration and partnership and working together for the good of everyone.

"I hope the sham fights stop and rational thinking resumes. We have to listen to the wishes of the people and go and do the job.

"It is not about one community holding court over the other it is about us all working together."

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