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Behind Alasdair McDonnell's tough political bruiser image is family man whose wife and children fervently believe he can overcome SDLP leadership challenge

By Suzanne Breen

Published 10/11/2015

Alasdair McDonnell at his home in south Belfast yesterday with his wife Olivia and children Dearbhla (16), Ruairi (15), Oisin (12) and Aileen (10)
Alasdair McDonnell at his home in south Belfast yesterday with his wife Olivia and children Dearbhla (16), Ruairi (15), Oisin (12) and Aileen (10)
Alasdair McDonnell at his home in south Belfast yesterday with his wife Olivia and children Dearbhla (16), Ruairi (15), Oisin (12) and Aileen (10)
Alasdair McDonnell at his home in south Belfast yesterday with his wife Olivia

In politics, Alasdair McDonnell's reputation as a big political bruiser - abrasive, insensitive and arrogant - is well known.

But the man sitting in the kitchen sharing a cup of tea with his wife, as his children arrive home from school, is so different a character that it's as if someone had flicked a switch inside him.

"Meet Aileen, Oisin, Ruairi and Dearbhla," he says, a huge smile spreading across his face as he introduces sons and daughters aged from 10 to 16.

He may be the bookies outsider in the SDLP leadership stakes - 13/8 to Colum Eastwood's 4/9 - but, at home, the troops remain confident he'll win. Dearbhla says her friends reckon he's great odds and want to bet on him.

Oisin went to the Belfast hustings and thought "dad definitely came out on top".

Ruairi says: "He'll win. He never gives up and he's so much energy. He drags us out of bed on weekend mornings!"

Alasdair McDonnell is an immensely private man. This is the first interview he has ever done at home with his family.

It's a magnificent old house in south Belfast with marble fireplaces and a sweeping staircase. But it's a warm, happy space, not a show house. Games, guitars, and hurling sticks are scattered around.

Aged 66, McDonnell is enjoying his children at an age when most men have grandkids. His youngest, 10-year-old Aileen, is the apple of his eye.

"Ballet classes or tennis aren't for this one," he says with pride.

"Aileen is the only girl in the P6 Harlequins rugby team. They were playing in Ballymena and beforehand the captain of the Ballymena team was poking fun at the Belfast outfit with a girl player.

"Aileen scored six tries and, at the end of the match, that boy was almost proposing to her. I certainly did not give my approval. No Ballymena boy will be getting my girl!"

Dr McDonnell grew up not far from Ballymena, in a farm in Glenariff, the eldest of 11. He is no stranger to tragedy.

He first stood unsuccessfully for election as a civil rights-style candidate against the Rev Ian Paisley in 1970 when he was 19.

During the campaign, his 13-year-old brother, Randal, was struck by lightning while cutting turf on a mountain. McDonnell's father carried him for a mile in his arms, but he was already dead.

Another brother, Seamus, was later electrocuted by an electric blanket. "Those experiences showed me the preciousness of human life and they put everything else - politics and elections - into perspective," he says.

Dr McDonnell decided on a medical career. An ancestor, Dr James McDonnell, had established Queen's medical school, but Alasdair was unable to secure a place at the university.

"There was an interview and, despite having the grades, I was not deemed suitable for Queen's," he says. Friends believed he suffered discrimination.

He went to University College Dublin instead, travelling up and down in an old van.

"People put two and two together and got 40. False rumours were spread that I was an IRA courier. I wasn't involved in anything," he says.

The family home was, on occasions, raided by the police and, 24 hours after one substantial raid, his mother died of a stroke.

His political profile led to punitive action from his local unionist council. He says: "They would delay or deny my grant. When I went to challenge that, a file was produced.

"It was three inches thick and it didn't contain my educational details. Everything I'd ever done in politics - the photos, the press clippings - was there."

Today, McDonnell is regarded as having a constructive relationship with unionists and he repeatedly states his desire "to make this place work".

His TV performances are often poor. McDonnell denies he's uncomfortable on camera but says "a lot of the time the media is about showbiz and froth".

Renowned for his thick political skin, he brushes aside any suggestion that it must be hurtful when so many present and former SDLP grandees are lining up to oppose him.

"I'm not concerned about that. There is a political project at stake, the SDLP's future. This isn't about Alasdair McDonnell on an ego trip."

It's been a tough year for McDonnell and his family after a very dirty Westminster election campaign in South Belfast. His wife, Olivia Nugent, has been by his side through thick and thin.

She's substantially younger than her husband but loyally won't reveal by how many years. Their paths first crossed at a French airport in 1996. "I said hello but at the time Olivia was too busy trying to chat up another guy!" McDonnell jokes.

They met again the following year and were married nine months later. "She swept me off my feet," he says. He was almost 50 when he got married. "I hadn't really thought much about marriage until then, I just took life as it came," he says.

"Having lived so long on your own, you become quite set in your ways and it took a wee bit of adjusting. But my wife and children are my world, there is nothing I'm more proud of than them."

Olivia says he's not in the slightest romantic, adding: "But he doesn't need to be. I know what's inside him. Alasdair's incredibly honest and decent. Whoever comes to our house with a problem - be it Christmas Day or the middle of the night - he'll open the door and bring them in. I don't think you could say that of many politicians. People see this big rough guy, the bull in the china shop. I don't tell him to soften his image because he is what he is.

"Yet no matter how many times Alasdair's knocked, no matter who by, he gets up and he doesn't take it personally. But I have to say, sometimes I hurt for him. We are all human beings."

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