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Scarva Sham Fight 'won't be same fun without John'

By Laurence White

Published 08/07/2015

John Hanna and his wife Councillor Joan Baird taken at Buckingham Palace in May as Joan receives her OBE
John Hanna and his wife Councillor Joan Baird taken at Buckingham Palace in May as Joan receives her OBE
The scene of a Fatal accident on the Ballinlea Road, Ballintoy, Ballycastle where John Hanna died after a tractor overturned

The Sham Fight at Scarva next Tuesday will be a particularly poignant time for Joan Baird this year.

For it was an event that held a special place in the life of her husband John Hanna, who died in a road accident just over two weeks ago.

Indeed, the week before he had attended a meeting of Royal Black Preceptory 1000 that organises the annual event which celebrates King William's victory over King James.

"The village of Scarva was dear to John", recalled Joan, who uses her maiden name in her work as an Ulster Unionist Party councillor in the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council.

"It was his home place and he always tried to promote it along with the wider Banbridge area. He was also on the organising committee of the Sham Fight, which he wanted to widen out into an international festival. A few years back he brought politicians from Meath and Louth up to the event and they had a great time."

She says that the days since her husband's death on June 22 have been very difficult. "I was down in Banbridge earlier this week to start putting some of his affairs in order and that was very tough."

She added: "However, the support I have received from people in Banbridge and also around my own area near Ballintoy has been tremendous and a great help. There have been wonderful tributes from all shades of political opinion - John was an Ulster Unionist Party member in Banbridge until recently - as well as messages of sympathy from people right across both communities.

"My mother and I thought that he would not be that well-known in north Antrim because he spent most of his time around Banbridge, but that was not the case. I suppose it was because he was a real people person and could make friends anywhere. The reaction to his death has taken me a bit by surprise."

The couple, who were married for 26 years, first met at Clogher Valley agricultural show. "I was very interested in horses at that time and had gone to the show to look at some. John was there but he really just had a passing interest in farming. He had a small farm and he did bits and pieces on our farm at Ballintoy, but was not really a farmer."

Yet, ironically, it was this interest in things agricultural that cost him his life.

He had recently bought a vintage tractor with the aim of showing it at various vintage rallies in the north Antrim area.

"He brought it up here from Banbridge a few weeks ago and did some work on it. He kept it in a shed at my mother's farm and had taken it out that Monday to drive the short distance up to our house. I don't really know what happened but it overturned on the road, pinning him underneath. We believe he died immediately".

Joan had just left a funeral when she got a telephone call to return home immediately.

"As I was coming home I was stopped by the PSNI near the scene of the accident. They were carrying out an examination of the scene to determine the cause of the accident and I obviously could not go through immediately."

The alarm had been raised by a postman and a local Church of Ireland Minister, Rev Patrick Barton, who were the first on the scene.

Representing two very distant district councils - John had been a member of Banbridge Council until recently - meant the couple, who had no family, spent their working weeks apart.

John would come to Ballintoy every weekend before heading back to Banbridge on a Monday.

"That was our routine for some time," Joan recalled. "I would leave him to the train station at Ballymoney from where he would travel to Belfast and then get a bus to Banbridge."

He was actively involved in promoting greater cross-border co-operation, being a member of the East Border Region, one of five networking bodies along the border which used European funding to promote confidence building projects and commercial ventures in the area.

"He was chairman at one time and also helped bring a major European conference to Dundalk around 2008 which helped to bring considerable funding to the area. One of his proudest achievements was obtaining funding for the F E McWilliams gallery and studio project in Banbridge, which is twinned with the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda. F E McWilliams was a famous sculptor who was born in Banbridge in 1909."

She recalls fondly how at the last local government election before he left the council he received some 400 second preference votes from SDLP supporters. "That gave him great pride because he wanted to work for everyone in the area, not just his own party supporters."

Outside politics he had a number of careers, holding degrees in both engineering and physics. He began work at the GEC engineering plant in Larne, later moving to Goodyear where he worked in research and development.

He then moved direction again to teach physics and maths at Lurgan Tech before ending his working life in medical physics at the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital.

"Of course, being involved in public service doesn't help with anyone's career. Meetings and dealing with constituents' problems take up an awful lot of time. It is difficult to keep all the balls in the air," Joan said.

"However, at this time I have got a lot back. It has been a traumatic few weeks but I cannot believe the help and support I have received. It has made such a big difference."

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