Belfast Telegraph

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan: 'I found grandad's body, it was the worst day of my life... I still blame myself for not visiting him on the night he died'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Daniel McCrossan, West Tyrone SDLP MLA, on his strained relationship with his dad... and that Twitter row

Q. Tell me about yourself.

A. I’m 28, from Strabane and currently single. I went to Strabane Primary School and then Strabane High School (now Strabane Academy).

I was head boy in my final year and left in 2005 to do A-levels at Holy Cross College.

I have two brothers in Galway — Richard (26), who works in the building industry, and Dylan (23), who’s into music, and two sisters — Leonia (32) and Bonnie (21).

My older sister works in insurance in London and has two boys, Ashton (2), my godson, and six-month-old Creed. Shop worker Bonnie is expecting her first child.

Q. What do you remember about your childhood?

A. When things were good they were very good and our parents gave us everything we could’ve possibly wanted.

We never missed a family holiday — in caravans in Portrush, Bundoran, Downings. We had a very strong relationship with our grandparents, the McCrossans and the Wrays.

Granny Kathleen McCrossan (59) died from cancer in 1992. At the time my granda Michael, an electrician, was working all over England. There were no mobile phones then, so he found out in a phone box that his wife had died.

The news came during a call that was made at a designated time.

I practically went to live with him after that. His house was across the road from ours. We were very close. I graduated in 2011; six weeks later he dropped dead.

Q. How did you cope with that?

A. I found his body. It was the worst day of my life. I’d called at his house and the blinds were closed, but the car was in the driveway. I didn’t have my key and there was no answer when I knocked on the door and I realised something was badly wrong.

I got a ladder and climbed up into the house through a back bedroom window that was wide open. I found him on the floor beside the bed.

It was September 17, 2011. He’d had a massive heart attack and collapsed. He was 76.

I’d just started with the SDLP that week. I still can’t go to the grave. It was so sudden.

I still blame myself for not visiting him the night he died.

Q. Is that your only experience of death?

A. My other grandfather Hugh Wray (75), a businessman, died in May from a heart attack. We were very close, He’d had a serious car accident 10 years ago; he was ‘dead’ on the operating table but they managed to bring him round. He recovered over the years, but wasn’t the same.

Him and my granny Maisie were together 60 years and had 13 children and 62 grandchildren (there were five children and 12 grandchildren on the McCrossan side).

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. It has made me realise how fragile things can be. My grandfathers were the father figures in my life and they died very suddenly. I was devastated by both their deaths; the first time because I didn’t understand it, the second because of how painful it was.

Q Tell us about your parents.

A. My parents Caroline (53) and Chris (50), a painter and decorator, separated in 2005 and divorced a year later.

My mum worked as a cook/cleaner in various schools for years until she had a terrible accident with a floor polisher in 2001. She was badly injured and couldn’t work after that.

Now she may have to go for an operation on her spine or she’ll end up in a wheelchair.

My parents had a difficult break-up. As one of the older children, I was tangled in the middle of it.

I was going through my GSCEs, which was quite difficult anyway, and because of the separation I didn’t have that support at home.

It’s probably why I haven’t had a great relationship with my dad over the years. I have seen him twice in a decade.

He lives in Newcastle in England. It makes you realise how tough it is for single parent families, but mum did a wonderful job.

Q. You went to Liverpool John Moores University to study law. What made you go into politics?

A. Things were still messy at home, so I went to Liverpool in 2007 and stayed until 2011. I did various placements at law firms there. I loved the fight and the challenge of law and the courts, but I didn’t enjoy sitting behind mountains of paperwork and the endless hours.

I went home for a week’s break and I ended up helping local SDLP politician Joe Byrne.

I’d never thought about Northern Irish politics, but I was a member of the Labour Party in England.

When Joe got elected to the Assembly in early 2011 I agreed to help him for three months — but I never left.

My grandfathers weren’t happy about me passing up a lucrative career in law to go into politics here.

Q. Briefly, talk us through your career to date.

A. In 2011 I graduated in law and started an MPhil/PhD in September, which is a work in progress.

I came home and worked as a constituency rep with Joe at Stormont and in the Omagh and Strabane offices. I stood at the Westminster election in 2015; I wasn’t successful but doubled the vote from 2010.

In January 2016 I was co-opted into the Assembly; then I was elected in May 2016, and again in March.

Q. You were co-opted as Joe’s replacement in January 2016, but your selection caused huge internal party controversy. Was that a difficult time for you?

A. It was stressful. If I hadn’t gone through the 2015 election I probably wouldn’t have been able to cope with it.

The 2015 election sent a message to the party that people wanted the SDLP renewed and they wanted a fresh face in West Tyrone. There was so much dead wood there. When it came to the selection in 2016 there were a very small number of people who caused havoc, because they wanted the position but didn’t want to face the democratic procedures of the party.

Q.  There were complaints from a number of people. What was the problem?

A. They wanted it for themselves. They felt it was about passing the baton to those who were there the longest.

Q. Around that time (January 2016) there was some suggestion that you bought Twitter followers. Is it true?

A. I didn’t put those followers on my account. It was complete craft from another party, who bought the followers and then tipped off the media. I had to contact Twitter to get them removed. Around the same time my Facebook account and my personal emails were also hacked.

Q.  You spoke out in support of former UUP MLA Ross Hussey in July 2016 after he sent naked pictures of himself to a reporter. But former SDLP colleague Jimmy Carr, who resigned in 2014, hit out at you, saying you didn’t support him when he was caught doing the same thing. Why didn't you defend him?

A. I wasn’t an MLA at the time. I was on the party executive and there was an internal investigation, so I couldn’t do anything.

Q.  You’ve previously spoken out about intimidation and people being abusive to you. Tell us about that.

A. My car has been followed. People have swung at me, cursed at me and called me names. I’ve been told I’ll “be got”.

When my grandfather died I got a threatening letter in the post that really rattled me. There is a lot of intimidation in politics; that’s the frightening thing for my family. I went through a terrible time in the last Assembly election.

Q. You have previously referred to Theresa May as a “ridiculous PM” after she attended the Balmoral Show, but not the cross-party talks. Don’t you think she’s up to the job?

A. She has failed absolutely as one of the guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. She has put the institutions here in jeopardy, not because of the recent deal made with the DUP, but because of her failure to act, to get more involved and get her hands dirty and to actually help reach some form of consensus here, and work with the Irish Government to do that.

Q.  What’s the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. It’s not about how hard life hits you; it’s about how much you can keep moving forward while ensuring that you use your privileged position to help others.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

A. The relationship between my father and me. The onus wasn’t on me to fix it then, because I was young.

As I get older, I appreciate there’s fault on all sides. Disagreements happen and people grow apart; that’s just a fact of life and maybe I was too quick to cut him out of my life.

The onus is probably on me to help fix it now.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. Yes, I have very strong faith, which comes from my grandparents.

We were taken to Mass on a Sunday. There were times I did try to sneak out. But it’s the one space that I can switch off and be content.

I’m at Mass at some point every week. I pray quite a lot.  I found it has helped. I believe in the power of prayer.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I find it very difficult to switch off from politics. I have a fantastic group of friends; we go out for a bite to eat and a few drinks. I also go walking to clear my head.

Q. Are you one of the MLAs who’s tasked with standing behind the party leader looking serious at Press conferences? Do you practise that look?

A. I don’t practise, but I can look quite serious sometimes. I’m normally standing next to the leader, in agreement, like the nodding dog in the car, showing a stern eye that says he’s right in what he is saying.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I’ve many Protestant friends. I’ve grown up with people from mixed backgrounds. I’ve actually focused on bringing in Protestant and Catholic members to the SDLP; it has been very successful.

Q.  Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A. When I won the two elections so close together and strengthened my majority. I enjoy what I’m doing. I’m very lucky.

Q.  What’s your favourite place in the world?

A. Along the river in Sion Mills. It’s a beautiful, natural spot and it’s very quiet.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. Everyone calls me Dan. At one time they called me Father Dan, which I didn’t like too much, because they thought I was going to be a priest. It was a loose joke at a time, because I’ve always had faith.

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