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Sonia Copeland's pride at being Belfast's next Deputy Lord Mayor, her traumatic break-up and her battle with cancer

Exclusive: 'Michael changed. He took too much of others home with him. It's scary being alone but I decided we couldn't go on'

By Claire McNeilly

It will be an immensely proud Sonia Copeland who accepts the chain of Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast later this year. Her nomination is fitting testimony to the indefatigable first-time councillor, whom Ulster Unionist colleagues often describe as "a wonder woman".

It would be a brave person at City Hall who would attempt to list the number of panels on which the 58-year-old sits, and that workload will undoubtedly increase in June when Sonia, along with Alliance's Nuala McAllister, forges the city's first all-female civic leadership duo.

The donning of the robes, however, is unlikely to be attended by all members of the Copeland family.

Sonia and her husband, Michael, the former East Belfast MLA, went their separate ways in 2014.

Only now, three years later, can the popular politician bring herself to speak about the painful end to a marriage that lasted for 38 years, most of them happy ones.

Michael Copeland quit his Assembly seat in September 2015 amid a well-publicised and ongoing battle with depression which, alarmingly, included at least one attempt to take his own life.

His resignation brought a premature end to a political career that began in 2001 with his election as a UUP councillor in Castlereagh. He would later serve as the council's Deputy Mayor.

Prior to stepping down, the 62-year-old former UDR lieutenant strongly denied rumours of an "inappropriate relationship" that had been swirling around Stormont.

He conceded, however, that his illness had had a "dreadful" effect on his family - and that is one thing both estranged parties certainly agree on.

"He was depressed and his personality changed," explains Sonia. "I decided things could not go on.

"Michael and I had that 'it's not working' conversation - originally it was until he got himself together, but in my opinion he's still not well.

"He moved out. I don't think there's any chance that we'll reconcile; there's too much pain.

"My daughter, Sarah, is particularly devastated. Her and daddy were very close."

Sonia believes Michael's hectic schedule as an MLA contributed to the traumatic split shortly after the local elections in the autumn of 2014, when she was elected as councillor for the Titanic ward.

"Michael worked himself into the ground - he was a very active politician," she says.

"He also took too much of other people home with him.

"He never had time for outside interests. He never had time for his family, even.

"He lost sight of his family in it all. I think he became so immersed in other people's lives that it just overtook.

"But Michael has always been impetuous. He would not put one foot in and test the water - he would jump fully in."

Sonia, whose own parents split when she was 21, revealed that she and Michael still communicate, "but not regularly."

"I would hear from him for a couple of weeks and then there'd be silence for another couple of weeks... and then I'd wonder if he's okay," she admits.

"Having said that, I don't want to encroach on his private life."

Sonia admitted that it was "scary" being by herself after being married for almost four decades, and that she only recently started feeling like her old self again.

Up until now, it's hard to imagine her ever finding the time to feel lonely.

At the last count, the Ballygowan-based councillor was sitting on the People and Communities Committee, the North Foreshore Working Group, the Waterfront and Ulster Hall Committee, Licensing Committee, the East Belfast Area Working Group and she recently became chair of the Older People's Reference Group.

She is also a Belfast Harbour commissioner, secretary of the UUP's East Belfast Association, was recently appointed to the board of governors for Ashfield Girls' High School and acts as a volunteer counsellor for both Action Cancer and Marie Curie.

She was named Ulster Unionist Women's Council Woman of the Year in 2015, just one year into her first term as a councillor.

Her nomination for Deputy Lord Mayor was a hugely popular one within the party.

"After the separation from Michael, I had to pull myself together because I needed to be strong for the children, but also I needed to get my head into work," she explains. "The people had elected me and I had to step up to the mark.

"One of the reasons the separation brought great sadness for me was because Michael has a wealth of experience and he was a very good politician.

"I would have benefited greatly from his support then - and, I suppose, now, to share in the excitement of me going in as Deputy Mayor.

"There's no bitterness, just a real sadness. It's very lonely because I'm used to having someone there to support me when I need it.

"My council party colleagues, Peter Johnston and Jim Rodgers, have been great, and my family (father William, mother Anne and siblings Beverly, Mark and Adrienne) have been amazing, not to mention Sarah and Matthew."

Matthew (26), is a final year medical student at Queen's, while Sarah (30), who works for the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, added 'granny' to Sonia's long list of duties five years ago.

"My grandson, Harrison, is my life, my whole world," she says.

"He's in P1 and I love picking him up from school every day."

There was, however, one time when Sonia didn't think she'd live to see Sarah grow up, let alone get married and have a son.

When Harrison was around Sarah's age, Sonia was battling breast cancer - and at one stage believed she only had a month to live, shortly after giving birth to Matthew.

"The prognosis wasn't good," she recalls. "I originally thought it was a blocked milk duct, so there was a small lump, but by the time I had all my checks done it was the size of a beefy tomato.

"I overheard someone telling Michael that I had possibly only weeks to live. I was floored, and told Michael that I didn't want to see anybody until I had come to terms with it myself. I had my funeral all planned and I had written out what I wanted to happen.

"One of the things was for the children - who were then five months and two-and-a-half years old - to go to Lagan College (Northern Ireland's first integrated school), and in the end that's where they both went.

"But I'm a stubborn old bird and basically decided that I was going to fight it because I wanted to see them growing up."

Sonia, who had a mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery a number of years later, underwent gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy for six months, then unimaginable relief when finally given the all-clear.

"That experience brought me into counselling people with cancer," the councillor explains.

"I've been doing that for seven years. I do it between two and five hours a week."

Somehow, a few more hours of that week will have to be found for her new role as Deputy Lord Mayor but, as Sonia says: "It's a real honour to serve on behalf of the party for all the citizens of Belfast."

An exciting time too, with two women in the principal roles - possibly mirroring Stormont after next month's Assembly elections.

"I think that women politicians have gained more confidence in themselves now," says Sonia.

"If you'd have asked me 10 years ago if this was possible, I'd have said 'no way,' but you gain confidence in your work.

"And you're just as good as, if not sometimes better, than men. I think it's nice to have the balance.

"As a younger woman, I worked in a male-dominated police force where some thought my best place was at the fire, looking after the station duty officer and not out on duty.

"But that's all changed now and women are showing themselves and standing up and saying 'I can do this'.

"They're not afraid to stand up and speak out, and it's not unusual to see women in high authority now."

Sonia joined the RUC as a raw 18-year-old - and learned the hard way.

"In those days they called me a peeler's pup, because my dad was a policeman," she recalls.

"I served for 12 years and then had to come off with an injury. A girl had taken a nervous breakdown. She was like a wild animal and she pushed me, and I injured my lower back.

"I have a couple of discs that are wrecked and I lost my left kneecap (patella).

"It kept dislocating so they had to take it out, which has rendered me unable to run or get down or my knees.

"But I'm stubborn - I push myself. They tell me in the house that I flog myself like a horse. But I just don't let things put me down.

"After having cancer it has given me the impetus to push myself and achieve all the goals that I want to achieve before I depart this life."

Michael Copeland - who has no plans to return to politics and recently revealed to the Belfast Telegraph that he had joined the Belvoir Players amateur drama group - was of course renowned as a tireless public servant himself, but Sonia was quick to point out that she'd learned from her estranged husband's mistakes.

"My phone doesn't go off - it goes on to answer machine on a Saturday morning," she explains.

"If it's an important call, I'll answer it, but if it's something that can wait until Monday then let's do that.

"I think it's important that I have to look after my own mental state - and I have learnt that through what happened to Michael.

"Michael would have had two phones on the go; one in each pocket. But I think it's important to maintain a private life."

Although Sonia cites mental illness as instrumental in the demise of her marriage, she is well aware of how big a problem it is throughout Northern Ireland.

Indeed, she herself isn't immune to bouts of inner turmoil.

"It's awful and, for those affected by the Troubles it's worse than people realise," she says.

"For instance, my vehicle was shot at on the Springfield Road and the bullet burnt both my neck and a colleague's arm.

"I still have the odd flashback, which is scary. I would wake up screaming.

"Sometimes if I hear something that has happened to someone on the news, I have nightmares that night."

Nightmares are one thing, sweet dreams another.

And sweet dreams for Sonia Copeland do not, at the moment, include meeting someone else.

"Right now, I have found me and I have also found strengths that I didn't know I had," she says.

"And, right now, I am happy emerging."

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