Belfast Telegraph

UUP's Sonia Copeland relishes challenge as she is named first female councillor on harbour bosses' board in 30 years

By Claire McNeilly

An Ulster Unionist has become the first female councillor to sit on the board of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners for 30 years.

Sonia Copeland - who is serving her first term on Belfast City Council - assumed the prestigious role at the beginning of last month.

The 57-year-old former policewoman said she was "thrilled" to have been chosen as her party's representative on the board, which is responsible for the management of the Port of Belfast.

The port reported an increased turnover of £52.6m with an operating profit of £27.8m last year.

Mrs Copeland, who represents the Titanic ward, said she was unfazed at being a woman in what is often perceived to be a man's world.

"It's probably not daunting for me because I worked in a male-dominated environment for 12 years when I was in the police," she explained.

"It's all about being able to stand up for yourself and not letting people bully you because you're a woman. I actually set boundaries right away because when one of the councillors asked me about making coffee I replied: 'I may be a woman but I'm not your coffee maker'."

Mrs Copeland told how she took medical retirement from the RUC in 1987 after being injured on duty, and she explained how those injuries still affected her today.

"I was restraining a girl who was experiencing a nervous breakdown when I hurt my back and lower leg, which meant I had to have my kneecap removed, but the surgery wasn't successful and that has left me disabled," she said.

"I can walk about, but I am prone to just falling down if I move my knee in the wrong direction. It's difficult because there are things that I can't do, such as stairs." A trained counsellor currently working for two charities, Mrs Copeland said she felt she had acquired the tools required to do an excellent job as a public representative.

It is not entirely unfamiliar territory, as her husband is former MLA Michael Copeland (62), who recently retired because of mental health issues. Mrs Copeland also told of her battle with cancer and how it affected her decision to go into counselling and, ultimately, local politics.

"In November 1989, when my daughter was two-and-a-half and my son was five months old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer," she said."I had to have a mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery a number of years later. The prognosis that I was given at the time wasn't great, and that's probably why I've gone into working with cancer patients and their families.

"I've got a real passion for helping people. If I can change one simple thing to make someone's life better, then I'll have done my job."

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