What PSNI widow Kate Carroll did next
As the Belfast Telegraph launches its Woman of the Year awards, Deputy Editor Gail Walker meets last year’s winner, PSNI widow Kate Carroll, who reveals how her victory has prompted her to consider embarking on a new career in politics
It was, admits Kate Carroll, a bittersweet night. If life had gone according to its routine, year in, year out plan, then she’d have been seated across the table from her husband Stephen in some quiet little restaurant celebrating what would have been his 49th birthday.
But plans can lie in tatters. Stephen — or Steve, as she calls him — never lived to see the day. He was murdered by Continuity IRA gunmen as he investigated suspicious activity in the Craigavon area on the evening of March 9, 2009. In a country with a history over-crowded with grim statistics, Stephen became another: the first PSNI officer to die at the hands of the paramilitaries.
And instead of celebrating his big day together, Kate was being honoured — alone. She spent the evening of November 4 last year at a lavish ceremony, where she was named Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year for her courage, dignity and magnanimity in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
“I honestly believe that Steve arranged the whole Woman of the Year evening for me, that somehow he made it happen,” she says with a wry smile.
“He knew that I would find being alone that day particularly hard and so he made sure I would have something to do, something to take my mind of it.”
Kate Carroll is a remarkable woman, and not just because of the steely forebearance she has shown in coping with unimaginable pain. Chatting over a coffee in a city centre cafe yesterday, one is also struck by her calm determination to pull some hope, something constructive, out of the despair that has engulfed her. To that end she is now considering a career in politics, where she would run as an independent candidate.
Her manifesto? “Ending the threat of violence for ordinary people here,” she says simply. She continues: “Look, when I was working I enjoyed going to my job, then spending weekends with Steve and the family, going out places and knowing we’d be safe.
“That’s what the vast majority of people here want — just to get on with their lives and live in peace. But it’s impossible to do that when there is this constant threat of dissident violence.
“If there is any way that I can do anything to change that, even if it means talking to the dissidents, then I’m prepared to do that. If I can make a difference and make life better for everyone here, then I’ll have a go,” she says.
What would she say to the terrorists who stole her husband’s life?
“I would ask them what they thought they would gain from carrying this on? I would ask them what they thought they had gained by killing Stephen?”
Ironically, the notion of running for election owes its origins to that awards night back in November. With typical self-deprecation, Kate confides:
“That evening I looked around at all the other ladies there and all the great work they had been doing.
“I had been entered in the Inspirational Woman of the Year category and I honestly couldn’t think how I had inspired any one. As far as I was concerned I was just getting through. But getting the award give me a boost and made me think that maybe I did have something important to say — and if so, then I needed to get out there and say it.
“Through no desire of my own I’d been thrust into the public eye, but now that I have that platform I might as well make the most of it.
“And the other week I was on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme with Wendy Austin. We were talking about the upsurge in violence and how best to counter it, and I was saying that on behalf of ordinary people everywhere I would speak to whoever it took to try and bring about peace.
“After the show Wendy showed me some of the texts that were coming in. One man from Belfast texted to say that he had never voted before but that if I were to run for Stormont, then he would put his X by my name.
“I’ve never been remotely interested in politics in my life before but it would be very interesting and rewarding to fight for the ordinary man and woman in the street here.”
One senses, too, that Kate Carroll survives on a sense of purpose. Earlier while we’d been posing for photographs in the spectacular dome of the city’s Victoria Square shopping complex, she had chatted away about how full her forthcoming week was: medical appointments, home improvements, stores to visit.
Just back from a weekend visiting family London, she evidently likes to keep busy, including spending time with her son Shane and four grandchildren.
One suspects she maintains a brave face publicly not just because it helps her cope, but also because it’s easier for her not to have to cope with the endless sympathy and emotion of others.
And yet the pain breaks through. She doesn’t weep but the intensity of feeling is clear when she suddenly talks about “the ghosts everywhere”. If the Banbridge home she shared with Stephen is full of happy memories, they — like the BT Woman of the Year awards night — are also underlined by a deep grief.
“My home doesn’t really feel like a home any more, it’s just a house. It’s all the ghosts ... I can feel Steve’s presence everywhere in it, but his physical presence is not there, and I miss him so much.
“He was such a big, larger than life character.”
Similarly, she reveals she kept another poignant anniversary last month. On August 24, which would have been their 25th wedding anniversary, she booked into Ashford Castle, in Co Mayo, just as they had planned to do for the occasion.
Except, of course, Stephen wasn’t there, and in his place she had taken a close friend, Anne Fletcher, who had first introduced the couple 30 years ago.
“It was a nice break,” she says, with another rueful smile, “but I didn’t really have a great time. Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely to spend time with Anne, but I said to her — and she understood why — that the days were just filled with the ghost of Steve. We should have been there together, we should have been retaking our wedding vows as we’d planned and then heading to New York for our second honeymoon.
“Like I said, there are so many memories, so many ghosts popping up everywhere. We’d talked about retiring to Mayo to live out our twilight years ...”
The sentence hangs unfinished in the air.
Kate turned 60 recently but looks closer to 40. A former dental nurse who went on to run her own cleaning business, she doesn’t find it difficult to talk about her husband; if anything, recalling him is a comfort, and like any wife she’s as ready to talk about his foibles as his great qualities.
“Steve was a real procrastinator,” she says, a smile already playing round the corners of her mouth. “He was hard to get to do things around the house at times, like if I wanted to redecorate.
“But I’ve dedicated a tree in the garden to him and I’ve got some marble which I intend to have engraved with the words ‘To Steve, I’ll do it tomorrow, Kate.’”
And what would he make of how she has coped without him, and of her plans to pursue a political career? He adds: “Steve always said I was a very strong individual. He would have known that I would have got up and got on with it. It’s never been in my nature to lie down and let things get the better of me.
“He’d been very proud of me, very proud of the way I was continuing to fight his corner.”
‘You become very close to patients’
Last year, IV treatment nurse Winifred Cassidy not only celebrated 20 years in nursing — she also became BT Woman of the Year in Healthcare. Jane Hardy reports
Winifred Cassidy (39) can’t remember ever winning anything at school or university and modestly says it was a complete surprise when she walked away with the BT Woman of the Year in Health award at the Ramada Hotel last November. “I was flabbergasted as it honestly didn’t occur to me I’d win,” says the nurse employed by Healthcare at Home to deliver IV treatment — drips to you and me — to patients going through tough treatments.
Although the moment of truth, when she heard her nomination from ex-patient Moira McBride read out, was quite stressful.
“I thought, ‘Now I’ve got to walk up on-stage.’” Winifred says that being nominated was lovely. “It was really nice being put forward and lovely to be mentioned.”
Winifred was well prepared for her BT Woman of the Year award last year because of a chance trip to Debenhams in the summer. She saw a black cocktail dress that she liked, but wasn’t sure if she should go ahead and spend the £55. “I spotted this dress, thought I’d got nothing to go to, felt it might do for Christmas, then bought it and hung it in the wardrobe.”
As it turned out, Winifred’s purchase was timely and she had something glam to wear on the night.
Moira described Winifred’s skill and kindness in administering Herceptin, the breast cancer drug, to her after she’d had an operation and hospital treatment. The women have kept in touch since Moira’s treament and are Facebook friends.
Moira has become a friend, and Winifred says that she remembers helping her through the demanding therapy. “When a woman has breast cancer, she'll have chemotherapy in hospital, then Herceptin at home. It's given every three weeks for a year via a drip that lasts 90 minutes.
“I know Moira was very scared of needles, and that's understandable as the problem with breast cancer patients is that you have to use one arm for the drips. If they've lost their right breast, you can't use the veins in the right arm. You can only use the left arm which means you're limited, veins can collapse and of course, the chemo is quite toxic too.”
Winifred adds almost self-deprecatingly, “Moira really appreciated the fact I could get into her veins the first time.”
Clearly, Winifred is an exceptional nurse who knows that the caring arts go alongside scientific expertise.
She notes: “I enjoy my job, taking time to build up a relationship with patients who may be frightened. I'm a stranger and it takes a while to relax people to the point where they trust you. It's to do with the way you speak, having a chat or a good giggle.” Winifred says she'll talk about “the news, Big Brother, whatever, it depends what they're interested in or maybe their family”.
Brought up in mid-Ulster, Winifred comes from a family of nurses so it isn't surprising that that was her career choice. “Both my sisters are nurses, Moira, who's in the same job and Maria who works in coronary care at St James' Hospital in Dublin. My father Charlie O'Kane, who's now 84, did nurse training too, specialising on the mental health side.
After attending St Mary's School, Magherafelt, Winifred went to the University of Ulster Coleraine to take her four year BSc in nursing.
“Because of my family background, nursing was a natural progression, and the only other subject I might have taken was history. Fortunately I'm not squeamish, although maybe I can be with my own children, Ciara (11) and Sean (8), but not with other people.”
After training, she worked as a hospital nurse, but after meeting husband Joseph at the local rugby club disco, getting married and starting a family, she decided to work in the community.
“Don't get me wrong, the NHS is fantastic, but this job enables me to give the personal touch, it's one-on-one care.”
She joined Healthcare at Home and became a home IV therapy nurse working closely with teams at the City and Altnagelvin Hospitals in Belfast and Londonderry — she covers a large area. In an average day, Winifred covers from 80 to 140 miles by car.
It's the therapeutic relationship that gives Winifred real satisfaction. “You do become very attached to your patients. You're part of the family in a way — they know about your children and husband and family news like the fact that my father had a triple bypass last year.”
Now, tell us about the women who inspire you
Launching this year’s awards, Hugh Black, Centre Manager at Victoria Square, Belfast, BT Woman of the Year’s new sponsor, says: “We’re delighted to be supporting the Belfast Telegraph’s prestigious Woman of the Year Awards as lead sponsor, following the success of the previous year’s awards. These awards are unique in recognising the many talented and inspiring women across NI and the important role they play in business, their communities and their families.
“We would encourage anyone who knows a woman they feel has excelled in their field to nominate them for one of these fantastic awards.”
There are nine categories and women can be nominated in more than one:
- BT Woman of the Year in Health (sponsored by Semichem)
- BT Woman of the Year in Business (sponsored by Translink)
- BT Sportswoman of the Year (sponsored by Junction One)
- BT Woman of the Year in the Arts (sponsored by Belleek Living)
- BT Inspirational Woman of the Year
- BT Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector
- BT Woman of the Year in Education
- BT Woman of the Year in Fashion
- BT Mum of the Year.
The Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year, in association with Victoria Square, is chosen from the category winners.
Entries via email in 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org, stating category entered, name and contact phone number, plus address of nominee, name and contact phone number of the nominator. Entries close on October 8.
Nominations can also be posted to Woman of the Year Awards, Belfast Telegraph, 124-144 Royal Avenue, Belfast BT1 1EB. The glitzy BT Woman of the Year award ceremony takes place on Wednesday, November 3 at the Ramada Hotel, Belfast.
BBC presenter Wendy Austin will host the evening which includes top-class entertainment, a five-course dinner and a fashion show. Tickets, cost £50 each plus VAT. To buy, contact Sarah Weir, JPR, Sylvan House, 232-240 Belmont Road, Belfast BT4 2AW or tel: 028 9076 0066