Belfast Telegraph

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Dolores Kelly: 'I was eight months pregnant when police came to my door to say an SDLP councillor’s home was to be targeted that night. After that, I had to learn how to search for car bombs'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Dolores Kelly, Upper Bann SDLP MLA on the row over her Stormont severance package... and seeing her non-insured home go up in smoke.

Q. You're 58 and married to Eamon, a former bricklayer, who's 59 and works in Tesco. You have four children - Caitriona (33), a radiotherapist, Fionnuala (31), a social worker, bricklayer Matthew (27), and Kathleen (24), a retail manager. You also have three grandchildren - Micheal (3), Liam (22 months), and Aoife (five months). Where did you and Eamon meet?

A. We met the first night at a Philomena Begley concert in Bundoran, Co Donegal, and then on the second night, by chance, in Salthill in Galway... so it was fate. That was my first holiday as a teenager away from my parents. I was 17, he was 19. He was from Glenravel - 40 miles away. We wrote to each other, then started going out regularly. We got married on January 9, 1982, and went to Fuengirola in Spain on honeymoon.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. My father Peter (85) is a former breadman and labourer. My mother Kathleen, an ex-textile factory worker, died from bowel cancer at 54. My youngest daughter was born four weeks to the day after mummy died.

I have five sisters and two brothers: Jacinta (57), a psychiatric nurse, businessman Peter (56), Bernadette (55), an intensive care nurse, Margaret (54), a nurse practitioner, tradesman Francis (52), Charlotte (50), a former businesswoman, and Catherine (50), a stay at home mum of five girls.

Q. You were first elected to Craigavon Borough Council in 1993 and re-elected in 1997. You served as deputy mayor in 1998, then (the first nationalist) mayor from 1999-2000. You were deputy leader of the SDLP from 2011-2015. You became an MLA in 2003, lost your seat in 2016 and regained it in 2017. Why politics?

A. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1991 - she died in 1993 - but she never wanted to know what her diagnosis or prognosis was so I went to all the meetings with the doctors. I was in my early 30s. She was given six months, but lived for 18. Her health was deteriorating and in March 1993 some people arrived at my house whom I thought had come to see if mummy would go to Lourdes, but they actually asked me to run for the SDLP in the council elections. I was the chairperson of the Parish Council in Aghagallon. I always had an interest in current affairs, history, politics and social justice. They came back three times until I finally agreed.

Q. You were the mayor during the most violent of the Drumcree protests, and some political commentators have said that's when you came into your own. Do you see it like that?

A. You sometimes forget just how bad it was. People were fleeing their homes. It was a tough patch if you're someone who actually believes in reconciliation.

Q. You admitted you received a final severance payment of £34,000 when you lost your seat in 2016. That caused a fuss when you ran again - especially because you'd hit out at the "scandal" of senior PSNI officers being re-hired days after walking away with generous pay-offs. Were you embarrassed when that all came out?

A. In one sense I was embarrassed, but I was more angry about how I was singled out. Others who'd lost their seats included Peter Robinson, Naomi Long, Michelle Gildernew, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. My husband had already burnt all my posters; 23 years' worth of them. When I lost my seat, as far as myself and my family were concerned, that part of my life was over. I had to close down my office and pay off my staff. I'd given up a secure job in the health service in order to go into politics. I was angry. Nobody talks about the teachers, nurses, other public sector workers or those in the private sector who get redundancy one day and are re-employed the next. It was part of Sinn Fein's campaign because they'd so little else to pin on me.

Q. You were "gutted" when you lost your seat. What made you try again?

A. I lost by 160 votes. Some people told me afterwards that they didn't go out to vote because they thought I was a shoo-in. My husband was surprised when I said I was going to try again, and I was shocked when I won. But if I hadn't gone again I would always have wondered 'what if?' The people of Upper Bann put me back in and I'm very grateful for that.

Q. In 2009 you were threatened by a masked gunman in Lurgan's Kilwilkie estate while out canvassing for party colleague Alban Maginness. You were warned to leave the estate or be shot. How did that experience affect you?

A. A man wearing a balaclava emerged from behind some hedges as I was going up a path to knock somebody's door. I had canvassers with me who were only out for the second or third time and some of them were very frightened. Others wrestled with him and he disappeared. We reported it to the police. Over the years, we've had stones, yoghurts and eggs thrown at us - sometimes orchestrated by Sinn Fein - and on two occasions I've had my car windows smashed by dissident youths. I was eight months pregnant when the police came to my front door late one night to tell me they'd had intelligence that an SDLP councillor's home was going to be targeted that night. I had to learn how to look under a car for bombs. It was scary enough. I had about seven threats delivered when the SDLP agreed to join the Policing Board.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. Around the time of the money issue it was atrocious; people said I'd no integrity, that I was dishonest and that I'd stolen the money.

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

A. I've been blessed with a number of good days - when my children and grandchildren were born, my wedding day... the best days are those when you're surrounded by family.

Q. And what about the worst day?

A. I miscarried my first pregnancy, at 11 weeks, when I was 23 and admitted to hospital, although it wasn't something that was talked about at all in those days. In November 1981, our mobile home was burnt down six weeks before we got married. We were building our marital home and living on the building site we'd bought at the time. It wasn't insured.

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

A. Yes. I'm still a reader at Sunday Mass.

Q. Whose death has most affected you and does death frighten you?

A. My mother died before my granny; they only lived two doors apart and it was tough to watch your grandmother suffer over the loss of her daughter as well. In one way death doesn't frighten me because I believe in an afterlife, but I don't want to say goodbye just yet.

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

A. Be true to yourself.

Q. You're a keen gardener and avid reader. Is that how you relax outside politics?

A. I like spending time with my family, I make my father dinner most nights. I watch soaps and history documentaries on TV.

Q. Which politician from the so-called 'other side' do you most admire?

A. The UUP's Robin Swann. He has shared his son's heart condition to further that cause and he has to be commended for that.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. My husband.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. Granny BB and my mother.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I've a number of good friends within the Protestant community and we've mixed marriages in the family. I wouldn't want to single anyone out.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. Newcastle.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. Getting re-elected against all the odds. That was a very good day.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. Dodo, and an uncle used to call me Diddles - I still don't know why.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. I did the hurdles in a pair of shoes with heels when I was 13 at school. I pulled tendons in my knee and tore ligaments in my leg and ended up in a plaster cast.

Q. Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you?

A. Growing up, I was very shy and quiet.

Q. You grew up in Aghagallon, Co Antrim, and still live in the same area in the Montiaghs townland. What was your childhood like?

A. We're a very close family. I was blessed to know my great-grandmother Cecilia (or Sissy) and three grandparents - Bernadette, Pat and Margaret Lavery (Granny Maggie). (Granda Peter died long before I was born).

My granny Bernadette, or BB as she was called, half-reared me. As the eldest I stayed with her quite a bit; they were all good singers on her side and there were ceilidhs and sing-songs in her house. We had an ordinary working-class background. You only got new clothes at Easter and Christmas and you had to keep them good. I remember climbing a tree once and ripping a pocket off my dress; that didn't go down terribly well because you passed the clothes on. All of us bar the youngest were home births. When I was a child there was no electricity or running water in the house. I remember going with my mother down to the well to bring the water up.

Q. You went to St Joseph's Primary, then St Mary's PS, before going to St Michael's Grammar in Lurgan. You studied occupational therapy at Ulster University from 1978 to 1981. Tell us about your career to date.

A. I was an occupational therapist in the psychiatric unit at Craigavon Area Hospital for six years. Then, for the next six, I was in charge of a rehabilitation centre/daycare facility in Banbridge. After that I moved to Portadown and was daycare manager for the older person's programme of care until December 2003.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next for you?

A. Staying at home is out. I might consider getting skills to work with dementia, which my grandfather had before he died.

Q. Do you see a time when the SDLP and UUP won't be sidelined by the DUP and Sinn Fein?

A. There's little sign of that happening. We've been excluded from the talks process since last June and that's deeply disappointing. But both communities need a partner from the other side.

Q. Do female politicians get treated differently than their male counterparts in the media?

A. Women are often judged by how they look and not by the content of what they're saying or their intellect.

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