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John Dallat: 'I lived in a house with bulletproof glass and I slept with a revolver at my bedside, but nothing hurt me like the time my car was attacked during a loyalist band parade'


By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: John Dallat, East Londonderry SDLP MLA, on returning to politics, criticism over his retirement package and being branded a liar.

Q. You're 70 and married to Anne (64), your former PA, with whom you have two sons - Ronan (42) and Diarmuid (35), who are both managers - and a daughter, Helena (39), who works for your party colleague Patsy McGlone. You're also grandparents to four girls and two boys, aged between 14 and two. Where did you meet?

A. We met at a dance in a Protestant hall in Carndonagh, Donegal, where I was living in 1970, and where Anne's from. The Church of Ireland held a dance every Thursday night. I remember what she was wearing - a white poncho and pink hot pants. We got married on August 16, 1975, when I was 28 and Anne was 21. We toured around Ireland by car on honeymoon.

Q. Tell us about your parents, Dan and Ellen.

A. My father, a farm labourer, passed away when he was 70. He got bowel cancer 20 years earlier and survived, but then died of a heart attack. He'd gone to the doctor on Friday and died in his sleep the following night, January 31, 1988.

My mother suffered a stroke when she was 50. She was unconscious for 10 days in hospital and in a rehabilitation ward for two days before discharging herself. My dad became her carer. She died in 1998, a week before I was elected to the Assembly. Her postal vote came in but wasn't used. I'm sorry she didn't live long enough to know I got in as she was in many ways my mentor.

Q. You're one of six sons. Eamon (68) and Colm (65) are both retired civil servants, while Michael (64) works for the Housing Executive. Tell us about Tommy and Gerard, who sadly passed away.

A. Gerard, who was four years my junior, died in 1968 aged 15. He was starved of oxygen at birth and was both mentally and physically handicapped. My mother nursed him at home until he was nine, then he was admitted to Muckamore Abbey.

Tommy, a builder, was 60 when he died in 2010. He went into the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast for a routine operation to insert a valve in his heart, but it went horribly wrong. He survived two years in poor health, then he took a stroke and passed away.

Q. You were elected to Coleraine Council in 1977 and served as the town's first nationalist mayor from 2001 until 2002. You were an MLA from 1998 until 2016, then retired briefly before being elected again in 2017. Why politics?

A. Genuinely, I entered politics to change society, to represent people who had previously not been represented. Unemployment was high, housing was appallingly bad. In 1973 we had the first council elections. An invitation to attend the SDLP branch in Kilrea actually went to my brother, Michael, who was at university, so I went in his place and they were very keen to recruit me as a candidate. I said no because I was still teaching in Donegal.

In 1977 I put myself forward. I was influenced by a boycott campaign - posters appeared saying 'Boycott the elections', which I thought was morally wrong, so I threw my hat into the ring.

Q. You retired in 2016 but - as it says on your SDLP page - "re-entered frontline politics after the DUP and Sinn Fein spent eight months destroying everything he had dedicated his life to building". Explain that.

A. I was in Armenia working for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy when the snap election was called. Then, quite separate from that, was the party's decision not to select my successor. At that stage I learned there were two other candidates who'd expressed an interest.

Against that background I was absolutely certain that the SDLP would lose the seat and I felt that I had, in many ways, spent the best part of my life creating something that was different than what was being offered by the DUP or Sinn Fein.

Q. A row erupted at that time when you were chosen instead of party colleague Gerry Mullan. Did you two fall out?

A. I've never had an angry word with Gerry in my life. And I certainly didn't encourage people not to transfer their votes. Of all the campaigns I've been involved in, it was the most painful, the most hurtful and there were times I was sorry I bothered. There were posters put up portraying me as a bank robber.

Q. There was criticism when you stood again, as you'd retired with a package reportedly worth £48,000. How do you respond to your critics?

A. The sum I took was £23,000. I decided to take part of my pension in cash and that's what made it up to the higher figure, but the severance part - the bit that affects the taxpayer - was the £23,000.

If I'd known in advance what was going happen I wouldn't have retired, but at that stage my physical health wasn't good. I was working 18 hours a day, had high blood pressure and I was practically crippled with a bad knee. I did try to pay the money back, but it's not possible. It's normal for people moving from one job to another, whether they're retiring or not, to get severance pay.

Considering that I devoted more than half my working life, £23,000 is not a lot. The money was calculated and based on my 20 years' work. I get paid once for that. My pension was frozen immediately, so the residue of the pension won't be paid.

Q. Your car was attacked by a mob during a loyalist band parade last year. Did you fear for your life?

A. It was really scary. I was surrounded by people, including women. The most intimidating part was getting my photograph taken hundreds of times though the car window and being trapped and not knowing what was going to happen. It lasted about 10 minutes. I dialled 999 - the only time in my life - and two policemen came along and got me out. It's one of the most frightening things that's ever happened to me.

The band in question now accepts there was an incident. I was called a scumbag and a liar. The organisers of the parade initially denied that an incident took place and these denials were carried widely in the papers. It was unreal, and my daughter spent most of her time unfriending people who were putting the most vicious stuff about me on social media. One day I was walking along the street and someone shouted 'You're a liar, Dallat, I was at the parade'. Thankfully two people made statements to the police indicating that an incident took place. This is still being negotiated.

Q. Have there been any other incidents like that?

A. I lived in a house that had high security fences and bulletproof glass and I slept with a revolver at my bedside, but none of that hurt me like this did. I've had loads of death threats. During the 1980s, the infamous Torrens Knight (who took part in the 1993 Greysteel Massacre) lived about three miles from me. He was on a work scheme that I was associated with. The police spent 14 months guarding my house. Thank goodness the intelligence was good; they knew about planned attacks by the UDA/UFF. I've had police staying overnight.

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

A. I constantly struggle with my faith. I go to Mass every week.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. My dad being found dead in bed. My mother found him. Normally he made the breakfast and when he didn't appear... We were just in from Mass when the phone rang and she told us Daddy was dead.

That was difficult. With sudden death there's no farewells, no opportunity to say what you wanted to say, simple things like 'I love you'. It's just lights out.

Q. And what about death? Does it frighten you?

A. It does. It's the unknown.

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

A. Never encourage something that's outside the law and don't lead people down a road where there's no return.

Q. You're a member of St Vincent de Paul and Kilrea GAC. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I'm interested in vintage vehicles. I'm currently rebuilding a Morris Minor Traveller. I also have a 50-year-old Volkswagen Beetle.

Q. Which politician from another party do you most admire?

A. Alliance's Stewart Dickson. He's open and genuine.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. The late John Robb, the eminent surgeon and former member of Seanad Eireann. I attended his service of thanksgiving recently in Ballywillan Presbyterian Church.

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

A. The Aran Islands.

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

A.. Derry.

Q. What's your greatest achievement?

A. I have a gold blood donor's badge - for 50 pints.

Q. And what about nickname. Have you ever had one?

A. Puddler - for being constantly stuck in puddles as a child.

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

A. Deep sea diving on the SS Laurentic (which sank off the Donegal coast in 1917). I was working with a salvage company one summer. My job was to time the divers and do the cooking, but I went down to the wreck. To do that I should've had years of training, but one day down I went … 130 feet.

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

A. I write short factual stories.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My mother. She was the matriarch. Her word was law. She was a strict disciplinarian.

Q. You were born in Rasharkin, Co Antrim, and grew up in Kilrea, Co Londonderry, where you still live. Happy childhood?

A. Our house was fairly basic. We didn't have running water or electricity, but we had the freedom of the countryside. We had animals - two goats, hens, pigeons and pigs.

Q. You went to St Columba's Primary, Our Lady of Lourdes Secondary in Ballymoney, Coleraine Tech, the North West Regional College, the University of Ulster and then NUI Galway. What did you study?

A. I did a postgrad degree in Rural Studies at Galway. Prior to that I did a commercial teacher's degree and my teacher training at UU. I taught Business Studies in Carndonagh Technical College (from 1968 to 1974) and at St Paul's College, Kilrea (1975 to 1998).

Q. You're a former deputy speaker of the Assembly. How do you feel about the current situation?

A. Worried. Too many times political vacuums have been filled by people who believe they can achieve their end by violence. The two main parties need to be aware of that. While they continue their brinkmanship they're going to make themselves irrelevant.

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

A. I'll write my autobiography.

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