Maire Hendron: ‘When contentious issues arose in council, it was important to work with all the parties... It was very unpleasant at times’
Alliance's Maire Hendron on replacing Naomi Long as an MLA, how she was the first non-unionist to top a council poll in the Pottinger ward, and her anger at the party being portrayed as middle-class
Maire Hendron, a founding member of the Alliance Party and former Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, has been selected as the party's MLA in East Belfast. She will take over from leader Naomi Long when she takes her seat in the European Parliament next month.
Q. How do you feel about going back into politics after a break of just over four years?
A. I am excited about going back. It is a challenge and I feel I have skills that will enable me to make a contribution to the role.
I am very keen that the Assembly should be restored and I believe that the public is crying out for devolved government again to deal with all the problems which are mounting up.
Q. You must be delighted at the party's performance in the local government and European elections.
A. I am absolutely delighted. We were so pleased at the results of the local government elections. It was particularly pleasing to see so many young people full of enthusiasm come forward and stand for election alongside the more experienced candidates.
We were hopeful for the European election that Naomi would be a success but we never believed she would be the overwhelming success she was.
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I am sure that everyone watching the results saw Naomi make straight for my husband Jim when she arrived at the count. That was because he was her agent in all but two of her election contests.
Q. How do you see the future for the party given its recent successes?
A. I just hope that the success continues and that the party will continue to grow.
It is up to the young members to keep that momentum going and make sure that it doesn't fizzle out as we have seen with other parties. I believe there is enough commitment and enthusiasm there to allow us to progress. Maybe this is our time.
Q. Were you always active in politics?
A. Not at all. When Oliver Napier approached Jim about forming a new party we had a very young family - a baby of six months and two other children aged two and five.
Jim was part of a group of 16 who was involved in the planning for the new party, work which went on for six to nine months before Alliance was launched.
While he was very much a behind the scenes figure I was very supportive of him. However, I just wanted to rear my children and had no desire to be an elected politician.
I did run for election in east Belfast in the 1980s but I knew there was no possibility of getting elected. Really, I was just doing it to see what level of support we had at the polls and to give our supporters a choice.
Q. Was that the start of your career in active politics?
A. Not at all. Before I had my family I was a home economics teacher, but I gave it up when they were really small.
When all of them were at primary school I went back to teaching at Rathmore Grammar School in south Belfast, where I remained until I retired in 1995.
I believe that it has become something of a neglected subject in schools as it teaches pupils many things and especially about healthy eating, which is a major topic nowadays.
Q. But a decade later you returned to politics.
A. In 2005 I was persuaded to run as a candidate in the Pottinger ward in east Belfast for a seat on the City Council. I thought I had no chance of success and was quite shocked when I won a seat and I served on the council for 10 years until losing my seat in 2015.
The first term, which was leading up to the transformation of local government, lasted six years, and in the second term I topped the poll in Pottinger, something no non-unionist had ever done before.
I did work very hard and attended a lot of constituency events and did a lot of case work for people. My name became quite well-known and, if modesty allows me to say it, respected in the area.
It was during the second term that I was elected Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast. We had six Alliance councillors of which I was the group leader and I also chaired a number of working groups.
For a very long time Alliance had held the balance of power in the council and when contentious issues arose the party felt it had a responsibility to lead the way on these discussions.
I found it very important to work with all the parties. Certainly it was very unpleasant at times when the temperature rose over contentious issues which were being discussed.
Q. How do you think your role turned out?
A. That may be for someone else to say. However, I chaired the centenaries working group which established the criteria for marking the various centenaries we celebrated during the last decade. The first of those was the signing of the Ulster Covenant.
These were delicate issues since the centenary of the 1916 Rising was among those which occurred at that time. Yet these events went off peacefully and without any rancour, which was remarkable.
I now sit on a centenaries committee in Dublin and it has adopted almost word for word the criteria used by Belfast City Council to deal with this issue.
Q. Were there other successes?
A. I was also on a memorabilia group which looked at how the council managed the artefacts which it had acquired over the years and see if they could be displayed more coherently.
Sinn Fein complained that the City Hall was too unionist in appearance. That may have been the case, but it was a building of its time.
The group's work led to the creation of the History of Belfast exhibition, which is continuing on the ground floor.
It tells the story of the city and its people in a factual and inoffensive way and is non-partisan.
Every time I go into the City Hall I am amazed at the number of visitors who are going around the exhibition.
Q. Given that you came to elected politics relatively late in life, how did your family react?
A. They were very supportive. They were pleased and quite proud when I was elected a councillor and are quite amazed that I am now going to be called an MLA. I have three children, two sons and a daughter, and 10 delightful grandchildren. None of my children still live in Northern Ireland, but of course they keep in touch with what Jim and I do.
Q. Had you a political background?
A. I was brought up in the Co Antrim village of Cloughmills and neither my father nor mother were involved in politics. Community relations in the village were good for the most part.
Although I was not brought up in a political family, as I grew up I became aware of the divisions in society, although I had friends of every point of view.
Throughout my life I have mixed well and have had no problems.
Jim and I used to talk with friends about the possibility of getting enough people together to form a non-partisan party and then Oliver Napier came to him with the proposal about what was to become the Alliance Party.
Both of them, along with the other founding members, were completely committed to breaking down the political divisions in Northern Ireland.
Q. You have also been involved in that peace-building work?
A. I chaired the Good Relations Partnership for a number of years. I wanted to see what was going on at street level and how European peace funding was being used to best effect.
I found many people of similar mind to myself who were working away at breaking down barriers between the communities.
There are many unsung heroes in Belfast and other areas that the general public are not aware of.
Q. How did you and your husband meet?
A. It was at a party in Malone House in what must have been towards the end of 1962. We married the following year and have been married for 56 years. He was a solicitor, which was a great help when I left work to rear the children as he kept the money coming in.
That prevented him wanting to become an elected politician, although he has been chairman and president of the party.
Q. Alliance had something of a middle-class image. Was that a true reflection of the party?
A. I remember being a little angry when I heard someone on the BBC describe Alliance as the "wine and cheese party". They obviously had never seen us trying to raise funds by holding jumble sales in dusty church halls.
Q. How do you relax?
A. We like to get away to our little cottage in Donegal when possible, but it seems that something always occurs which prevents us going.
In recent times it has been very busy with two elections so we are definitely going to get away before I take up my new role.