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MLA McNulty: 'My wife is going to kill me for saying this, but the best day of my life was winning the All-Ireland with Armagh... it was something I’d always dreamt about as a boy'


By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Justin McNulty, Newry and Armagh SDLP MLA on family, friends, losing his job and winning the All Ireland GAA championship.

Q. You're 42 and married to Christina Balderrama Crespo (31) from La Paz, Bolivia, who works in banking. Was it love at first sight? Can we expect to hear the pitter patter of tiny feet soon?

A. I don't believe in love at first sight. She's a beautiful looking girl but what most attracts me to Christina is her strength of character, determination and honesty. We met in a bar in Dublin four years ago and we got married on September 24 last year. We spent 10 days in London and Bournemouth on honeymoon because that's where she wanted to go. We'd like to have children.

Q. You were born in Cloghogue and grew up near Lislea, south Armagh, where you still live. Any childhood memories you'd care to share?

A. One snowy day, myself and my twin took off down the road in the snow wearing these cool little onesies. We were retrieved a mile away by a passer-by who identified us as the Crilly boys... we were two years old. Our mum and dad didn't even know we were gone. Different times.

Q. You threw your hat into the political ring for Westminster in 2015; it didn't work out, but you became an MLA in 2016. What made you go into politics?

A. It still hasn't worked out (laughs). Politics was a backdrop of my life. All through my upbringing my mum and dad were very active. Dad was on the first civil rights committee in Newry. Former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon was a family friend and at election time mum canvassed and knocked doors for the party. I've always had huge admiration for Seamus and I feel very strongly about what the SDLP has achieved. I wanted to do my bit and I felt it was the right time.

Q. You're an infant in political years. How do you feel about the current stalemate situation? Do you think being an MLA is easy money?

A. At least I got an opportunity to sign in up at the Assembly, do my maiden speech, make a few contributions to debates, submit assembly questions and get a feel for how the system works. Obviously we're not legislating so I'd have no qualms with any decision to reduce our pay.

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

A. Steve Aiken of the UUP.

Q. What did you make of Rule 21 (which meant that, up until 2001, the security forces were banned from being members of Gaelic clubs)? Does the GAA do enough for Protestants today?

A. It was the right time for Rule 21 to go and the GAA has been consistent in terms of trying to develop outreach programmes. The GAA in Ulster has a dedicated community development department that leads the way in community outreach. It's one of the key players in a multi-sport partnership between the GAA, Irish FA and Ulster Rugby, bringing people together from all sections of the community. The partnership has recently received Peace Four funding from the European Parliament, which delivers a range of activities to diverse groups in the hope of improving community relationships, breaking down barriers and changing perceptions. I don't know what more the GAA can do. There is the GAA PSNI team and the Tom Langan Cup - the biennial competition between the PSNI, Garda, London Met and the NYPD - which the GAA funds and supports. It's not the GAA's job to promote the police or to be a recruitment vehicle for them, but they do support the police and have done since 2001. It has been in the right place for the last 15-16 years so it cannot be held to have any fault as an organisation.

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

A. Be yourself and do the right thing.

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

A. I've a very strong belief in doing the right thing. I try to get to Mass every Sunday.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you?

A. One of my best friends Mo (Maurice) Fearon passed away in Newry Hospice four months short of his 41st birthday on March 16, 2013. He had bowel cancer. We'd known each other since school. He was a great guy, very popular. I never believed he would die. I still miss him intensely.

I also lost my uncle Patsy ("the farmer who lived across the road with his wife Roisin - they had no kids so we were the farm children"), my auntie Marie and my grandfather Patrick Crilly, who was the only grandparent I knew.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. It frightens me for my loved ones - I wouldn't be too worried about myself.

Q. You're a former All-Ireland winner with Armagh and you're still quietly involved in football management. How do you relax outside politics?

A. Gym and going for walks in the countryside with my wife.

Q. Your dad Joe (71) and mum Mary (Crilly, 70), were both English teachers, and you're one of six children, including a non-identical twin brother Paul. Tell us about your siblings.

A. Paul works in fund management and lives in Monaco. Sarah (44) is an architect, Enda (40) works in performance consultancy and Emer (38) is a primary school teacher. She created a real problem in the family because she got married to a Justin. Patrick is 28 and he's in fund management in Dublin.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My dad - my earliest memories were of watching him coaching football teams. He played for Armagh himself and also coached them. I remember being in the dressing room at Croke Park after a match when Armagh had been beaten in a league final. A priest who was the manager at the time came into the dressing room after the match and he cursed and blinded like crazy to the players. I was really shocked because priests weren't supposed to say bad words.

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

A. My wife.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I have friends; I don't know what religion they are.

Q. You went to St Malachy's Primary in Camlough, where you were first introduced to gaelic football, and The Abbey Christian Brothers' Grammar in Newry, followed by Queen's University and then Dublin City University. How long were your studies?

A. My primary degree in civil engineering should have been four years but it took me six because my focus wasn't very academic during those years; it was purely on football. I then spent two years at DCU doing a general MBA.

Q. You're a qualified civil engineer. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. I started off in Roads Service consultancy in 2000-01 before moving to Dublin where I worked as a civil engineer project manager in a few companies - including RC Design Services - for six or seven years. Then the recession hit and all of a sudden construction stopped. So no jobs, and no hope of jobs. I was on the dole for about six months. Then, my brother Enda offered me a job as a performance consultant in his company and I did that for four or five years. I'd retired from gaelic football in 2005/06, was managing teams during that period and also did my MBA. After that I joined First Derivatives working in financial consultancy in Ulster Bank in Dublin from 2014 until 2015.

Q. How did you end up in the world of finance?

A. I was always fascinated by the achievements of First Derivatives and the success of Brian Conlon, a guy I admire massively in terms of what he's done. He went to my school and has been such a role model. He has nearly 2,000 people working for him globally which is phenomenal for a man who started up his company less than 20 years ago. He's a really inspirational guy; really focused, really down-to-earth. A very proud Newry man. He could have based his business anywhere in the world but he chose Newry and stood by the people he grew up with and with whom he identifies mostly. I think he deserves an enormous amount of credit for what he's done for the local economy and the reputation of Ireland.

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

A. My wife's going to kill me, but it has to be winning the All-Ireland in 2002 (when Armagh beat Kerry 1-12 to 0-14). I can't begin to describe the feeling of joy and achievement. When I was a little boy, all I ever dreamed about was winning an All-Ireland. All through my upbringing, Armagh never really achieved much so to have played along with a lot of guys who had a similar dream and who were great players was really special.

Q. And what about the worst day of your life? What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Probably losing Mo. The day he died was a very sad day.

I've been very lucky; I haven't had to deal with any real hardship. Dealing with unemployment was tough, too. The day you're told you've no job, that's not a pleasant experience. Also recognising and understanding that your chances of getting a job in the current climate are slim to none. It was an absolutely tough time, I was down about it, but I'm happy that it happened.

It made me a stronger person. So many people in the construction industry have been through the same experience, and for a lot longer than six months.

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

A. Slieve Gullion.

Q. What are your greatest achievements to date?

A. Winning the All-Ireland, finishing my degree, because it was a challenge, and completing an MBA - and marrying Christina.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. Myself and all of our family were nicknamed The Orbs, based on the Harp lager ad when a hardened cowboy came in wearing a pair of silly shorts. My dad had a pair of those and he wore them to training when he was managing the football team I played in - Mullaghbawn. After that Benny Tierney the goalkeeper (another All-Ireland winner with Armagh) christened us the Orbs. This is from a man who's got the best nickname of all time - Whoops - because he was always dropping the ball.

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

A. From the age of 14 my uncle trusted me with his farm so I was brought up milking cows, calving cows (I've calved hundreds) and doing the hay.

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

A. I'd love to go and work with an NFL team in the United States (that is, if my wife would agree to it...). I love American football.

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