After almost forty years in politics Kilrea MLA John Dallat is calling it a day.
In an interview with The Times this week, Mr Dallat looks back on his career, recalling the good and bad times of his olitical life in Northern Ireland.
The SDLP man was first elected to Coleraine Borough Council in 1977. He admitted that he ‘got a taste’ for politics after volunteering to help a candidate during the 1973 Council elections.
“I was then asked to stand in 1977 and I was elected together with Sean Farren who went on to be a minister in the power-sharing government. I was joined by Gerard O’Kane in 1981, and it was only the two of us on the Nationalist side for a long time in Council. Later we were joined by Gerry McLaughlin who is the father of Stephanie Quigley who is one of our six councillors on the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council,” told John.
“There were many good times in Council, but there were also many bad. Being escorted to meetings by police and having bullet proof windows installed in my home, of course there was also the threats to my life,” recalled the proud Nationalist.
“Looking back I think the worse thing about living here at that time was the loss of life in the Kilrea and Garvagh area. There were 13 people killed, some in uniform, others not and, I just think that it was just such an unnecessary waste of human life.”
John became the first ever nationalist Mayor of Coleraine and enjoyed his life as the first citizen of the Borough of Coleraine.
“During my time I met members of the Royal family, including the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, who opened the new council offices while I was mayor. He was great craic and ‘knighted’ me after he asked me what he was supposed do with a walking stick I presented him with to mark the occasion.
“I told him to take it home, and use it for ceremonial occasions. He ordered me down on one knee, while he placed it on my shoulder,” joked John.
“Working with organisations like the Riding for the Riding for the Disabled Association, the Simon Community and Mountfern, was very rewarding, as was conferring the Freedom of the Borough on the Salvation Army and Saint Vincent de Paul Society.
“Today it is, of course, trendy for Republicans to meet members of the Royal family, and that is progress made possible by both President McAleese and Queen Elizabeth.”
John said that a visit to the Borough by Irish President Mary McAleese in 2000 was ‘truly symbolic’ for him from a Nationalist point of view.
“The opening of the new grounds for Eoghan Rua Gaelic Athletic Club was an important step forward,” said John. “When people from very different backgrounds came together to celebrate a milestone in the history of this club which, since then, has gone from strength to strength.
In 1998, John was elected as an MLA: “That wasn’t a good time in politics,” he admitted. “The Good Friday Agreement had been signed and endorsed by the vast majority of people on both parts of the island of Ireland, but there were serious issues still to be overcome, issues like decommissioning and an acceptance by the DUP that they would have to share power with everyone and not just those they felt comfortable with.
“So much time was wasted, when we could have been getting on with changing people’s lives.”
Fast forward to today and John says that Stormont is ‘working reasonably well’. “There’s still too much wrangling,” he admitted.
“The committees are working very well together, and members are rising above party politics.”
A former Deputy Speaker at Stormont, John is the longest serving member of the Public Accounts Committee.
“Through the work of the Public Accounts Committee millions of pounds has been saved, and I believe we have moulded the way Government departments work,” he said.
And as a former teacher, John says that it’s the work of the Public Accounts Committee that highlighted the serious issue of illiteracy and innumeracy in socially deprived areas.
“I have so much admiration for local schools like Millburn, Ballysally, St John’s, St Malachy’s and others that have reached out to children to ensure they are equipped with good literacy and numeracy skills, and a much better chance to go on to further and higher education.
March 29 will be John’s final day at Stormont, so what does he plan to do with his spare time?
“I have no idea,” he admits. “My Morris Minor Traveller is undergoing extensive renovations and I, together with my wife Anne, are planning to spend some time travelling about with vintage clubs that we have signed up to.
“I will still be involved with the party and I hope that my experience will be valuable to the SDLP.
“I have five wonderful grandchildren, so no doubt I will be spending plenty of time with them.”