23 May 2022

Special Feature: East Derry MLA John Dallat reflects on the highs and lows of four decades of politics

A boy who grew up with no electricity and went on to help democracy in two Russian territories

Special Feature: East Derry SDLP MLA John Dallat reflects on his political journey

John Dallat at his home in Kilrea. Photo: Mary K Burke

East Derry MLA John Dallat has been at the forefront of politics for the last 40 years. So naturally, the SDLP Assembly member has a story or two to tell about his time in office.
In a special feature, he reflects on the good, the bad and the sometimes very ugly, sides to his public role, which, at times, has deeply impacted on his personal life.

John Dallat's introduction to politics came quite by chance.
An invitation to join a new branch of the SDLP was sent to his brother, but John went instead and almost got selected to run for council.
He declined, pleading that he was living and teaching in Donegal.
Four years later, after returning to Kilrea to take up a teaching post at St Paul’s College, he was chosen to run and so began a lifetime of council work which culminated in John becoming the first ever nationalist mayor in Coleraine. 
This period also represented his involvement in rejuvenating the local Credit Union which was in danger of closing
A new Conference of Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) was also being set up in Kilrea which would do amazing things for people.
Around the same time, the man who was about to become one of Ulster's most hated sectarian killers, was placed by the Probation Service in the very town John lived, and worked in.
Just before committing the Castlerock and Greysteel atrocities, UFF murdererTorrens Knight was placed on a local community employment scheme in Kilrea.
He left without completing the year of work he was ordered to do by the courts.
“The rest is, of course history,” said John. “He and his cronies murdered my friend Gerry Dalrymple, who was in my house the night before the Castlerock murder of four workmen. 
“His last advice to me was to pull my curtains.
“The following morning, he was dead and so too were three of his workmates.
“These were dark and dangerous times with armed cops sitting outside the council chamber. 
“In the beginning I thought they were protecting unionists but when I complained that they could be better used other places I was told by the Divisional Commander it was me they were looking after because I had no control over my mouth! 
“Yes, Ulster Resistance had brought in guns which were divided among the UDA and UVF and in the future innocent people would die at Castlerock, Greysteel and elsewhere. 
“Among those in the security forces to die was Bertie Gilmore who lived in the same lane as me. 
“We played together, grew up together and Bertie joined the UDR and I the SDLP. 

John Dallat ready for the road in his beloved Morris Minor car. Photo: Mary K Burke

“He had retired three years and was recovering from a severe heart attack when he and his wife were riddled with gunfire beside the retirement site he was going to build. 
“Today his daughter is among those who have helped me in challenging times.”
John (72) was born and bred in Rasharkin, Co Antrim.
“On reflection if I was asked to be born into a different house in a different place I would turn it down.
“I was happy growing up by a Tilley Lamp, carrying water from the well and waking up in the morning with ice on the inside of the windows. 
“Later on I loved the ‘put-put’ of our ‘Start-o-matic’ generator and Peeke my pet pigeon was never from my side. 
“She had fallen out of the nest and my mother nursed her back to life while she grew the most beautiful brown and white feathers. 
“An amazing creature of God. I knew why we couldn’t get a council house and I know it was more than just because we were Catholics.
“Poor Protestants didn’t get council houses either because they might also be unable to pay the council rent. 
“Anyway, we kept a goat for the milk which was good for my wee brother Gerard who was special needs both physically and mentally. 
“He died when he was 15 and part of my mother and father died too.”
John said that being the “underdog” was second nature to him growing up.
And it was something he carried with him into his politics career.
“It just seemed right and at times didn’t go down well, especially when I sided with the travellers when they came to town but the travellers were good people and attitudes changed,” he said.
“When a young girl from a different part of the world suffered horrific life-changing injuries after losing her job and was left homeless, it seemed right to have her for Christmas in our home and it was one of our best and happiest times ever. 
“Today she and her family are our best friends and we love them to bits.
“When an African student was going to be deported because her visa ran out and her sponsor died suddenly it seemed only right to bring her home and set about stopping her going back to a country where she had only a blind grandmother and no one else. 
“Luck had it I met the head of the Border Agency in Stormont on the corridor and he extended her stay for two years. 
“In the meantime, she met an amazing husband, married and is among our best friends. 
“Brian Kennedy played at the wedding and we dressed up in African traditional dress!
There is one battle, not yet won, which has had the most impact on John in his role as a public representative.
He said: “Perhaps the one story which doesn’t have a good ending just yet is the dreadful murder of Inga-Maria Hauser whose mutilated body was found in Ballypatrick Forest 15 days after her neck was broken in an attempted rape. 
“Early next year I will meet her only sister Frederika at a special conference in Queen’s University. 
“That will be an amazing occasion and hopefully the prelude to her murderer being brought before the courts for one of the most brutal killings I have ever read about.”
At the heart of it all has been one thing, John’s family. 
“Politics had its mixed blessings. I got to see places in the world that I could never have been but it also brought its problems – searching under the car for booby traps, bullet-proof windows and doors and a gun that I know I would never have used.
“But politics also gave me the most incredible family. 
“My poor wife Anne was parachuted into the north at the height of the Troubles to a small town which was bombed from one end to the other. 
“Our daughter, Helena, now a councillor, became the youngest detainee when we were arrested by the British army in Derry shortly after crossing the border. 
“She was ten days old and our mission was simply showing her off to her Donegal grandparents. 
“Sixteen years later as a member of the Foyle Harp School she played for President Bill Clinton when he first made that history-making appearance in Mackey’s Foundry. 
“Later, she would entertain other leaders including President Robinson and McAleese as well as John Major and member of the Royal Family. 
“I felt honoured when she was invited to play in the Russian Embassy in Washington on Saint Patrick’s Day. 
“Today the same harp is never out of sight but not played in public anymore.”
John added: “Our two sons, Ronan and Diarmuid have been amazing and in one difficult and dangerous year we were on the Aran Islands three times for our safety. 
“For 40 years Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands has been our refuge, our safety valve and our friend. 
“Two weeks ago when I was in hospital after breaking my arm while canvassing, Vincent Mc Carron, one of our friends, left the island during a storm, drove to Kilrea to collect Anne, go to Derry to collect me from hospital and bring me home. He stayed for several days helping with my recovery.”
In 1998, one week after his mother sadly passed away, John became Deputy Speaker, a post he held for ten years. 
“I found it a strange place and certainly not reflecting my background where the term ’Mister’ was hardly order of the day. 
“In time I persuaded the doorkeepers and others to call me by my first name and I felt comfortable about that. 
“I felt I was dismantling a bit of the old Stormont that was in danger of being rejuvenated! 
“All these people were my friends by simply showing them a bit of respect, nothing more and I have missed them dearly over the last three years when I see little of them anymore.”
Reflecting on challenges and achievements in his political career, Mr Dallat spoke about stopping the closure or the Belfast-Derry railway north of Ballymena.
”The twenty-year project nearly went off the rails several times,” he said.
“The Civil Service had a plan to save money by closing the railway north of Ballymena and use the savings to make a start on the A6 roadway though Toome. 
“Today the Belfast-Derry railway carries many more passengers than the Belfast-Dublin Enterprise service, but still needs connected to the Irish Rail network and that is a priority for me. 
John added: “Stopping the closure of the Irish Coastguard Radio Station at Malin Head, announced by Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Transport. 
“I gave evidence to a Dail committee with two of my councillors and told the TD’s this was one of the best examples of cross-border bodies, seamless, transcending partition and two world wars, costing very little and actually working! Varadkar had to back down.
”As vice-chair of the Public Accounts Committee I exposed wanton waste of public money and brought about important changes which the civil service didn’t like. 
“Effort to cover up who was responsible for bad mistakes and neglect were strenuously resisted. 
“Later I was invited to Georgia and Armenia to share my experiences and I felt so honoured and privileged. 
“I just couldn’t believe that a boy that grew up in a house with no electricity, no running water could be involved in helping democracy grow in two of Russia’s former territories.”
With the Assembly back up and running, John says he has great hope for the future.
“I have been through the best and the worst of times and see an amazing future for this part of Ireland. 
“I see wonderful people all around me in both communities and I want to be part of that community for the sake of future generations that will create a new Ireland and one we can all celebrate. 
“I would encourage every young person to do likewise.”

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