“If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d be the chairperson of the new council I’d have laughed at you.”
These are the words of Coalisland’s Linda Dillon, one of the newest political representatives in the region, and the current Chairperson of Mid Ulster Council.
The public might not yet be aware of it, but a revolution in local government has been underway since her election to the role six months ago.
At the helm of one of the biggest council shake-ups for generations, the thirty nine year-old mother-of-one doesn’t fit the traditional mould, having previously worked as an advice worker in Coalisland’s Sinn Fein offices, before being catapulted into the spotlight with her appointment as chairperson just months after first being elected as a local councillor.
No wonder she’s become an inspiration to her seven year-old daughter.
Has she gotten used to wielding her new powers?
“Certainly I have had an incredibly busy six months, and have learned more things and met more people than I would have in my entire life if I had not been given the role”, she said.
“I’ve enjoyed everything, even the most stressful moments, and I’ve been surprised by the skills and knowledge that I had but was not aware of.
“We now have transformative powers in terms of planning, economic development and tourism and we’re using these for the betterment of every one in the region. In addition, our staff have worked really hard at every level to ensure that the change-over to the new council did not affect services in any way.”
Local politics has not always overflowed with warmth and Linda’s first six months has also been a baptism of fire, kicking off with a bomb threat at the council buildings in the supercouncil’s first few weeks of existence.
She admitted that the incident, believed to have been prompted by a ban on the sale of poppies and Easter lilies at council properties, was a low for the council.
“There was no reason for the bomb threat,” she said. “There is nothing to stop anyone in the district from coming to me and raising their concerns or issues, as long as they are prepared to articulate them in a rational manner.
“I will listen and engage with everyone because I represent everyone in the area, and I have an open-door policy for all constituents.”
What troubled her the most about the incident was that it amounted to an attack on council staff.
“These were ordinary council workers who had no involvement in any of the council’s decisions.
“They would have been the ones injured if a bomb had went off, rather than the councillors themselves.
“I am relieved that there have been no further threats to the council since.”
Swords have also been crossed over other so-called legacy issues, however, she said that the council had made great headway in dealing with these thorny problems.
The role is not for the faint-hearted. She admits to getting nervous before public speaking engagements.
“I never use a prepared script, but prepare myself as much as possible beforehand, and I try to get there early.
“I like to speak to people first and get to know my audience.
“People have to believe what you say, and you have to connect with them in an open way.”
She’s keen on women supporting each other and of refreshing politics with their skills, and is delighted to have as her deputy chair the DUP’s Kim Ashton.
“We get on great and work well together, and I’m delighted to be supported by another capable woman.”
She wants more women involved in politics and the working hours changed to encourage more female applicants, pointing out that the number of women on Northern Ireland’s councils, now at 25 percent, is still lower than much of the rest of the UK. In person, Linda is bright and engaging despite her appointment-crammed schedule, with an unassuming, down-to-earth presence.
She puts her composure down to the support of her family, and a good work and life balance. Mother to seven year-old Sorcha, she said her role as a parent was no less important than her role as chairperson.
“I shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for other, and thanks to my husband’s support, I’ve been able to carry out my duties.
“My little girl told me the other day that I had inspired her to work harder, and that was an important moment for me.
“At the end of the day, we all want to teach our children to have aspirations and to do their best to achieve them.”
Certainly she’s been busy, with the council having just launched an extensive economic development plan for the area, and also campaigning hard to rejuvenate the stalled Desertcreat development plans.
“Time management is key, and I have to force myself to stop thinking about work, as I’m always getting ideas and inspiration from everything that I do.”
She said that the upshot of years working in the Sinn Fein advice centre, was that it hard-wired a deep connection to the social struggles of local constituents.
“However, I can also see the bigger picture and realise that a broad economic plan needs to be devised for the area.”
Looking at her final six months in the chair’s position, Linda is keen to emphasise the potential positives rather than the possible pitfalls.
“At the end of my term I want no one in the district to feel that I have not represented them.
“That is my biggest goal. I hope that the council will achieve a lot more and will have progressed our economic plan. Everything that I’ve experienced and learned will always stay with me and inform my career as an elected representative.”