Outgoing Chief Executive of Dungannon Council, Alan Burke, has paid tribute to the extraordinary contribution made by political representatives and his colleagues over the past four decades, making the local council body one of the most pioneering in Northern Ireland.
With the election for the new amalgamated Mid ulster council set for May, and the announcement of the new chief executive imminent, Alan revealed the best and worst of his time at Dungannon District Council.
One of the few remaining staff who have been there practically from the start of the council’s existence, Alan began as a trainee public health inspector in the grandly named Sanitary Department at the former workhouse in South Tyrone Hospital, and has risen through the ranks to lead the council in its final year of existence.
Whereas the council now employs about 400 staff, Alan recalled how, at the beginning, there would have been about 100 employees based either at the Rural District Council building called the Villa at Circular Road, the Urban District Council building above where the Ulster Bank now stands in Market Square, and the old workhouse building.
“I began working for the council in 1974, shortly after the new council was established”, he said.
“Those were austere times, and the atmosphere at the council was very formal, regimental, almost.
“Major JH Hamilton Stubber was the first Chairman, and the Clerk post was given to Mr John McGhee. There was very little communication between councillors and staff, in those days, and the council had very limited powers.
“Staff were scattered between the different buildings, until the Villa was bomb damaged in the Spring of 1974. The council then decided to bring together all the departments, the council chamber and committee rooms in one building.”
The new council headquarters was opened on June 7, 1978, and was marked with a local history exhibition mounted in the entrance hall by schoolchildren. The building was designed by Shanks Leighton Kennedy with Heron Brothers acting as main contractors, and Tyrone Brick involved in the construction. The unique design of the building won it a commendation in the 1980 RIBA Architectural Awards.
Among the key incidents that stand out in Alan’s memory were the gun attack at the council in which UUP councillor Ken Maginnis was believed to be the target.
“This was the only paramilitary attack on a council building during the history of the Troubles. Sam was the night guard on duty. He was from Coalisland, and wouldn’t have harmed a flea, but somehow he managed to delay and deter the gunmen by engaging them in conversation and dithering about.
“I don’t think he realised the seriousness of the incident, but he probably helped save lives that night.
“One of our big achievements was in creating a permanent travellers’ site in Coalisland. During the 70s and 80s we had illegal encampments in Ann Street, Linfield Street (behind the old Housing Executive offices) and in Coalisland.
“I remember going out to meet the elder statesman of the McDonaghs, and being welcomed with open arms into his tent at the site in Coalisland, where they made clothes pegs and had different types of metalwork going on.
“They had their old style caravans and horses on the site, but nothing else existed in terms of services and modern comforts. “It was a very bleak existence, with poor living standards.
“We created a permanent site for them with all the amenities. As Jim Canning, the independent nationalist councillor said at the time, it was the right thing to do.”
Working with representatives such as Jim Canning, whom Alan referred to as ‘Mr Coalisland’, also stands out in his recollections.
“Jim had the a lot of influential connections, and seemed to have the ear of many powerful people. He was Coalisland’s senior statesman, and was instrumental in securing the power-sharing agreement along with people like Michael McLoughlin.”
In fact, Councillor McLoughlin first raised the ground breaking idea in a council debate in June 1973.
His motion, welcoming the principles of powersharing was seconded by Jim Canning, and narrowly defeated in the council vote.
The issue continued to be a source of debate for many years, until the political breakthrough occurred in May 1988, and the council became the first in Northern Ireland to rotate the balance of power.
In 2001, the council went a step further in adopting the principles of the d’Hondt system.
“Powersharing was another example of how the council was a leader in its field”, said Alan.
“In the late 80s we secured Hadden’s Quarry at Aughnacloy, for the then controversial price of £800,000 which at the time caused a row in the council chamber with one representative resigning in protest.
“However, the waste site there has proved to be a financial boon for the council, now generating £50,000 annually in terms of the gas it produces.
“In fact, we were the first council in Northern Ireland to have an engineered methane gas extraction facility, and we have continued to be pioneers in the field of environmental improvements.”
One of Alan’s favourite memories was the council’s anti-smoking campaign in which Ken Maginnis and Vincent Currie were both photographed riding a tandem bicycle.
“With the help of councillors we launched a no-smoking campaign, pitching non-smokers against smokers, and unfortunately found that the smokers were fitter than the non-smokers.
“Ken and Vincent both agreed to ride a tandem bike with Ken in the front seat. Of course, the press had a field day, remarking how the UUP representative was in the driving seat, with SDLP doing all the work behind him.”