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Remembering Dungannon District Council: Power-sharing ‘broke the mould’

Ken Maginnis with Fr Denis Faul

Ken Maginnis with Fr Denis Faul

Dungannon District Council is entering its final year of existence, marking the end of an era in local government. But how will the council be remembered?

The Tyrone Times has interviewed a series of councillors, past and present, to recall their highs and lows at the local authority.

Political heavyweight and UUP peer Ken Maginnis oversaw one of the most remarkable acheivements by the chamber of elected representatives.

Never frightened of a scrap, either verbal or physical, Maginnis has been described as a trailblazer within the UUP, and regards his role in brokering power-sharing at Dungannon Council as one of his greatest acheivements.

Dungannon council made history 26 years ago when it decided to rotate the chairmanship every six months between both sides of the political divide.

The result was the election of Independent Nationalist Councillor Jim Canning from Coalisland as the Council’s Chairman - the first nationalist Chairman - while Ulster Unionist councillor Derek Irwin was elected deputy chair.

The historical move saw the District Council, as it was known then, credited with leading the way in “responsibility sharing”.

It was also viewed as a major step forward in improving relations at a local level between the nationalist and unionist communities through a very turbulent period in the Troubles.

Addressing the Council as the first nationalist chair, Mr Canning thanked all those Unionist councillors who had voted for him and “broken the mould”.

Coincidence

After leaving the Army with the rank of Major in 1981, Ken Maginnis became Ulster Unionist spokesman on internal security and defence, and was that same year elected to Dungannon Council, on which he sat for twelve years until he lost his seat in 1993.

He renewed his membership of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in 2001 when he was elected for Dungannon Town. However in 2005 he chose to move to the neighbouring Clogher Valley electoral area in an attempt to boost the UUP vote. This strategy backfired and he again lost his seat.

Lord Maginnis said he first got his taste for local government while trying to heal a rift between the Catholic and Protestant communities of Aughnacloy. Afterwards a local Ulster Unionist representative invited him to a few political meetings.

“Iwent to a meeting in February, 1981 and they were selecting councilors and I thought you know I wouldn’t mind being a councilor. That would help me to do some of the things that I was already working at in the community so I stood as a councilor not expecting to win the seat.

“I knocked every door in the area twice and I got myself elected and from that just a number of coincidences happened. It was no great plan at the end of the day.

“In those early days at Dungannon Council I rarely stepped out of the footsteps of my UUP colleague, Ralph Brown, a wonderful and highly principled reprensentative, and I tried to take into politics the approach to community responsibility that I grew up with on the family farm.

“I remember that if it ever rained, you just grabbed a pitchfork and rushed out to help your neighbours with their harvest, no matter their creed or colour. That was the same motivation that guided my career at the council, a neighbourly motivation to use whatever resources were at hand for the good of everyone.”

Ken recalled manys a bruising encounter at the council chamber, but he always shrugged off insults.

“I never suffered greatly from something said on the spur of the moment. I never allowed the bigger picture to be hidden behind the odd insult.”

The father-of-four claimed that of all the councillors he worked with, Ralph Brown and Coalisland’s Jim Canning were ‘the outstanding political representatives of their generation’.

“I loved them like brothers”, he said.

“Jim, in particular, was so easy to work with, so thoughtful and constructive, and I hope that the legacy left by the modern, peace-promoting council he helped create will be carried into the future by the new council body.”

 

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