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Remembering Dungannon District Council: The people’s politician who transformed Coalisland

Jim Canning Chairman of the Lough Neagh partnership pictured with Lisburn Deputy Mayor Jim Tynsley and The Mayor of Antrim is Sam Dunlop launching Irish Country Lifestyle Festival which will be held at Shanes Castle in Antrim on the 16 and 17 June. US2307-123AO

Jim Canning Chairman of the Lough Neagh partnership pictured with Lisburn Deputy Mayor Jim Tynsley and The Mayor of Antrim is Sam Dunlop launching Irish Country Lifestyle Festival which will be held at Shanes Castle in Antrim on the 16 and 17 June. US2307-123AO

The creation of the new amalgamated Mid Ulster council will mark the demise of Dungannon District Council and the end of an era of ground-breaking politicians.

One local representative assured of his place in history as a pioneering community leader is Coalisland man Jim Canning.

One of the longest serving members of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, the Independent Councillor was affectionately known as ‘Mr Coalisland’, and became the closest thing the town had to an elder statesman.

Councillor Canning, who had the honour of chairing the council during its historic powersharing year, sadly passed away in 2010, but his legacy still looms large over his native East Tyrone.

First elected at a time when councillors received no payments or expenses, Jim served on the council out of his sense of community duty, and quickly made local politics his way of life.

Well-liked and respected across the political spectrum, he oversaw major changes within the council chamber that helped it become a model for the rest of Northern Ireland.

In an earlier interview, Jim recounted the challenges that faced him when he was first elected a councillor.

“I was one of the new members and I was very aware of the challenges facing meto show that the new council would change things for the better.

“Up until 1973, only ratepayers could vote in council elections which resulted in those who had several rateable premises also having several votes. The new system brought in universal franchise and all those over eighteen were eligible to vote.

“I joined the Social Democratic and Labour Party shortly after it was founded and my first election was as a candidate for that party.

“Within a matter of months I decided that party politics were not for me and that I could better serve the people as an independent councillor.

“The Torrent ward as then known as Area B and I was elected with my neighbour and long time friend Owen Nugent. Jim McQuaid and Eugene Little, both members of the Republican Clubs, were also councillors for Area B and the late Tommy Kempton represented the Unionist Party.

“The meetings were held in what had been the old Dungannon Workhouse. The council chamber was very long and narrow, and it was a tight squeeze to accommodate councillors, staff, visiting officers from the agencies and the local press reporters. The councillors were a solemn lot and treated the occasion very seriously indeed.

“This ‘them and us’ atmosphere continued for a few meetings and the ice gradually melted. Robert Kinkead was the colour head of Recreation. Shortly after his appointment, I invited him to a meeting of interested people in Coalisland and a number of proposals were put forward, many of which came to fruition. Most of the work was carried out by local people through Enterprise Ulster, namely - landscaping the canal basin, the playing fields and running track at Gortgonis and the purchase and improvement to land at Washingbay. The Gortgonis pavilion and the travellers’ site were also built by the council as a result of that meeting.

“Coalisland streets were cleaned every Thursday by two men in a wee lorry but when the now sadly deceased Kevin Carberry took on the job full time, he set a standard which has never been surpassed in the district since and at the same time entertained the passers by with his wealth of talent.

“With a waiting list in the Coalisland area of nearly 200 families, the provision of new houses was a priority. The condition of the existing stock of houses was also very poor and needed a renovation scheme which eventually took years to complete.

“With my shop in the centre of Coalisland I found that I was a convenient conduit to pass on the hundreds of housing problems to the Housing Executive.

“During those very difficult years, staff at the local HE office were very helpful, and new estates were created at River Park, Knockmoy, Mount Cairn, Killen and flats at Gortnaskea place. Staff made an effort beyond the call of duty to ensure that the problem of poor quality housing or indeed no housing at all were alleviated as quickly as possible.

“In the mid 70s I was vice chairman of the council and during that time Chairman Hamilton Stubber was off ill for a number of months. I chaired the meetings and to the surprise of some people the roof didn’t fall in because of it - even though on some occasions I held the casting vote.

“In 1988, the council bravely took the decision to share responsibility on a six monthly basis and I was honoured to become the first nationalist chairman with Jim Brady as the other half of the deal. Credit for this mould breaking must go to Unionists Ken Maginnis, Jim Brady and Derek Irwin for their courage in placing their trust in the other side, and to former councillor Michael McLoughlin, who had doggedly argued for the change over the previous year as only Michael could do.

“The change was well accepted throughout the whole community and the council was seen in a new light and copied elsewhere else. A friend in Coalisland summed up the public attitude in my own town: “From being their council, it became our council.” And so it has been ever since.

“It used to be said that the council function was to empty the bins and bury the dead, but we have come a long way from that. There is much discussion about the amalgamation of the councils to form greater units of administration. This would make sense and I would favour joining with Cookstown as our areas have a lot in common especially around Lough Neagh. Maybe we should bring back the old county system and unit the four councils of Tyrone, with Mickey Harte as Chief Executive; it might be as successful as the footballers!

“In spite of the difficulties of the early years, I feel that there is not the same sense of honour, decency and respect that prevvailed throughout the council in the past. There weren’t as many rules and regulations then and that might not have been a bad thing.”

 

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