Dungannon councillors in the line of fire

Cllr Anthony McGonnell  TT2110-145JS
Cllr Anthony McGonnell TT2110-145JS

WHEN veteran SDLP representative Anthony McGonnell first took his seat at Dungannon Council, politics was a dangerous career choice.

However, the English teacher and father-of-five, was strongly motivated by the Civil Rights Movement and was willing to risk his life to improve the situation and livelihood of his constituents.

He described the challenge of continuing with politics in the face of threats, bomb-scares, and sectarian attacks.

“As a student at Queen’s University in the 60s I was inspired by the Civil Rights movement, and joined SDLP when it formed in 1970”, he told the Tyrone Times.

“At that time discrimination was entrenched in the running of society, from housing to employment and voting rights.

“When I joined the council in 1981, times were very bad. The Hunger Strike was dominating the headlines and within the Mid-Ulster area the dreadful tit-for-tat killings of the murder triangle were at their worst.”

In those days, even getting into the council for the monthly meetings was a challenge, and very often the turmoil on the streets was repeated within the council chamber.

Heated debates would follow the latest sectarian murder.

“Manys a council meeting turned into a bear garden”, he recalled. “I often got the impression that more emphasis was put on condemning the murder of security forces personnel than on the many Catholic non-combatants who were also killed.

“Throughout the 70s and 80s many SDLP members were targeted and killed by loyalist forces working as we now know in collusion with the security forces.

“The Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1986 was also a bitter time with much trouble and mayhem. In fact, an attempt was made to close down the council itself.

“However, through it all, I was never concerned for my personal safety, just that of my family. Fear was never something I suffered from, and when I was younger I would have faced anything.”

The Killeeshil man went on to become one of the most influential councillors holding his Clogher Valley seat for three decades at Dungannon District Council, and counts as one of his greatest achievements the campaign to make the A4 safer.

“For many years we ran a campaign at the council to have a dual carriageway built to Ballygawley, and thanks to fellow councillors like Johnston McIlwrath we finally succeeded.

“The safety record of the new road is a testament to what was achieved, especially when you consider the many tragedies that occurred on that road.

“Apart from that, the greatest satisfaction I derived was from helping constituents on a personal basis, in particular in the area of rural planning.

“From the 1980s, the Dungannon District have been transformed with the amount of new homes built in the country and the creation of vibrant rural communities with great recreational facilities, schools and roads.” “Looking back, we’ve travelled a long way together, and there was many a hiccup, but fortunately, from the late 1980s we began to get our act together at the council, and set up the first power-sharing council in Northern Ireland.”

Councillor McGonnell said that he had yet to decide whether or not he would stand for election in the new super council.

He added that he was optimistic about the future of Dungannon District within the new amalgamated council, but has expressed misgiving about the ratepayer bill that will be levied by the cost of setting up the new council structure.