Retiring Councillor’s ‘tremendous honour and privilege’ to serve community

January 11, 2016

SDLP Slieve Gullion councillor Geraldine Donnelly has announced she is to retire from Newry, Mourne and Down District Council at the end of this month, following almost eleven years as an elected representative. Councillor Donnelly, who was elected in May 2005 before topping the poll in Slieve Gullion in May 2011, followed by a year as Deputy Mayor of Newry and Mourne in 2011/2012, spoke to The Examiner about her decision to retire and recalled the highs and lows of more than a decade serving the constituents of south Armagh and beyond.

Admitting she has been considering stepping back from her role and “taking it a bit easier” for some time now, she says discussions with her family over the Christmas break helped her reach her decision that the time is right to “step back and allow the next generation of SDLP representatives to take the lead” in the community.

It is a community she has been very much a part of throughout all its triumphs and tragedies. She reveals that living in Crossmaglen at the height of the Troubles in the early seventies, army helicopters landing behind her home became an all too familiar sight, as did the “terrible consequences of the bomb and the bullet”.

“I never agreed with the violence and it still is abhorrent to me,” she says.

“As a busy mum of three young children back then, whenever I would tune in to the news the one person who I admired was Seamus Mallon. He conveyed everything I believed in and I really looked up to him. I remember being in awe of him when he canvassed at my house in the run up to elections. He really ignited my interest in politics.”

Councillor Donnelly’s entry into politics came after an eight year period working for the International Fund for Ireland.  A casual conversation with the late John Fee led to a role in his constituency office in Newry before becoming an elected representative herself in 2005.

“I loved every second of my work in the constituency office,” she revealed, and admits her main passion always lay in assisting individuals seeking help from their local SDLP representatives..

“It was a very busy office dealing with people who came in for advice and help but I thrived on it.  I felt I was making a difference in people’s lives and that’s where my heart has always been, at the grass roots of it all, working with and helping people in the community as best I can.

“Planning was an issue I was heavily involved in during my time in the constituency office and is still one of the biggest issues I deal with as a councillor. I would go to the ends of the earth if I thought I could help someone by lobbying government ministers and different ministerial departments.”

‘It has been a tremendous honour and indeed a privilege to serve the people of Crossmaglen and the wider south Armagh for over ten years and I am grateful to everyone who supported me,” she adds.   Clearly proud of the district, Geraldine describes it as “a fantastic area with much to be proud of and great people.”

Having taken on a difficult task over the years, being somewhat of a lone voice in the Sinn Fein stronghold, the SDLP councillor hopes that she has made the area a better place during her time as a public representative.

“Although there have been many testing and difficult times over the years, I feel I’ve given my all and hope I’ve managed to make a difference.”

“Whilst there have been many highs during my years, there have been some very low points as well.  The brutal and callous murder of Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna who was beaten to death by a gang of men in October 2007 after being lured to a shed in Co Monaghan will remain with me forever,” she revealed, emotionally recalling the “terrible” night Paul’s brother James arrived at her home, pleading for her help in the wake of his brother’s beating.

“However even out of such hurt and tragedy comes hope,” she adds.

“When you witness the response of the people of south Armagh as they rallied around Steven, Breege and their family it gives you real hope for the future.  I just hope and indeed pray they will get the justice they deserve.”

More recently, the SDLP councillor has provided support for an initiative that has seen a vital lifeline established for the people of south Armagh.  The formation of the Crossmaglen and District Community First Responders is something the outgoing councillor is particularly proud of for the area and she commends founder Damien Martin for his foresight and dogged determination in getting the project off the ground and finally up and running since November last year.

“When Damien approached me with the idea of trying to implement a First Responders team I backed him one hundred per cent,” she says.

“Our neglected infrastructure in Crossmaglen and the surrounding areas has led to a life threatening delay in ambulance response times which needed addressing.

“We’ve had two local Roads Ministers who have failed to see that this area, whose roads have been neglected for the last forty years, requires a bigger share of the budget in order to improve and, in some areas, rebuild its infrastructure. This neglect has a knock-on effect affecting tourism, trade and, more importantly, emergency medical cover for the area.  The First Responders initiative has provided the lifeline needed to bridge the gap between an emergency and the arrival of emergency services. I thoroughly commend everyone involved and hope to continue my association with the project during my retirement.”

Among the things she is staunchly proud of in the area is the beloved Crossmaglen Rangers Football Club which she credits with helping to change and enhance the lives of so many young people in the community.

“I’m a great supporter of the Rangers. I feel the club has given young people in this community a focus, kept them away from trouble and nurtured talent in the area. The team and the club are involved in so many community incentives and charitable initiatives, they really are something to be proud of.”

Also featuring as a high point during Councillor Donnelly’s time as an SDLP representative is the development of Slieve Gullion Forest Park and Adventure Playpark. According to the councillor, the hugely popular attraction has been a “fantastic boost for the area which has helped to put south Armagh and the Ring of Gullion on the tourist map.”

“Although it has become a victim of its own success with the unprecedented visitor numbers causing traffic and parking difficulties, I believe these are issues that can and will be rectified by the current council,” she says.

“There are challenges which exist across this area, such as rural and cross border crime, the scourge of fuel laundering and toxic waste dumping which continues to blight the local environment,” she adds.

“I’ve witnessed first hand the awful aftermath of toxic waste seeping into our rivers and onto rural land and I hope we can make progress with stamping this out in the future.  I really do wonder how those responsible can jeopardise the lives of their own families, their own children by polluting the very environment they live and breathe in.  Hopefully, with more co-operation and a concerted multi-agency approach, we will see more prosecutions for laundering and dumping and maybe see an end to it.  It is a terrible blight on an area which has so much to offer and to aspire to.”

Despite the many challenges she faced during the last decade, the resilient councillor says she leaves her role with no regrets.

“I’ve enjoyed my time and I’ve learned from it,” she insists.

“I know I always did the right thing and have a clear conscience about every decision I had to make. It has been an honour and a privilege to represent the people of south Armagh and the SDLP and I would do it all again but there comes a day when you need to hand it over to someone else.  I live and breathe the SDLP so I will continue with them in some way behind the scenes.

“Down through the years I have had tremendous support from my party colleagues at branch, council and indeed leadership level, especially Seamus Mallon and Dominic Bradley MLA.  I worked for Dominic in the Constituency Office in Newry for many years and he has been a great mentor, colleague and friend. I will miss the great friendships I have made both in my own council colleagues and indeed the staff in the old and new councils, they really do have the interests of the community at heart.

‘I was fortunate enough to enjoy the final years of the Newry and Mourne Council, while getting a flavour of the new Newry, Mourne and Down Council. I would encourage any young person interested in making a difference in their community to get involved in politics, it’s a very rewarding career.”

Thanking her husband Sean, her son, daughters and her beautiful grandchildren, the retiring councillor added: “They have been my support and encouragement during my time as a Councillor and I look forward to spending more time with them in the years ahead.”