DRIVING FORCE

Ben Keith pictured with the Mayor's car. (1309SL54) Photo: Stephen Latimer
Ben Keith pictured with the Mayor's car. (1309SL54) Photo: Stephen Latimer

A smile instantly flashes across his face before he speaks. “Whatever happens in the car, stays in the car,” laughs Ben Keith.

Ben started his job as the mayor of Derry’s driver in 2003 and since then has driven for ten of Derry’s First Citizens; in recent years he has had a new toy to play with.

Ben Keith keeps the Mayor's car spick and span. (1309SL53) Photo: Stephen Latimer

Ben Keith keeps the Mayor's car spick and span. (1309SL53) Photo: Stephen Latimer

“The mayor’s current car is an Audi A8 - it’s a three litre engine and is a pleasure to drive - it’s worlds apart from my wee green Citroen C3” he says excitedly.

Ben was born and reared in Wesley Street in Rosemount in February 1968; he is the youngest of three children.

“I owe a lot to my parents, Anthony and Attracta,” he says.

“They brought my sister, brother and I up really well. I learned the true value of working hard from my parents and they gave me an amazing childhood.

The Mayor, Alderman Maurice Devenney and his driver Ben Keith, pictured beside the Nissan Leap electric car, the first of it's type in the city, which they used for four days last week. INLS2112-197KM

The Mayor, Alderman Maurice Devenney and his driver Ben Keith, pictured beside the Nissan Leap electric car, the first of it's type in the city, which they used for four days last week. INLS2112-197KM

“I have two boys of my own and because of the way I was reared, I tried to experience all of the good times with them that my father and mother did with me.”

Ben’s father, Anthony, is originally from England and met his mother in Weston Super Mare when he was in the merchant navy.

“My father was a chef in the merchant navy and when he moved to Derry with my mother, he worked as a chef for almost 25 years in Altnagelvin.

“My mother was a cleaner at Foyleville Residential Home - my parents were both really hard workers.”

As a youngster Ben attended Rosemount Boys’ Primary School before moving onto St. Joseph’s Boys’ School in Westway.

Ben says that whilst he wasn’t the most academic of pupils, he enjoyed school and made plenty of friends.

“Growing up in Wesley Street was great. It was a close knit community and we all knew one another.

“I have fond memories of playing tennis in the old tennis courts in Brooke Park. We loved playing there so much that we often played tennis in the dark - they were great days.

“I went to the same school as many of my friends and I enjoyed going to Rosemount Boys’ and St. Joseph’s - I wasn’t the smartest at school but it didn’t stop me from having a good time.”

Ben left school when he was 16 and started working towards becoming a plasterer.

“A man called Neil McCallion taught me everything about plastering and we worked on the Verbal Arts Centre and a few buildings around the city centre.”

After a year working as a plasterer, Ben went to work with his father at a locally owned frozen food company in Campsie; he says his father worked him as hard as any of the other workers.

“That was one of the things I always respected about my father - he would never treat me any differently to any of the other employees at Quality Cuisine.

“My job was to prepare all of the vegetables, then everything would be mixed together and then put into the deep freezer before being sold on.

“I enjoyed working with my father - he was a tough task master but I learned a lot from him.”

Ben’s next port of call was working as a machine operator for nappy makers, Honey Bee, in Springtown Industrial Estate.

“That’s where I met the wife,” says Ben happily.

“I suppose you could say it was love at first sight,” he laughs.

“Myself and Mandy worked for about a year before I had the courage to ask her out and I am delighted to say that we will be married 20 years on September 25 - that’s only a few weeks away so I better get her something nice.

“Mandy has been an amazing wife and an even better mother. She’s been so supportive of me and I would be lost without her.”

Ben spent the best part of two years working for Honey Bee before he got a job working as a theatre orderly in Altnagelvin Hospital.

“I must have worked at the hospital for 16 and a half years. I really enjoyed my time there and I met some amazing people - some of whom I am still friends with today.

“I worked with two men called Seamus Breslin and Jimmy Harkin - we had many laughs together.

“Myself and Jimmy used to play tricks on Seamus all of the time. We’d sew cat gut into his trousers and his shirts so that he wouldn’t be able to get his arms and legs into them. It was especially funny when he was trying to catch a bus home and because of our prank he’d miss it.

“We all gave as good as we got and we are still great friends.”

Towards the last few years of his time as an orderly Ben wanted a different challenge.

“I was on the look out for something but I didn’t quite know what it was. Mandy noticed an advertisement in the paper - Derry City Council were looking for a driver for the mayor. I was a bit hesitant at the start but decided to give it a go.

“I applied and after a few weeks got called for interview. I didn’t think I had a chance but after the interview I thought I did ok.

“I then got called back for another interview and I was feeling positive but then came the dear John letter in the post - I was really disappointed.”

Despite his despair at not getting the job, Ben received good news a few weeks later.

“I was working in the hospital when one of the nurses I was working alongside came to me and said that Mandy rang and asked me to call home as soon as possible as she had something very important to tell me.

“If I am honest, I thought that someone was sick or something awful had happened but as soon as I rang home Mandy told me that a letter had come for me and it was from the council - she said that they wanted to offer me the job.

“I let out the biggest roar of joy - I was over the moon.”

Initially, Ben was taken on as cover for the mayor’s primary driver, John Trainor, but after only six days in the job, Ben was requested to drive the then mayor of Derry Shaun Gallagher to Strabane.

“My first job was driving Shaun [Gallagher] to the opening of the Strabane by-pass.

“I was really nervous and I think Shaun sensed that and immediately he put me at ease.

“Since that day, I have driven for ten of Derry’s mayors and I have enjoyed every single minute of it.”

He’s been in the job for almost ten years and impressively, he has never had an accident or received a parking ticket.

“I have to say that the NCP wardens are great to deal with - they know the mayor’s car and they are very flexible. They are always getting a hard time but they are nothing but understanding with me,” he says.

When asked which mayor he has preferred driving for the most, Ben pondered briefly before giving the most diplomatic of answers.

“Paul Fleming [Sinn Fein] and Maurice Devenney [DUP] were an absolute joy to drive for but if I am honest, I enjoyed driving for them all.

“I apply the same rule to whoever is the mayor, whatever happens in the car, stays in the car,” he jokes.

“Myself and Paul Fleming often talked about football. Paul, like Maurice, is a Manchester United supporter whilst I am a Liverpool fan - we had plenty of heated discussions, I can tell you.

“Myself and Maurice did the zipline across the Foyle and he was also the first mayor of Derry to be driven around in an electric car but to be honest I was glad to get back into the Audi - it’s a flying machine.

“Maurice Devenney’s wife, Martha used to make the most amazing apple pies and fairy buns - we’d often have some over a cup of tea.

“Colum Eastwood was great too. His fiancée and then mayoress Rachel was great fun. When pulling up outside buildings I would make sure that Rachel’s side of the car was closest to the door. Colum would joke, ‘I am the mayor, you need to park closer for me,’ but I would reply, ‘but Colum, Rachel is the boss’.”

Ben says that driving for the mayor has allowed him to be involved in some of Derry’s most historic moments.

“Two years ago was amazing as it was the year that Derry won the City of Culture title and then there was the publishing of the Saville Report in the Guildhall - that was a magic day.

“Last year was a big year for Maurice Devenney as it was the year that the Peace Bridge was officially opened - I was actually one of the first people allowed to walk across the bridge - I have fond memories of that day.”

Ben now lives in Hazelbank with his wife Mandy and two sons Owen (25) and Emmett (18). Asked for his hopes and ambitions for the future he said that he hopes that his children find happiness and that he continues to enjoy his job.

“The two boys bought me a bike for fathers’ day so I plan on cycling to work more.

“My two sons are great boys - I couldn’t have asked for better. I just hope that they are happy when they get older.

“I love doing this job. Working with the mayor is a real honour and no two days are the same - long may it continue.”