Politics flows through Cathy Nelis’ veins. It’s a world she’s been familiar with from a young age. Cathy is the daughter of former Sinn Fein MLA and Derry City councillor, Mary Nelis.
This year she will follow in her mother’s footsteps when she stands in the local council elections in May.
“Politics is something that was thrust upon my family; ever since I can remember it has been a big part of my life,” said Cathy.
Cathy was born in Derry in 1969 and is the second youngest of nine children. Her oldest brother was killed in a car accident in 1974 and two of her other brothers were jailed in Long Kesh during the Troubles.
As a young girl she attended St. John’s PS and Thornhill College.
“I left Thornhill when I finished my O-Levels,” she said “Then, when I was 17 years-old, I got a job running the Sinn Fein office in Cable Street - that was something that I really, really enjoyed and it gave me great experience.”
Cathy left her job with Sinn Fein to go and work in America for two years. On her return to Ireland she secured a place studying for a degree in Sociology and Social Policy at Queen’s University, Belfast.
“I got pregnant during my second year at university but I coped and worked hard. In 1997 I graduated and in January of the following year I got a job working for Cunamh and that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Cunamh was set-up in 1997 to help and support those affected by the Troubles. Cunamh’s clients include former combatants, civilians and family members of those who lost their lives during that period.
“In the beginning we would have dealt with people from the Republican and Nationalist communities who suffered as a direct result of the Troubles but in recent years we have started to get more and more referrals from the Loyalist and Unionist communities.
“The way we look at things at Cunamh is, if we can help you and you’re willing then we are here to support you.”
Cunamh offer an array of techniques for combating post-traumatic stress including counselling, complementary and cognitive therapies.
“We also do a lot of research into post-traumatic stress and if we can help people to cope better then we know that we are moving in the right direction.”
Cathy will stand for election in Derry City Council’s rural ward in May. Along with fellow party member and former Mayor of Derry, Paul Fleming, she’s determined to be elected.
Eight years ago Cathy moved from her home in Limewood Street to the small county Derry village of Park and if elected in May she would represent the people of this area.
“The reason we decided to move to Park was because my youngest child, Fiachra, was diagnosed with autism. We wanted to live in a place where things were quiet and living in Park has given us a great quality of life.
“Autism can be a really isolating condition for Fiachra and we were determined that when we moved to Park that we wouldn’t let it isolate us as a family. We have some great neighbours in Park and the help and support we have received over the years has been second to none.
“Fiachra has really benefited from the move to Park. For the first few years of his school life he attended Foyle View Special School but now he goes to St. Mary’s PS, Altinure. It’s a great school and he’s really, really happy there.”
If elected to council, Cathy said that she would be an “on the ground” politician and would do everything in her power to give the “vulnerable a voice”.
“I think that it was probably through my mother that I learned the importance of fighting for others and giving the vulnerable a voice. If elected that’s precisely what I would do.
“I was raised in a way that if I saw something wrong or if I could do something to help others then I would do something about it.
“There are issues to do with transport, roads, policing and anti-social behaviour that I would address. I think that because I have lived in the area for the last eight years I have a good understanding of what makes the people the tick and what they need.”
At the beginning of Mary Nelis’ career in politics she was a member of the SDLP but after only a year she left the party and joined Sinn Fein. Asked if she ever considered standing for another party, Cathy said that as far she was concerned Sinn Fein are the only party on the island to have retained its credibility.
“I made the decision to stand in the election during the summer of last year. It wasn’t a hard decision to make because I believe that Sinn Fein are the only party in Ireland with any credibility left. They really understand the needs and wants of the people they represent. I think the fact that no one in the party takes home a wage greater than that of the average working salary is credible and shows the party’s integrity.”
Cathy is also a member of the Victims Forum and has been vice-chair of the District Policing Partnership (DPP) for the past two-and-a-half years.
“I think that my experience with the DPP would enable me to build relationships between the PSNI and the local rural communities. Although the rural areas of Park and Claudy do not have the same problems as the urban areas of Derry city, we still have to endure anti-social behaviour, issues to do with drugs and alcohol as well as road safety. It’s important that we meet with the police on a regular basis to make sure that these issues are being addressed and if elected in May these are but a few of the problems that I would tackle.”
Cathy will spend the coming weeks and months talking with local residents from Park and Claudy. By the end of the election she’ll have hoped to have convinced them that she’s worthy of her vote.
“It would make me extremely proud if the people of the area were to put their faith in me and elect me. My pledge to them would be that I would do everything in my power to make sure that all issues are being addressed. The people in this area are just as important as any where and if I can help to make a difference here then I’d be honoured to do so.”
Despite devoting most of her time to her job and community work, Cathy still finds time to line out for the Craigbane GAA Mother’s team and enjoys nothing more than spending time with her son and daughter.
“My partner, Declan Kearney, is Sinn Fein National Chairperson and he also coaches the U14s at Craigbane. After going along to a few of the games I was asked to take part in a few games for the mammies’ team. It’s great fun. I am only finding my feet but I am really enjoying myself. Declan is an Antrim supporter so you can imagine the fun I had when Derry beat them in semi-final of the McKenna Cup a couple of weeks ago,” she laughed.
“I like reading books and God knows I have plenty of them but the one thing that will always make me happy is spending time with my two children. They are very, very special to me.”