From Long Kesh to the Guildhall

The Deputy Mayor of Derry Colr. Kevin Campbell. (1507PG01)
The Deputy Mayor of Derry Colr. Kevin Campbell. (1507PG01)

My interview with Kevin Campbell is over. Kevin’s suited and booted in his finest suit and is dressed for a photograph. “Would you mind giving me a lift to the house so I can get changed into my work clothes?,” he asks. I oblige. We leave the ‘Corned Beef Tin’ on Central Drive and make our way to my car. It takes us about ten seconds to reach the car park but in between times two men and one older lady have said hello to Kevin; he tells me he’s Creggan through and through.

Kevin has lived in Lislane Drive for most of his life. He and his wife Deirdre lived in Pennyburn for a few years but because of Kevin’s affection for Creggan they soon returned.

Kevin was first elected as a Sinn Fein councillor for Creggan in 2005 and at this year’s local council election he doubled his share of the vote. Kevin, who is a Development Worker for the Triax Neighbourhood Management Team was also selected by Sinn Fein to take up the position of Derry City Council’s Deputy Mayor a few weeks ago.

“I was born and reared in 61 Lislane Drive but because of renovations we moved to number 53. When I got older I bought the house and that’s where I live today with my wife and young daughter.”

Kevin was born into a family of seven in Derry in 1956. His father was known as Matthew ‘Mazzie’ Campbell and worked as a docker. Kevin’s mother, Maureen, whose maiden name was Keenan, was from the Waterside.

“I had a very happy childhood growing up in Creggan,” recalls Kevin. “During the summer we would have spent hours out the back of the house playing football. If I wasn’t busy kicking a ball around I could be found fishing down the Line. We only ever caught eel and fluke - we never did hook a salmon,” he says regrettably.

Kevin attended Holy Chid PS before moving to St. Joseph’s College. He left school at the age of 15 with no qualifications.

“I was never that enthusiastic about education until I got older,” admits Kevin. “When I left St. Joseph’s I didn’t have a single qualification to my name but I atoned for that when I got older.”

On leaving school Kevin worked as a part-time docker with his father before getting a job as a steel fixer. However it was also around this time that he joined the IRA and when he was 16 he was interned for eight months in Long Kesh.

“Bloody Sunday was a watershed moment for me as far as my Republican views were concerned,” he explains. “My mother came from a republican family and her brother, Paddy Keenan, had been sentenced to three years internment on board an internment ship.

“When Bloody Sunday happened I joined the IRA the very next day. The people of Derry had witnessed the slaughter of their own people and I didn’t want to stand still - I wanted to do something about it so that was why I joined the IRA.”

After his release Kevin was arrested and charged with possession of a handgun and with membership of an illegal organisation. In 1976 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

“As soon as I entered the Kesh [Long Kesh] I joined the rest of the prisoners on the blanket protest. It was a tough time to say the least. At the time of my release in 1981 six of the ten hunger strikers had already died. The hunger strike period was a traumatic time and it revealed to me the brutality of Margaret Thatcher and the British Government.”

After his release in 1981 Kevin returned to active service with the IRA. Police informers were rife around Derry in the early eighties and in order to evade arrest Kevin fled across the border to Donegal where he stayed for five years.

“I was arrested in 1986 after they [the security forces] found me carrying a 500lb bomb - I was found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison.”

For someone who had never met Kevin before there would be no telling that he was a man who had spent almost 14 years in prison. Asked how his time locked away from the outside world affected him he said that it was something he was prepared for and he used the years spent in Long Kesh to his advantage.

“I was prepared for the consequences. It was a natural thing for me as far as I was concerned. I was part of the struggle and if that meant that I risked going to prison then I was prepared to go to prison.”

He continued: “I used my time in Long Kesh to educate myself. I achieved O-levels and A-levels in English, Mathematics and Irish. I also have a degree in Irish and a diploma from Galway University. It was also in prison that I was able to follow my passion for the Irish language and I am now a fluent Irish speaker.”

Seeing the faces of friends and relatives is something that many prisoners look forward to. However, for two years Kevin did not see anyone; he refused to conform to the rules of the British government and did not wear a prison issued uniform.

“Political status was what we were after and there’s was no way I was going to compromise our objective. I believed in what we were doing and as a result I decided not to take any visits for two years.”

During his second time in Long Kesh Kevin was able to enjoy visits from friends and family but admitted that in the final years of his prison sentence he reduced the number visits he could have.

“It was a long journey for my mother and father. It was a 150 mile round trip for them to make for only 30 minutes with me; in the last few years I cut back on the amount of visits I had.”

When he was released in 1994 Kevin said that he remembers thinking that the only way forward for both Sinn Fein and the IRA was through the Peace Process.

“When you’re in prison you are away from everything that is happening outside. A lot of discussion and debate took place when I was in prison - it helped to see that the next stage of the struggle was to pursue our ultimate goal - a United Ireland - through the Peace Process. When I got out in 1994 I weighed in behind the process and here we are today.”

Politics came calling and in 2005 Kevin answered. In his first election, Kevin won over 700 votes and admits that he has enjoyed every minute of his experience as a Derry City Councillor.

“It’s a great privilege to work for the people of Creggan. There’s a sense of community here like no other and the people here are just second to none. I regard it as an honour that they voted for me and as long as I am councillor for this area I will work hard to ensure that they get everything they need, deserve and want.”

Some parts of Creggan would be viewed as strongholds for people linked with dissident republicanism. Kevin says that those intent on destroying the Peace Process are in the minority and explained that most people in Creggan are behind both him and Sinn Fein.

“I’ll never let anyone intimidate me out of Creggan - this is where I am from and where I’ll be staying. There are people with, let us say, anti-Peace Process opinions in this area and they are entitled to their opinion. I have my views and whilst I respect other peoples’ views it doesn’t mean that I agree with them.

“There are people in this community who were around the same age as myself when I joined the IRA but they were nowhere to be seen back then. Not all of the people with that type of view are like that - there are those who were just as involved as I was when the war was going on but there are many of them who were not.

“These people have to realise that the time for the armed struggle has since passed and the only way we can move toward a United Ireland is through peace and democracy.”

Kevin wants to be remembered as a Deputy Mayor who represented every person living in Derry equally. He says that he looks forward to meeting different people from all over Derry and further afield during his tenure as Deputy Mayor and added that if anyone ever wants to talk to him about anything he operates an open door policy.

“I’ve always been open and honest,” says Kevin. “I want to use this year to meet with different groups, different communities and different people. I am here to represent every person, no matter who they are. I am looking forward to the challenge.”

When he’s not working as part of the Triax neighbourhood management team and when he’s not busy at one of his many engagements as Deputy Mayor Kevin likes nothing more than to work on his allotment, go fishing or watch Gaelic football,

“I’ve a small space where I grow a few things in the back garden and I also help out in the local allotments near Creggan Country Park.

“I’ve a beach caster fishing rod so some times myself and my brother-in-law head off to Culdaff for a bit of fishing - sadly we rarely catch anything. I also follow the Derry footballers and I’ll be in Clones cheering them on against Donegal in the Ulster Final on Sunday.”