John Dallat: ‘I’m lucky to have survived’

John and Anne dallat
John and Anne dallat

How would I sum it up?’ retorts John Dallat when asked about his 40-year career in politics.

Pausing, the veteran SDLP man says quietly: “There have been extremely difficult times and I probably am very lucky to have survived, just to be alive.”

John Dallat with former Irish President Mary McAleese.

John Dallat with former Irish President Mary McAleese.

John Dallat said he spent many a night with police officers guarding his house, travelled to meetings with police escorts and had officers come to his door to tell him his life was under threat.

But, despite the threats, the Kilrea man said he had to keep going.

The father-of-three revealed after almost four decades he would step down from politics last May. While some would see the path to retirement as a chance to wind down and lessen the load, the soon to be 69-year-old said he maintained a busy schedule of travelling three days a week to Stormont, spending two days in constituency offices in Limavady and Kilrea, while attending several Stormont
committees.

He admits his decision to retire - made over the course of a year - was one he has wrestled with.

John with a delegation meeting Ted kennedy.

John with a delegation meeting Ted kennedy.

When asked how it all began, the long time MLA says the sight of John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Paddy O’Hanlon, Austin Currie, Eddie McGrady and Seamus Mallon was enough to fire up the young teacher to attend his first political meeting in the 1960s.

John was 28 when he moved home to Kilrea with his young bride Anne, whom he’d met at a dance in Carndonagh in Donegal.

Life back in County Derry was a far cry from the life of peace and the strong circle of friends they had in Carndonagh, where John taught business studies in the Technical College from 1968 to 1974.

But, with his parents, Dan and Ellen, getting older and, as the eldest of six boys, John knew he had to
go home.

John Dallat meeting Bill Clinton with John Hume and Sean Farren.

John Dallat meeting Bill Clinton with John Hume and Sean Farren.

He was fortunate in 1975 to get a job with St Paul’s in Kilrea where he taught for 23 years.

“In Donegal we had little exposure to the Troubles, but they were certainly etched in my mind having attended funerals of those who were killed.

“Back home it wasn’t long before you heard the sound of bombs and bullets. It took me a while to get used to that,” he says.

In 1977 John ran for a seat on Coleraine Council, a seat he held for 33 years and where often he was a lone voice in a sea of unionists.

L - R: Ronan (son), Ellen (Mother), Diarmuid (son), Anne (wife), Helena (daughter)

L - R: Ronan (son), Ellen (Mother), Diarmuid (son), Anne (wife), Helena (daughter)

When first elected the other nationalist on the Council was fellow SDLP man Sean Farren.

John said he was kept off every committee going, but the rebel in him attended meetings just for the sake of it. Eventually, he made it onto an arts committee, which had a grand budget of £2,000.

“I think the only thing we did was buy a painting, which has probably been binned,” he jokes.

“I was 30 years old and probably an awful irritant in a council that hadn’t been used to that. They had a colonel and a captain and then there was me. I caused a lot of rows,” he says.

“It was all very middle class and they did not represent the working class.

“I suppose it made me more resilient to represent nationalist people during a time when a war was going on around us; a war I could never accept or find an excuse for.”

John Dallat, as mayor of Coleraine, shakes hands with the Queen.

John Dallat, as mayor of Coleraine, shakes hands with the Queen.

Over the years, John has had threats to his life, not an easy thing, he said, for his wife and children to understand.

He recalls one occasion when a police officer was at his house overnight.

“He just wanted to get home to see his daughter on her first day of school,” he says, emotionally.

“It struck me he was just a man doing a job, a daddy who wanted to go home and see his daughter.”

John resigned from Coleraine Council when legislation came into effect that did away with the need for a by-election.

“If I had of resigned before 2010 the SDLP would have lost the seat,” says John.

During his time on Council, John was mayor of the borough and met a host of dignitaries during his time, including the Queen and Prince Charles.

“Personally, I never had any great desire to be mayor, but I enjoyed it and I’m glad I did it.

“I remember Prince Charles being in Kilrea and he asked where exactly we were. I said we were on the border of Derry and Antrim or, I said, ‘perhaps Londonderry to you’. I

“ recall him saying something to the effect ‘Derry will do me fine’.”

As part of the Stormont government after the Good Friday Peace Agreement, along with the late Arthur Doherty from Magilligan representing East Derry, John recalls the momentum of the time and a desire for change.

While excited about the times ahead, he was greatly saddened as his mother had passed away.

“My mother was a native Irish speaker from Creeslough in Donegal.

“She was my mentor and had very fixed views on the use of violence.

“She told all of us, in no uncertain times, not to get involved in violence but she was compassionate.

“She sent parcels to men in Long Kesh, and often she received mementoes back. Being elected to the Assembly was the proudest day of my career, politically.

“I know she would have been very proud too.”

He speaks highly of former NI Secretary of State Mo Mowlam who he said was an inspiring woman who didn’t suffer fools gladly.

During the Talks process, John said he spent a lot of late nights away from home in houses and locations around the north, but he believes what the SDLP did, engaging in secret talks with Gerry Adams, was necessary.

“John Hume was in a powerful position to make decisions, and he took them, and that has been recognised throughout the world,” said John.

With Colum Eastwood at the helm of the SDLP, John believes there is a new confidence in the party that has been lacking and he is proud to have openly backed the new leader.

While John doesn’t believe he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime, he has hope one day it will come.

As he attends his last party conference as East Derry MLA this weekend in Derry, John Dallat says he is filled with mixed emotions.

He is humbled by the people who have voted for him over the years, and proud of the things he played a part in achieving, like getting a GAA pitch for Eoghan Rua in Coleraine, helping local people with every day issues, and supporting children and communities in Malawi with the late David McClarty.

However, he is still angry at how authorities, he claims never acted on information he said he had received about the attacks in Greysteel and Castlerock.

John Dallat knows life after Stormont will take some getting used to, although he admits he will stay involved with the party.

However, it is family he is looking towards.

He has six grandchildren, of all ages, and he said he wants to travel with Anne in his Morris Minor Traveller and catch up with friends in Carndonagh.

He is also looking forward to being a better master to his Labrador, Ralph.

“Ralph is a great listener!” laughs John, adding: “I’ve a lot of catching up to do. The one regret I have is the time I missed with my family.

“They grew up and I had little opportunity to spend time with them and I do regret that.

“I’m so grateful they have turned out so well despite an absent father night after night.”