In a new Journal series, journalist Rory Mooney will be getting to know the city’s female city councillors a little bit better. In the first of this series he talks to Sinn Fein councillor Elisha McCallion about her involvement in community projects in Galliagh, her election to council and work on the District Policing Partnership (DPP), all the while trying to raise a young family.
Galliagh born and bred, Sinn Fein councillor Elisha McCallion’s reputation as a hardworking, community activist has risen rapidly since her election to Derry City Council in 2005. However, Elisha has been involved in community projects in the Galliagh for numerous years.
Coming from a republican family, Elisha said she had always been politically aware from an early age; however republican views and politics were not forced upon her.
“My family were always politically aware, I had an aunt and uncle who served time. It was always in the background although it was never forced on us,” she said. “I mean, out of a family of about 40 grandchildren there’s only two of us politically active now.”
The mid-1990’s was a crucial period in the peace process, with the IRA’s ceasefire a year old and with still no Sinn Fein participation in peace talks with the British, tensions reached boiling in the north which threatened to spill over into violence. The Drumcree conflict was the turning point for Elisha who decided to become involved in politics and join Sinn Fein.
“Drumcree was the focal point of me getting politically active,” Elisha said.
“Most of my friends would have been out collecting for bonfire night or whatever, I would have been watching the news.
“Around that time of Drumcree, at the age of about 15 I was becoming aware of Sinn Fein Youth and it just stemmed from there. From there at the age of 16-17 I went into the local cumainn structures.” Elisha said.
Elisha’s involvement in politics did not begin when she joined Sinn Fein, her involvement in politics stretches back further with her involvement in several community based projects in the Galliagh area.
“I’ve always been involved in community politics, going back before my time in the party even,” Elisha said. “I was on different committees as a youth representative locally, with the likes of the Galliagh festival. When I finished my education, I knew it was community infrastructure that I wanted to go into.
“I started initially with Galliagh Integrated Advice Service, which gives benefit and housing advice to people in area and I loved that, there was some great work done by that organisation.
“From there I moved onto Galliagh Development Trust, which was instrumental in the delivery of the new park in Galliagh.” Elisha said.
Elisha continues to work in the community sector in Galliagh as part of the ‘Off The Streets’ initiative, which is a youth organisation that tries to tackle anti-social behaviour by bringing youths into education
“I have a great love for community politics,” she said. “This type of work is definitely vocational, it’s not something you would do if you didn’t have a passion for it.”
With a new generation of post-Troubles elected Sinn Fein representatives emerging, it is arguable that no one more can be associated with this description than Elisha following her election to Derry City Council for the Shantallow ward in 2005.
Stand for election
Through her work in various community groups in Galliagh, Elisha’s hard work was rewarded when she was asked to stand for election for Sinn Fein.
“It was always being discussed in the background by our party strategists and I was approached by our local DOE Conor Heaney. I didn’t think I had it in me, that I was too young but obviously they seen potential somewhere, ” Elisha said.
Election campaigns can be tiring at the best of times, but Elisha’s first campaign was marked by her pregnancy with her first child, Daithí.
“When I fell pregnant, I thought that might have been an obstacle for the party but when I went to Conor it was a non-issue. The party has been entirely supportive of me even during that campaign when I was pregnant with Daithí and I’ve had Fiachra since. In terms of what I need as a mother the party’s been behind me,” she continued.
And, as a mother of a young family, Elisha has admitted that balancing out her duties as a councillor and to her family can be hard, but she insists that she would not change it for the world.
“There’s no point suggesting otherwise, it is at times very difficult to juggle both. While I’m out there trying to help the community my first and foremost priority is my family.
“It can be particularly difficult given that my husband works away almost 90 per cent of the year because he can’t get work in Derry. But the rewards out-weigh the negatives.”
Sinn Fein’s historic decision in 2007 to drop their opposition to the police in the North and join the Policing Board and local District Policing Partnerships (DPP) was seen as a controversial move by many disaffected republicans. However, Elisha regarded the move as necessity especially as she was the first Sinn Fein chair of the DPP in 2009.
“I had been a member of the DPP as a party member for a number of months before we took the chair, so I had settled in slightly but nothing had prepared me for what was about to happen.
“Up until that point, there had been no protests at meetings. We had just been in trying to find our feet in the structures, we had just got to the stage were we knew what was what and who was who, but a few meetings into it but dissident republicans suddenly realised that I was the chair and decide to start causing havoc but I think it was dealt with well.
“The support I received not only from other republicans but from the general public was always positive, even if they disagreed with it.
“There was a lot of highlights that came out of that year, prior to me taking up the chair the whole issue of drugs was never in the policing plan which is absolutely ludicrous given the fact the problems of drugs in the city as a whole so it was important for me and the party that we got measured targets in relation to how effective and ineffective there dealing with drugs.” Elisha said.
When asked if she had any ambitions to further her political career, Elisha insisted that she had no desire to leave her community responsibilities behind her.
“Believe it or not but I have no ambitions at all. I am very much a foot soldier and I’ll do what the party asks of me regardless. I don’t see myself climbing any political ladders it’s not really for me, as I say if I’m asked by the party centrally, then it’s something I’ll consider.” Elisha said.
For many in Derry the name McLaughlin has been closely associated with Sinn Fein with the likes of Mitchel and Meave McLaughlin, Elisha does not believe that her recent name change from McLaughlin to McCallion will pose any problems for her constituents.
“I have never seen it as a major problem, I never really realised the rationale behind the name change although my husband had his name changed by deed poll. My two sons are McCallion and it was just a personal choice to change it to McCallion but I don’t think it will cause a problem.
“The laugh in the party is that I should have changed my name to Anderson which is my mother’s maiden name because then I’d be top of list when it comes to voting, but obviously I wouldn’t do that,” Elisha laughed.