‘No surrender’ politics is alive and well in Derry, according to the DUP’s Gregory Campbell who this week stood down from Derry City Council after 30 years.
Mr. Campbell, who was first elected to Council in 1981, says that, while he’s “sad” to be leaving the local authority, his links with his home town will remain as strong as ever.
Asked if his decision not to stand in May’s local government elections severed his final public link with his home town, Mr. Campbell told the ‘Journal’: “In no way am I cutting my links with Londonderry.
“I was born here, raised here, have worked here all my life and my family lives here. It was in this city that I cut my political teeth and my interest in what happens here will never diminish.”
When Gregory Campbell was first elected to the City Council, Northern Ireland was a very different place. It was 1981 - a violent year dominated by the Long Kesh hunger strikes in which 10 republican prisoners died.
“In 1981, positions were very polarised in Northern Ireland,” he recalls.
“Not only was it the year of the hunger strikes but it was also the year in which the DUP - until then the junior partner within unionism - became the largest party in Londonderry.
“It was also a pivotal year for myself as I was taking my first tentative steps into the world of frontline politics.
“The ‘Troubles’ were a defining moment for many people. In many circumstances, the ‘Troubles’ decided which path an individual was going to take - the political route or the road to violence. I decided that politics was the way forward.”
Local government politics, admits Gregory Campbell, has played “a very big role in my life.”
“I look back on my time on the Council with great fondness. I enjoyed it immensely. You were at the coalface of politics.
“Whether it’s at Stormont or Westminster, you tend to focus on issues of policy, bills, legislation etc., - all very practical and necessary elements of political life.
“On the other hand, however, with Council you’re brought face-to-face with the on-the-ground reality of this legislation and policy.”
Mr. Campbell - currently MLA and MP for East Derry - acknowledges that his political career has, at times, been “lively” - no more so than during the Council name change dispute of the mid-1980s.
“I suppose I’ll always been associated with the name change controversy,” he says. “It was a very big issue at the time and, to be honest, it was the low point in my 30 years of involvement with local politics.
“Those nationalists spearheading the name change campaign, who for years had talked about being marginalised and disadvantaged, were doing exactly the very same thing to unionists. This is what fanned the flames of anger among unionists.”
Never one to shy away from plain-talking politics, Gregory Campbell says this is something that people appreciate.
“People want their representatives to say it like it is. I was never one for delivering a message just for the sake of delivering it. People, no matter where they are from or what their politics are, want straight talking.
“People shouldn’t have to decode what their politicians are saying. They want it plain. If you can do this - which I think I can - then people appreciate this.
“Granted, they may not always agree with what you’re saying - but, at least, they know what you’re saying. This is the way I have always done and continue to do politics.”
Despite thirty years on Council, becoming Mayor of the city never interested Gregory Campbell.
“It’s an important position when it comes to symbolism and status,” he says.
“A Mayor has to fulfil a busy series of engagements for a long period of time and this, naturally, restricts their ability to carry on their primary role as a politician and the day-to-day tasks that go with it. As such, I was never prepared to sacrifice this to take on the role. I have no regrets about this whatsoever.”
Despite what you may read in the papers, Gregory Campbell’s career on Council wasn’t all about controversy - it did have its lighter moments.
He recalls one such occasion: “In the early 1980s, the Council meetings took place in the evenings and often coincided with social events taking place in the main hall of the Guildhall.
“On one evening, in particular, I arrived for a meeting to find a large number of people - who, I think it’s fair to say were predominantly of a nationalist persuasion - who appeared to be having some difficulty getting into the building.
“Someone suggested that it was a health and safety issue that was preventing the crowd from getting into the event. I went outside to have a word with the waiting crowd and, when I asked what the problem was, a woman stepped out of the throng, pointed a finger at me and very forcefully told me: ‘Mr. Campbell, you are the problem!’
“You see, even when you try to sort out a problem, you can be accused of being the problem.”
Gregory Campbell says that, while he has learned many lessons during his 30 year stint on Council, the most important is “the need for persistence.”
“Some people would have liked the unionist community and their representatives to accept that things were never going to get any better and that we, as a people, should fold up our tents and pick up whatever crumbs we’d got from the table. However, I was never prepared to do this. The battle has continued and still does to this day but in a different way.
“Politicians must always be persistent and consistent. There is a reward from your voters if they see this sort of dependability.”
And, if he leaves a legacy from his time on Council, Mr. Campbell says it is a simple one: “No surrender politics is alive and well in Londonderry.”