Something about Mary

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You can take the woman out of politics, but it’s not so easy to take the politics out of the woman.

Mary Bradley stepped down after 26 years as an SDLP councillor on Derry City Council at the local government elections earlier this year.

And sometimes she thinks she mightn’t have bothered, for all the difference it makes.

“People still come up to me all the time and say they have a problem with this thing or that thing,” she says with a smile.

“It happens all the time when we’re out doing the shopping on a Saturday and someone will stop me and tell me they were going to phone me about a problem.

“But it’s perfectly all right because I don’t have the heart to say to them they’d be better getting someone else. That’s just not within me.

“I suppose it’s just become a habit with me over all those years.”

Not that Mary, who turns 70 in May, has any intention of sitting at home and putting her feet up in any case. Instead she spends several days a week based at the Carnhill Resource Centre working as a volunteer just as she did before entering politics in the 1980s.

“I’m as busy as I ever was. I was always on the go as they say in Derry and when you come out of something as active as that you have to have something,” she said.

“In a way I am very lucky because I have been involved this group at Carnhill for years and I have always been a volunteer here at the resource centre.

“We have elderly people day carer, meals on wheels, welfare rights, help for people coming in off the street.

“The reason I went into politics in the first place was to try to help people and I hope that I did that. When you come out of such an active life like that you would be lost if you didn’t keep doing something.

“I had no intention of just stopping and going home and lying down, or head off somewhere. Now my husband Liam and myself can just take our breaks when we like because our time is our own. But for me now it’s nice to know that I can still help people if they need it.”

For a woman now synonymous with the SDLP in Derry, Mary became something of a reluctant politician back in the mid 1980s.

She came from a politically aware family, although says it was her mother who was the driving force when it came to politics and the family home when she was growing up.

“My father and mother both worked for John Hume’s first election. My mother Margaret Hamilton always had a great interest in politics and worked for the old Nationalist party in Derry. I was brought up in a house where you knew what your politics were.

“I got my politics more from my mother than my father. She would have been listening to the election results coming in on the radio and she would have sat up and listened to results coming in from England and everywhere.

“My father worked for John Hume for his first election campaign. He’d never done it for anyone before and he never did it for anyone since. John Hume was special.

“In those days you would have tended to support the political party that your parents supported. They wouldn’t have told you who to vote for but they would have been talking to you in a certain way.

“When the SDLP asked me to go for council I told them that I couldn’t do it. My daughter was 13 at the time at Thornhill College and my first thought was that it was going to be unfair to her, that she needed me more. I felt that if I was going to do the thing, then I was going to do it right. I felt there was no point running for council and then not going out to do the things you needed to do at night when they need you.

“So I told them no, but they came to me again and they said they wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“When we first came here to Carnhill we had nothing and we started a Carnhill festival with floats. But there was nothing for the children so I decided to get a sports day going and that grew into a sports weekend every year. So I suppose they thought that if I could do all that, I could get things done on the council.

“It took a few visits and it was Liam who persuaded me to give it a go. I went into the election and I though I had no chance of winning it. And I told them that I would do it, but only until they got someone else so I would do it for six months because they said we would be able to put in a replacement for me.

“So that’s how it started for six months and then 26 years later I was still there.”

The peaceful political climate of today is a far cry from the chamber Mary first encountered back in the mid 1980s.

She entered Derry City Council the same year as Sinn Fein began to take their council seats leading to all out war with the unionists.

“There was a lot of political change at the time and it made life very difficult. If anything came up to do with law and order or policing there was total opposition from Sinn Fein,” Mary said.

“Then the police would have been brought in for Gregory and then Sinn Fein would have got up and walked out. That was the way it was. Sometimes you would have wanted to walk out yourself and walk away from the whole thing. We were getting absolutely nowhere.

“Thank God for the changes that we have seen in those 26 years. People don’t want to be taking any backward steps now back to the Troubles after all we went through.

“There as a shooting the other night here in this area and I thought to myself how many times have I condemned things like that myself.

“It wasn’t right then and it still isn’t right now.”

Mary was deputy mayor in 1990-91 and mayor in 1991-92, a turbulent time in the city’s recent history.

And it was the economic misery caused by the bombing campaign of the time which she felt most deeply at that time.

“There was one evening which really sticks out in my mind when I was working at my office in the Guildhall and I was asked to speak to the press after Woolworths had to be evacuated because of a bomb,” she recalls.

“All the people were taken up to the Rialto and I went up there and was making cups of tea for people.

“But there was this one girl who was just inconsolable. I got her to calm down a little and she told me that her mother would be going out of her mind when she heard about the bomb.

“It turned out that she was the last person in the whole family working because her father and brother and her two sister had all been put out of work because of bombs.

“So here she was, the only one working out of a big family and she was only very young and shouldn’t have had the worries that she had.”

The SDLP has paid a very heavy electoral price for its role - and in particular leader John Hume’s persistence - in bringing about the peace which everyone is now enjoying.

But Mary believes that the it’s political fortunes will change and is right behind new party leader Alastair McDonnell.

“The SDLP has been the stalwart party for so long that it is not going to lie down as go away,” she said.

“John Hume burnt himself out for this city and the whole of Northern Ireland. He’s a true Derry man.

“It might take a few years for the party to recover fully but there is no doubt in my mind that we will get there.

“We have plenty of talented young people coming through, although it is going to take a little time for them to go on to take the leading positions and lead the party on.

“If you look at Derry, and that’s what I know about, you have Martin Reilly, Paul Callaghan, Colum Eastwood and Mark H Durkan.

“That’s a very talented bunch of enthusiastic young politicians who are all ambitious in their own ways.

“But I think it is a great sign that I see a lot of young people coming up through Queen’s University and the University of Ulster getting interested in politics and wanting to join our party.”

And Bradley has a stark warning for the current administration in Stormont which she says is committing the cardinal political sin of failing to listen to its voters.

“The two biggest parties are not giving consideration to what people on the ground need right now.

“I have people coming to see me who are scared to open their bills, who will heat only one room this winter.

“These are the people who built this country and there’s not much help out there for them.

“It’s down to the politicians who have the power now to get out there with the people and realise what it is that they need most.

“Meeting the needs of the people is what politics and governments should be about.”