As part of an ongoing series of features on local female councillors, reporter Rory Mooney talks to SDLP councillor Anne Donnelly about growing up in Creggan, her participation in the trade union movement and her transition from trade unionist to politician....
She may be new to front-line politics however Creggan councillor Anne Donnelly is well equipped to deal with the rigours of public life due to her many years of involvement in the trade union movement. Anne’s participation in community activism stretches right back to the 1960s as a 14 year-old member of the Derry Labour Party. However for Anne her sense of politics and social justice was instilled in her by her mother from an early age. “My mother was a great woman for fighting injustices,” Anne explained. “It didn’t matter how small or how big. I feel that I’ve got everything from my mother.” Growing up in Creggan Heights, Anne admits despite times being tough for families in Creggan she still had a happy childhood. “It was wonderful happy days, the Crowbie was our playground,” Anne smiled. “The people of Creggan all pulled together. We all had our differences but in the end we stood by one another. “Looking back, times were hard. There were more poor days than rich days.
Unlike most children from Creggan, Anne was educated in the Waterside due to the lack of schools in Creggan at the time.
“My father was from the Waterside,” Anne explained. “So at the time there wasn’t anywhere for me to go as Holy Child and the rest all came later, that’s why I ended up going to school in the Waterside.
Attending school in the Waterside was to be Anne’s first link to the party she would eventually represent at council.
“I was taught by Pat Hume, John’s wife, she taught us a lot of Irish history,” Anne smiled. “But at that time, especially when in the ‘60s when there wasn’t an SDLP I was very involved in the Derry Labour Party.
“I was very proud that a lot of trade unionists fought the council elections in the ‘60s. Sadly we didn’t win any seats but we were there for everyone, and it’s really carried on from that.”
Anne’s first taste of working life came after she secured a job working in a hospital in Antrim.
“I was working with people with learning difficulties. I worked there for six very happy years on the nursing side.”
Having spent six years in Antrim, Anne returned to Derry to start her family with husband Lawrence.
Upon returning to Derry, Anne took a job in Foyleview special school where she quickly became involved with the trade union movement.
“I became actively involved in union work while I was in Foyleview.
At that stage in the ‘70s, the health strikes would have been the first strikes I would have been on.
“The children of Foyleview were always at the fore of my life.”
Anne’s first taste of union life can be traced back to 1966 to a union called COHSE however her first experience of industrial action came after a one day strike in the 1970’s.
“COHSE was a union for health service workers,” Anne explained. “There was a one day strike, but COHSE wasn’t involved in it. In the school we felt that we should be supporting the strike and we decided to join a union called NUPE. I’ve been there ever since until we amalgamated into UNISON.”
During her time in NUPE, Anne was inspired by two leading female lights in the union at the time – Patricia McKeown and Inez McCormack.
“They worked hard for women and led women to have confidence in themselves.
“Their leadership really played a big part in my life.”
Under the influence of McKeown and McCormack, Anne has strived for women in the trade union movement; this is evident with her attendance at the recent women’s Irish Trade Union Congress conference.
“There are over 1.5 million members in our union and of that, over a million are women, which just goes to show you how far we’ve come. I would encourage women to get involved not only in union life but also politically as well.
“My daughter works as an organiser for UNITE but she juggles her own family and work well, so what I’m saying is that it is possible for women to get involved and do well.”
As a result of her tenacity, Anne has now held the highest position in her union in the North for the past 14 years, where she began to cut her teeth as a politician.
“I’m joint regional convenor and I’ve been elected unopposed for the past 14 years which was a proud moment for myself.
“But there have been difficult times. I remember at the start of the peace process and trying to convince working class Protestants and Catholics to back the peace process. It was tough going but we had to convince them that backing the process was for our children’s and grandchildren’s future.
“Through my work with the union, I can now stand with great confidence and fight for what I feel is right.
Anne has been a member of the SDLP for many years and does not feel that the party’s tag of being a middle class party is fair.
“I have seen the work that John Hume and now Mark Durkan has done for Derry.
“Through my union links, I hear about the work that Mark and our MLAs do that don’t get mentioned, so I totally reject any claims that we are a middle class party because I know the work that the SDLP is doing on the ground for everyone.”
Being a member of the Bogside’s SDLP branch for many years, Anne has been asked many times before to stand for election.
Even with such a busy schedule, Anne felt that the time was right to stand and defend party stalwart, Pat Ramsey’s seat in last May’s council elections.
“I’d been asked many times before. I felt I had other things that I wanted to do and complete within the union, but I was honoured when Pat asked me to go for his council seat and I don’t regret it.
“It was a great moment for me to be elected and I couldn’t wait to get started.”
Being so heavily involved in union and political life, Anne believes that the two complement each other well, in which she can help people both through union and public life.
“I’ll always be at the fore if anybody is looking for me to help. That’s what I’m here for. Like my mother, I’ll fight injustices no matter how small or how big no matter what class or creed.”