After the loss of her soulmate Ernie, Mary Hamilton passes on UUP baton
One day before her 78th birthday last month, Mary Hamilton attended her last council meeting and bade farewell to frontline politics for good.
After 18 years serving the people of the Waterside it was an emotional occasion for the popular representative.
The UUP veteran acknowledges her decision to stand down was difficult, but she felt the time was right to make way for the next generation.
Considerations of age and health, the desire to spend more time with her grandchildren and the loss of her late husband Ernie, whose first anniversary falls at the end of this month, were all factors.
“I talked about it for a long-time and this was a tough year without my soulmate Ernie. I took two seizures two years ago and wasn’t driving for a year. The doctor had been warning me to take it a bit easier.
“I thought, is this the right time? I talked to the minister and I talked to [UUP leader] Robin Swann and he said, ‘You have to put your health first’. I’ve three daughters and they were all worried about me.”
Mary’s absence after two decades of representation on both Derry City Council and, latterly, Derry City & Strabane District Council, will be acutely felt. The Lifford-native first stood unsuccessfully for the UUP in the Waterside in 1997.
She was unsuccessful in that election in which Ernie was returned for the neighbouring Rural DEA. Ironically, their fortunes were reversed in 2001, when Mary took a seat and Ernie missed out.
Fittingly, however, the husband-and-wife political duo finally got to serve alongside one another on the local authority in the early 2000s after Ernie was drafted to fill in for a departing colleague.
“When Andrew Davidson stood down Ernie was co-opted to finish that term so the both of us served on that council together, which was nice.”
Two decades on Mary is proud to be passing the UUP torch on to 45-years-old Kilfennan man, Darren Guy, a son of the late former mayor, Jim Guy, one of the best regarded figures within unionism of the 1980s and 1990s.
“I feel relieved now and very happy to be handing over to Darren. I’m sure his father would be delighted. It’s lovely that he’s following in his footsteps.”
Asked how she would like to be remembered as a councillor, Mary said: “I would call myself a people’s councillor. At council you have to go to meetings, of course, but I’d rather be out and around the area helping people and getting results for them. I really enjoyed that, doing the constituency work, going to community groups and supporting them.
“It was all about helping people. People still think I’m in Claudy due to the work.”
The village of Claudy will forever, of course, be associated with the outgoing UUP Alderman.
Mary was badly injured when a car bomb exploded outside the Beaufort Hotel she managed with Ernie in the village on July 31, 1972.
Nine people - Kathryn Eakin (8), Joseph McCluskey (39), David Miller (60), James McClelland (65), William Temple (16), Elizabeth McElhinney (59), Rose McLaughlin (51), Patrick Connolly (15) and Arthur Hone (38) - were killed in one of the worst atrocities of the recent conflict.
Quite apart from her bread-and-butter work as a councillor, Mary is equally well-known as an outspoken campaigner for the Claudy victims.
“I’ve been fighting for Claudy for years. I’m so passionate about it. What annoys me is that 10 miles outside the city is Claudy and we never got any justice. Bloody Sunday is getting so much. I call us ‘the forgotten people.’
“To me, if you do the crime you should do the time and it should be fair all over.
“There has been so much spent on Bloody Sunday and I know they’ve had grief too, but we’ve had the same.
“They talked about it being war but if it was war you would have been facing people.
“There were so many people shot in the back. The one thing about Claudy is there were Catholics and Protestants both killed.”
The events of July, 1972, define many aspects of Mary’s latter-day political career.
But it had been perhaps inevitable she would become involved with official unionism in the city.
“Ernie was always involved. I was the woman behind the man. I kept his diary and did all of the administrative work.
“Naturally, due to all the time that I put into it I was selected to stand for the party in the 1990s.”
Mary went on to serve the people of the Waterside for no less than four terms, however, the ‘mother of the house’ in the Guildhall, never got to enjoy the honour of serving the city and district as its mayor.
This was through no fault of her own. Not since the UUP mayoralty of Richard Dallas in 1996 has the party been sufficiently strong in representation in Derry to qualify for the first citizenship under the D’Hondt system.
But his is not a matter of particular regret for Mary.
“I was three times deputy mayor. We [the UUP] never got mayor.
“After Richard Dallas we were too small a party. It was just the way it worked.
“But I enjoyed the three different terms that I served as deputy mayor.
“The staff were always good to me in the Guildhall and the council offices and Harbour House.”
Intriguingly, Mary is not a particular fan of how the old Derry City and Strabane District councils were amalgamated following the Review of Public Administration (RPA).
This is consistent with the UUP’s staunch opposition to the 11 council model prior to its establishment four years ago.
“The old council was like a family, with the new council, it’s not the same.
“It’s too big and there isn’t the same harmony in it. I
“I think that’s the same over the whole province. All councillors say the same.
“Some of the parties are different too! I have to watch what I say but the independents and the ‘Shinners’, sure they argue the bit out all the time!
“And then if someone talks about Derry City the Strabane ones are saying: ‘What about Strabane?’
“It’s very hard, with the council stretching from Castlederg to Claudy.”
Mary steps down with a proud record and no regrets. She’ll experience mixed emotions when the election results come through but we suspect she’ll get over it quickly enough.
“I’ve three daughters and seven grandchildren. They were always ringing up: ‘Do you have any meetings in your diary today?’ It’ll be great to spend more time with them because time is something you can’t buy.”