‘I wanted to help my community so knew I needed to get up and do it’

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Derry’s newest councillor, Sharon Duddy, has this week vowed to advocate tirelessly for the people of The Moor District Electoral Area (DEA) as she settled into her new role as their representative on Derry City & Strabane District Council (DC&SDC), writes Kevin Mullan.

The 37-years-old joined Sinn Féin’s 16 strong council team last week after recently being endorsed by party activists in the Bogside, Brandywell and Creggan as a co-option for Colly Kelly who has stepped down for family reasons

Though a fresh face on the Sinn Féin benches, the long-serving party member is a recognisable figure across the constituency, particularly in the Lower Bishop Street area, one of the tightest knit communities in the city, where she was born and reared.

“I grew up in Ardfoyle at the bottom of Bishop Street, have lived there all my life,” she told the ‘Journal’ this week before going on to sing the neighbourhood’s praises.

“When I had my own family I moved away briefly but soon moved back to Foyle Park where I grew up. I’m Bishop Street through and through! I’ve amazing memories of growing up. I still class my neighbours as like family.

“I have my own children now Brendan (19), Dearbhla (18), Pearce (10) and twins Oisín and Aoibheann (9), raised with her late partner Jim, who died last year, and they all love living in the area as well.

“All of my own family and all my children all went to the Nazareth House, which is on the doorstep. Everyone looks out for each other and it’s a lovely community to be a part of,” she maintained.

Part of the furniture around Bishop Street, the Foyle Road and the Brandywell, Ms. Duddy may be but she’s also likely to have served you tea if you happen to be a regular of the Pilot’s Row Community Centre a little further to the north within the DEA.

“I work in the café and I absolutely love it. It’s something that means lot to me. You’re seeing your regulars coming in and then you’re meeting new people constantly. It’s something you never get bored of. The crack’s90! There are older members of the community who come in and enjoy the company. It’s lovely to be able to provide that,” she enthused.

Colr. Duddy is the latest in a series of councillors to have been co-opted to the council since it was elected in 2014.

These have included DUP Alderman Graham Warke, Independent Colr. Warren Robinson, SDLP Colr. Tina Gardiner, Sinn Féin Colr. Caoimhe McKnight and Sinn Féin Colr. Conchúr McCauley.

But in spite of her relatively young years, it’s not Colr. Duddy’s first venture into the frontline political fray. She has already been tested in the fire of a fiercely contested local election, all of 13 years ago.

As a first-time candidate in an election to the old Derry City Council Northland ward back in 2005 she polled a respectable 486 votes in a constituency in which Sinn Fein ran five candidates despite having just over three quotas.

However, her involvement in grassroots activism predated even that campaign.

“In 2003 I attended a ‘Town Hall’ meeting and heard Raymond McCartney. I came away invigorated and at the end of the meeting he asked if anyone wanted to play a role could they put their name on a sheet at the back of the hall. That’s how I started out canvassing and working with the community. A couple of years later I was asked to stand in 2005.

“My interest started very, very early. My family, although they were republican in their own way, it was never something that was discussed in the house. It was never something that was brought up. Everything that developed with myself came from what was happening around me.”

Politics may not have been debated across the dinner table in the Duddy household but everything’s political and it was difficult not to be influenced by what was going on in a highly politicised community. Equally, having eventually thrown herself into community activist she was soon discovering a quiet republicanism in her own roots that’s probably familiar to many households in The Moor area.

“In hindsight, whenever I looked back and thought of stories about my own family I realised just how much of a republcian family I came from.”

“I found a folder. My father kept cut-outs of newspapers, the Battle of the Bogside, the hunger strikes, and I came across it and started reading it. It struck a chord. I still have it. It means a lot to me.”

As for the republicanism of the 21st century Colr. Duddy’s principal concern in the months that remain of this council’s tenure, will be ensuring her constituents can access the services and entitlements they need to enjoy lives as fulfilled and happy citizens.

“Colly is an amazing character within the community and has done so much to guide me. I’ll be taking on all the isuses he would have been dealing with. I’d be really passionate about things like housing, issues that really affect the community.

“Before I was working within a team and feeding issues on. Now I can personally action things. It’s something I’m really looking forward to. Over the next couple of months we’ll be working on housing. Coming into the winter we’ll be lobbying for salt boxes. We already know these are going to be issues that will be affecting people.These are the things people care about, that affect people’s day-to-day lives.”

Colr. Duddy is conscious of joining a Sinn Féin caucus that is currently led by a woman, the Ballyarnett Councillor, Sandra Duffy, a reflection of the current party leadership.

“The women role models we have now, it’s very encouraging. When you think about politics in the past, it was all very male dominated, with Mary Lou [McDonald]and Michelle [O’Neill] and Liadh [Ní Riada, the party’s presidential candidate] coming now with the presidential campaign. With Sandra as the group leader and our MP Elisha [McCallion], who actually stood the first time I stood for election, we have all these positive role models for women but I think that’s really encouraging for men too. We want to encourage people from all walks of life to get invovled, we’re a multi-cultural party.”

She said Sinn Féin will demonstrate this commitment to equality with its civil rights commemoration in Derry on October 6.

“I think it will be an amazing event. It will be very emotional. I want people to come out in their droves,” she said.

The proud Bishop Street women hopes this will inspire others to take up the cudgel and get involved.

“The one thing I always thought before I joined the party was: if I wanted to do something in my community I needed to get off my backside and do it.”