After 26 years helping constituents and representing the DUP from the benches of the council chamber, Joe Miller this month bowed out of public life.
Known for being a grafter on the ground in the Waterside and also for his quick wit and banter in the Guildhall during meetings, Joe Miller has been a firm fixture of the local political landscape for almost three decades.
Since being elected as a DUP Councillor in May 1989, he went on to be Mayor, Deputy Mayor, chaired various committees and was awarded an MBE in 1999.
But the Derry native’s origins might seem surprising to many, particularly the younger generations.
Joe said: “I grew up in the Bogside, where the Lecky Road fly over is.
“When I went into the council they used to call me, in a joking way, the ‘Prod from the Bog’. It was only a joke. I didn’t take it offensive, I was proud of where I came from.
“Growing up the area had two bonfires, one near where I lived for the Twelfth and one even nearer where I lived for the 15th.”
He recalls playing in Hogg’s Folly as a child, while his uncle lived and worked in the house in the Gasworks on Lecky Road.
“We had our differences but nobody fought about them,” Joe said.
“This was 50s, early 60s - it wasn’t until late 60s when things turned the way they did and we had to move to the Waterside.”
Joe said that at that time there a major shift in the demographic locally.
“There was a change in the air and we can go back over history and whataboutery, ‘he did, she did, you did’, you know, and we can all have our views on that.
“I think one of the worst things - apart from all the murders and deaths and the tragedies and the people that are still suffering - one of the worst things during the Troubles was you lived beside who you lived beside then, they were your neighbours, but for fear, whether the fear was real or just in your mind, people tended to move to live beside people who were from their background.
“Whether they did it deliberately or did it for the fear or they were driven out, and we know there were a lot of people had to clear from the cityside, I think that that was one of the tragedies for the city because we all lost out in that you know.”
Joe had been a pupil at First Derry Primary School (now the Verbal Arts Centre) and afterwards moved on to Templemore School and opted for the military over higher education.
“I was to leave Templemore and go on to further education but I didn’t go,” he says. “I was 15 so I knew everything and so I joined the Boys’ Army in 1965/6. This was before the Troubles, and actually the recruiting office was down the Strand Road.
“I went away to Dover, Old Park Barracks, Dover, Kent. ‘24120684 Junior Sapper J Miller, Regional Engineers’. That was pounded into you. I was there for about 18 months, I didn’t like the army and I came home.
“I worked in Mullan’s, a machine company down at Maydown. I worked in a shoe shop. I had a friend over in Stoke and I went over there and worked for a while. Then I came back and I got into Robert Keys and I ended up in the office in there.”
Then in 1971 Joe made the decision to join the RUC. He said the decision to join was not a hard one for him.
“It was something I thought I could do and I would be contirbuting as I seen it to society and I would have a secure job. I had just got engaged, so I was getting married and the big attraction was you got money paid towards your mortgage. So I joined the police in ‘72, was stationed in various places and I resigned in 1985 in protest at Margaret Thatcher signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
“I came back then. My mother lived here. It was an easy decision where would I go- I was unemployed. My wife, myself and the three children slept in my mum’s house in sleeping bags in Rossdowney.”
It was at this time that Joe met the man who he would eventually follow into the council chamber- Gregory Campbell. At the time Jope was trying to get a council house and Gregory Campbell had helped him secure one at Nelson Drive.
“I always had political views, who doesn’t in this country?” he says. “I joined the branch and became secretary of the DUP Branch, but it took them three times asking me to get me to stand in 1989. I stood. We already had picked two candidates and I was the third. We only had two seats, so there’s a thing called a ‘sweeper up’ and I thought that would be me, and I accepted that, but instead I became one of the two elected. Gregory and I got elected and Gregory sort of became my mentor.”
Joe went on to stand in six consecutive elections and got elected each time.
He said that while the chamber was a different place back in his early days as a councillor, about 80% of council business was concerned with every day life.
“I did a lot with housing, street lighting, the elderly, stuff like that and I’m sure other councillors from other parties did the same,” Joe said. “I built up a hard working reputation doing that. In council we all had the same issues. There was quite a lot of agreement on ‘normal’ politics. The big differences were on the border issue and the name of the city and all. If a woman was in a house and she couldn’t manage the stairs and needed a wee bungalow and you came to her and you were able to help in some small ways, that was her issue.”
With no office at the time, councillors had to work from home.
“I was a shift worker as well. The meetings used to all be at night-time and I seen me coming out of the Guildhall at 11.30pm at night and changing into my work clothes and going to work night shift at midnight.
“Willie [Hay] eventually got into the Assembly and asked me would I give up the work and work in the office for him and I readily agreed because it suited me down to the ground.”
After 26 years of life as a local politician, Joe said the move to retire from public office was one which was well thought through.
“When I hit 60 four years ago, I pulled out of the Assembly Office and gradually went into retirement. I made it clear when I would be standing down so things could be planned around that.
“In any job you have to know when it’s your time. Everything was telling me ‘it’s your time’. You can stay too long anywhere and I think I got out at the right time. It’s an end of a chapter in my life and I have some happy memories and it is good to see the country has moved on to where it has now.
“My grandchildren, I hope will not have the same problems I had to go through. They will have a better chance.”
But Joe said that this did not mean everything in the garden was rosey politically speaking.
“It’s far from it. But it’s better than where we were. Imperfect peace is better than a perfect war.”
He quipped: “It’s good to see Sinn Fein are now Ministers in Her Majesty’s government administering Her Majesty’s law in this part of the United Kingdom,” but added:
“I’m sure they don’t waken up every day wanting to be in government with an ex-policeman or people like me and I’m sure I have my things about it, but democracy and the ballot box is the final discipline, and when people go out to vote and they vote for somebody, you have to work with what they vote for, because they stood at the same election as you and got elected.
“You have a mandate and they have a mandate so you have to work with that mandate. You would like to think that others maybe would take that mandate off them but that’s not for me to decide, that’s for others, so I have to work with who I have to work with.”
Joe said his memories of his tenure in office that have stayed with him include the comradeship of the early days, the friendships struck, the good natured banter across the benches, and also some darker epiosdes.
Wishing fellow retiring Councillor, SDLP Creggan representative Jim Clifford all the best for the future, he said: “I must say I had more happy memories than sad ones.
“I remember Willie Hay coming into the Council one day, he was late. “It was something to do with Planning and it was a new building plan, and Willie represented Newbuildings so Gregory started and I came in and we said: ‘that is terrible what they are saying about Newbuildings, they’re against it and all’. Just at that a member of the other community was speaking and giving it a sore go, and Willie thought it was Newbuildings because of what we said and he launched into a tirade defending his area of Newbuildings and it took the chairperson a minute to get through to Willie. He sat down and he looked at Gregory and he looked at me and we just looked straight ahead and didn’t take any notice. I think that night he could have killed me and Gregory himself.
“That’s the kind of things you wouldn’t have seen. There was a bit of banter. Jim Clifford and Gregory if Rangers and Celtic were playing, a note would go back and forth and then Jim would lose the head. The SDLP loved it.”
On the flipside, Joe said, one said of the saddest memories related to the Troubles.
“There was a bomb went off one time and there was some nuns and policemen killed. It was an IRA bomb. It was mentioned in the council and everybody stood up for all the deaths but unfortunately at the time Sinn Fein felt they couldn’t and they stood up separately for the nuns and I found that very hard because I was a human being too. Now I’m sure they have an answer to that and their view would be very different, but I can only give my view.
“But I’m glad to see we are where we are now. The Assembly is far from perfect. You need opposition, you need different ways of doing things- everything isn’t agreed until everybody agrees to everything. That is unsustainable and everybody knows that, but we are in a better position now than we were and I hope in my latter days I see things improving even more for the younger generation coming along- and we old pensioners deserve a wee look in too.
“And even though I call my city Londonderry and most of my neighbours and friends would prefer to call it something else, I don’t think any of them would doubt this is my city and I love it as much as they do.
“My children are here and my grandchildren are here and I want to see it prosper and I will go and argue against Belfast for my city just as they would, just as the Shankhill and the Falls would argue for Belfast.”