Martin talks life and politics

SDLP's Martin Reilly. 0806JM05
SDLP's Martin Reilly. 0806JM05

Waterside SDLP Councillor Martin Reilly is gearing up for the Euros. He’s using some of this year’s holiday time to cheer on Ireland in the biggest national footballing event of the past ten years.

Before the end of the summer, the Waterside-based politician says he’s hoping to have some annual leave left to spend a holiday with his wife Bronagh, who he married in 2008.

The 33 year-old Derry City Council member has two mantras. He says he doesn’t plan too far ahead and he appreciates the people he has around him. Both those philosophies stem from the serious illness he went through four years ago.

It was during his honeymoon that he discovered a lump on his neck. Days later he found himself facing a diagnosis of Hodgkins Lymphoma.

“I had to cash in the ‘in sickness and in health’ thing quite quickly,” he smiles, recalling the earth shattering news.

After two heavy bouts of chemotherapy in hospital in Belfast and an invasive Stem Cell transplant which saw him spend ten weeks in isolation, the Fermanagh-born councillor was eventually given the all clear and released from hospital in March 2010.

It’s taken some time, but he now feels back to full strength, and is delighted to be “clean” from the cancer which, for a while, turned his world upside down.

Those who don’t know him would never guess for a minute that the energised figure multi-tasking in the SDLP’s Bishop Street offices this week had come through such a physical ordeal.

“It’s taught me to really appreciate what you have and not to worry about things that are outside of your control,” he says,

When it comes to what helped him through what was undoubtably the biggest challenge of his life, Martin credits his family, his wife and his other family - the SDLP.

He’s been a member since his days as a student at Queen’s where he studied History and Politics. A chance meeting with John Hume at an MEP event in Omagh cemented his commitment to the party and after a brief spell working as a sabattical officer at Queens after graduation, he took up a full-time post working for John Tierney and Mark Durkan in 2002.

“It was an exciting time to start working for the party because the Assembly was just bedding down,” says Martin.

Ten years later and Mark is still in Derry now working for and representing the SDLP at city council level.

“I’ve stayed this long so that’s a good sign,” he laughs,

“During my student days I had always enjoyed coming to Derry and I was always given a warm welcome here.”

A native of Enniskillen and having come to Derry as someone with no previous links to the city, the Waterside councillor has never under-estimated the power of the doorstep when it comes to winning votes and keeping a strong party profile.

In the 2005 election, he held onto his seat by 30 votes and firmly believes that contact in the community is crucial.

“That has always stuck with me and it’s a real example of how every vote counts and knocking on peoples’ doors when there isn’t an election is a really effective way of making contact with people.

“When there’s not an election that’s the best time to find out what really matters to people and what the issues are - it’s just a better way of engaging with people.”

Martin is practical about his politics. Anything else is out of the question when you’re the first point of contact for members of the public who want to make contact with their local MP on an issue that’s important to them.

More recently however, he’s represented the city on a much bigger scale, standing in for the mayor on visits to San Francisco and Washington.

Those jaunts have been about putting Derry firmly on the global map and, while he’s ruled out any desire to wear the mayoral chain in the short term, the well-known SDLP Councillor says promoting the city is a privilege.

He’s coming to the end of his term as Chair of the Development Committee during what’s been a busy and exciting year in the run up to Derry’s reign as UK City of Culture.

“It’s been great getting to work with Shona McCarthy and Martin Bradley from the Culture Company and getting to market what we have here on an international scale,” he says.

“I thoroughly enjoyed getting a chance to meet the Derry people living in San Francisco when we were there recently. It’s definitely one of the strongest, close-knit Irish communities I’ve seen and the people there really look after one another, We had a very good meeting with the Irish Consulate Gerry Staunton and it was really about working to make sure that Derry is recognised on the world stage. For me, it wasa privilege representing the First Citizen. In terms of becoming mayor myself, that would be a decision for the SDLP to make in due course and there’s no point trying to speculate,” he says.

Remaining tight-lipped about his own future prospects within the city, Martin is as passionate about the SDLP as he ever was,

While he concedes they’re no longer the force they once were across the North, he emphasises the party’s continuing strength in Derry.

“Our position here is still strong,” he says,

“We have great support here and we never take that for granted. With Mark H Durkan and Colum Eastwood, two of the youngest MLA’s in the assembly, I have no doubt our role in the city will stay as strong ,as it is now. During a week when we’ve seen the Olympic Torch visit the city and seen the success of the fantastic concert in St Columb’s Park, there’s no doubt Derry is looking forward with positivity and it’s onward and upwards,”

It’s a pretty obvious conclusion to say that Martin’s applying the onward and upward theory to his own life.

He’s itching to get to Poland to cheer on Ireland.

“We’ll be anxiously waiting to see how they get on,” he says.

“We’ve just decided to go to this because we know the excitement of the tournament will be amazing. If I’ve learned anything it’s that you don’t sit back and wait for them to qualify for the next big tournament because you never know what might happen in between.”