As part of an on-going series of features on local female councillors, reporter Rory Mooney talks to the Ulster Unionist veteran - Mary Hamilton about growing up in Donegal, the impact of the Claudy bombing and how it shaped her political beliefs, her time on Derry City council, and her hopes for the future.
Retirement is a time for older people to enjoy the golden years of their lives, however Mary Hamilton says she has no plans to slow down, after she was re-elected yet again last year as a Ulster Unionist councillor for the Waterside.
Many in the city would be forgiven if they had said that Mary was from Claudy given her close ties to the village, however Mary is actually a Donegal girl born and bred.
“I was born and reared in Lifford, Donegal,” Mary said.
“Then when I married Ernie, we moved to Donemana in Tyrone but then we bought the hotel in Claudy in ‘71 and we were there for 22 years.
“Our land ran down to the border, so really I went to school and church in Strabane and I worked in Strabane,” said Mary.
Growing up in Lifford along the Donegal-Strabane border was a happy time for Mary, as community relations between Catholics and Protestants were good she explained.
“In those days there was no problem whatsoever. My father and uncle were two of the greatest Orangemen you would have got in Donegal and on the Twelfth of July the neighbours would milk our cows and help us and we did the same with them.
“At that time everybody respected everybody else and there was never any problem, it was great-the harmony.”
Mary admits, she was not very politically motivated whilst growing up. It wasn’t until she married her husband and life-long Ulster Unionist party member Ernie, as she worked as his constituency worker during his time as a councillor, that Mary became an activist.
“I wasn’t much into politics growing up but I was a Protestant and I was brought up in an Orange family through my father. Then I met my husband in ‘57, at an Orange service in Strabane and we got married in ‘64 and he was always political minded, he was always in the Unionist Party.
“I always believed that I was the woman behind the man and I was helping him a lot with the constituency work.”
July 31, 1972 in Claudy was the scene of one the Troubles worst days. Mary was caught up in the tragic events as three car bombs exploded in the centre of the village claiming the lives of nine people.
Mary explains how she witnessed the events unfolding that day: “It was tough, both Catholics and Protestants were killed. Our business was completely wrecked. I saw people laying dead with their insides hanging out of them, it was awful.
“There was one wee chap who was at his first day at work, he had been up the street when the first bomb went off and he came down to me and he said ‘I hurt my hand’, two minutes after his head was cut off when a bomb went off outside our place.”
1972 is a year that is forever etched into Mary’s mind forever. Following the Claudy bombing her brother-in-law was murdered by the IRA in December of that year.
“The (Claudy) bombing was in July and he was shot in December. He was a part-time UDR man. He was shot out here at Croppy Hill reservoir. He was a electrician just out doing a day’s work.
“I still feel bitter about his death because I went to school to pick up his daughter who was only six and I had to tell her that her father was dead, it was traumatic.
“Nobody has been brought to justice for that either which is hard to cope with,” she said.
The tragic events of 1972 spurred Mary on to use politics to help people for the better.
“I believe in helping people. Even before I was elected I believed in helping people, I firmly believe in doing to others what they would do to you, so when I left Claudy I recieved a lot of cards from people thanking me for helping them. The bomb didn’t make me bitter in terms of politics it just made me want to help people.”
Despite campaigning for and being married to a party member, Mary did not join the Ulster Unionist party until the 1990’s when her husband Ernie gave her the confidence to stand for election.
“I was highly honoured that they even thought I was worthy of it. I believe that if people trust you and vote for you then you have back a lot.”
Mary’s first outing as an Ulster Unionist candidate in 1997 did not end with her election, however in 2001 Mary was elected in the Waterside ward to Derry City council.
“It was wonderful to think that people took time to actually vote for me-it was a great honour and this is why I have to give back to the people.”
A personal highlight for Mary since her time on Derry City council has been serving two terms as deputy Mayor, which she still counts as a humbling experience.
“I remember the night I was first appointed deputy Mayor, I went home thinking that I’m the second citizen of this great big city and people trusted me, I really felt great. The first time I was deputy mayor I worked closely with Kathleen McCloskey. Here was two women and we’ve got the top two jobs, it was great,” she said.
Unionism in the past has been accused of being very male dominated, however both Unionist parties have been making attempts to bring women to the front line politics, something which Mary is in full agreement with.
“Some people think that women should be in the house,” Mary laughs.
“But you can see now women are more confident and they are coming into the party and that’s how it should be.”
Last year Mary celebrated her 70th birthday surrounded by close friends and constituents but she explained that she could not be able to juggle her council responsibilites without the help of her family, especially her three daughters, Miriam, Eleanor and Heather.
“My daughters organised my birthday party last year and they organised my 55th wedding anniversary as well. They’re great, they really are a big help, they’re more like my sisters than my daughters,” Mary smiles.
Mary is now an 11 year veteran of local politics and she shows no signs of slowing down as she says that her constituency work gives her a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
“It gives me great satisfaction in helping people, I’d rather be out helping people than being sat in some meeting but I’ve taken on the role so that’s my job to do that.”