IT’S been quite a year for Carla Lockhart, Mayor of Craigavon, the newly-wed and female politician being groomed by her party (DUP) for the higher echelons in the maelstrom of Northern Ireland politics.
She’s a modern woman, retaining her surname ‘Lockhart’ after her marriage in August last year to Rodney Condell, a quantity surveyor with a Lisburn construction firm, while she prepares to juggle her personal and working lives in the manner of the modern, 21st century woman.
At 27, she makes no secret of the fact that she is an ambitious politician, has “simply adored” her first two months as Craigavon’s First Citizen, already having spent a morning out with the binmen - “a great experience with hard-working, humorous men”.
She has also been “privileged” to hand out 50 tickets for the Queen’s Jubilee bash at Stormont to deserving people like community workers and the disabled. And she plans to be a park ranger for a day, act as Civic Centre receptionist, and run a cinema night in the Civic Centre at Christmas time “for young people who are deprived here of a cinema, but thankfully one is being planned”.
The tall, pencil-slim Mayor is the youngest First Citizen to occupy the CBC post since the council was formed in 1973, and - in the tradition of the council - her election was swathed in controversy, with Sinn Fein’s Mairead O’Dowd leading the poll on the first count, but losing out on elimination, after a two-hour spat with lawyers and all sorts of legal complications.
“I’ll represent all the people,” she insists, although there will be some restrictions on where she will and won’t go, as she is a member of the Free Presbyterian Church, and there will be functions that, in conscience, she won’t feel able to attend. She’s lucky, though, that her time off from work will be unrestricted. She is a political researcher for Alderman Stephen Moutray MLA, and he - in the DUP tradition – is allowing her to develop unfettered in her political adventures as Mayor of Craigavon, as a step up the ladder.
She has no qualms about the SF Mayoral defeat, citing their penchant for the non-wearing of official council robes, their opposition to the Olympics and Armed Forces flags, and their opposition to the inclusion of Lieutenant Neal Turkington’s name to the Portadown war memorial, plus their desire to have the Queen’s Portrait removed from the wall of the Civic Centre.
But O’Dowd and Co angrily counter that their growing strength in Craigavon - with eight of the 26 members – gives them rights under the d’hondt system to a share of the positions. “It’ll work itself out after Craigavon is merged with Armagh and Banbridge in 2015,” the Mayor counters.
Carla Lockhart was born and brought up near Aughnacloy, County Tyrone, where she still lives, surrounded by her extended family. With her Christian and family ethos she plans to start a family, “when the time is right”. And although she won’t comment on her long-term political plans (“the people will decide that”), there is no doubt she has an eye on the NI Assembly and beyond, now that politics is firmly a career option in Northern Ireland again. “It’ll be difficult juggling all my personal and work options,” she admits. “But I have a caring, loving extended family to back me.”
She was educated at Armagh ‘Tech’ - now part of the Southern Regional College - after which she gained an honours degree in business studies at the Jordanstown Campus of the University of Ulster, with a view to a career in Human Resources (HR). But she had been a member of the DUP’s Young Democrats for many years, and loved the cut and thrust of politics.
During her student days, she shadowed Peter Robinson MP and his wife Iris, both members of Castlereagh Borough Council – long before the ‘Iris-gate’ scandal broke - and met The Big Man Ian Paisley in this respect.
So, after graduation, she started work with Stephen Moutray in his Lurgan office, and unexpectedly became a councillor on the death of the likeable Fergie Dawson, in September 2005, just months after he was elected. Carla was co-opted to fill the breach. Then, in 2011, she was elected in her own right in the Lurgan Ward, with 952 first preferences, just short of the quota, and against big names like Mr Moutray, Meta Crozier, George Savage and Jo-Anne Dobson.
“That sealed my membership of the council, and when the DUP selected me as their candidate for Mayor, I was really delighted,” she said. “Ok, the election was controversial, but it was done on custom and practice and all I want to do now is promote the name of Craigavon as a leading borough in Northern Ireland.” And she insists that Craigavon is best placed among the three amalgamating councils in 2015 to provide the new HQ in “our superb Civic Centre”.
But the enigma of Craigavon is difficult to surmount. Her ‘boss’ Mr Moutray and his fellow MLA Sydney Anderson embrace power-sharing in Stormont – which Mayor Lockhart agrees “is the only practical way to run the Assembly” - and yet, here in Craigavon political divisions are rife.
She agrees that “politics have changed, The DUP had to change in Stormont in our attitude to power sharing, and nobody wants the present and future generations to experience anything like the troubles of the past”.
An intelligent and thoughtful politician, with a promising future ahead, it’s an attitude that still hasn’t really taken root in Craigavon, with both Portadown and Lurgan infamous for their divisions, and the central area also showing its sectarian teeth regularly.
An interesting year lies ahead for Craigavon’s youngest-ever Mayor.