The great divide of Craigavon Council spanned four decades

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I had the fortune or misfortune (I can’t decide which) that the life and times of Craigavon Borough Council – created in 1973, and laid to rest last year – coincided with most of my career with the Portadown Times.

Like the other 25 councils in Northern Ireland, CBC didn’t have much power – recreation, emptying the bins, sweeping the streets and burying the dead, summed up the “talking shops” as they were often dubbed. Perhaps a little unkindly.

The leisure centres, the refuse collection and the interments could have continued apace, without the bear pit of the council chamber that met twice a month (plus committees). And one wonders if the structures of six departments (each with a director and a plethora of underlings) were really necessary. There were around 550 employees at the end.

Craigavon Borough Council was regarded as being among the most divided, controversial and angry of the lot. They rarely shied from making a Mount Everest or a Kilimanjaro out of the proverbial molehill. A sort of a perennial Scarva Sham Fight without the horses and the swords!

‘Carry On Politicking’ could have summed it up. I still have vivid memories of councillors being physically dragged from the debating chamber by bemused RUC officers. Of being personally barred from the tea break, as my colleagues and council members enjoyed their Punjana and biscuits, after extracting another ‘in committee’ story from the network of moles.

I enjoyed it in a perverse sort of way, and was treated well by the succession of Mayors and councillors of various hues of orange and green. Mayors were courteous – from the first, jovial Joe Johnston (pictured below), to the last, canny Colin McCusker, who committed the “crime” of appointing the first-ever Sinn Fein Deputy, Catherine Seeley. He received much “stick” from the certain quarters, even though Sinn Fein had the second highest number of councillors.

(As one wit suggested, some Craigavon councillors seemed to think that d’Hondt was a French ghost! But using that method, Ms Seeley is Deputy of the new ABC Council without a murmur).

Speaking of ‘French’, a councillor with that surname (Tom of the Workers Party) was bodily trailed out by the men of the Constabulary once or twice. He would be so infuriated by the divisive nature of debate that the Mayor would order him out, he’d refuse to go, the Boys in Green would be called and bodily lift him out the door. Then Tom would shake their hands, apologise (“That’s ok, Tom,” they’d answer, and off he’d go.) Tom was fair-minded if a trifle temperamental.

This division was best summed up in the St Peter’s GAA Affair in Lurgan – late 1980s. The club wanted a piece of unused council land on which to construct a pitch, and was refused in a maelstrom of angry debating.

It went to the High Court, and legal brains advised the councillors they were unlikely to win. Times colleague (and legal owl) Brian Courtney, told one of the main protagonists that they hadn’t a chance. Brian related the precedent of the old Portadown Borough Council v St Mary’s Hall where the Town Hall would oppose their seven-day licence, it would go to the County Court, with St Mary’s the victors. “Courts don’t rule on moral issues,” Brian told the Craigavon unionists. St Peter’s won, 12 councillors were banned for five years, fined £100,000, and the ‘confidential’ report (released on our deadline day) hit the front page of the Times that night.

This tradition of division almost cost the council £650,000 at one stage, and almost stymied the burgeoning and brilliant CIDO project. The International Fund for Ireland (IFI) had offered that sum for Phase Two of the industrial ‘nursery’. But certain councillors dubbed the grant “green money”. The vote was tied, and only the good sense of Mayor Sam Gardiner, with his casting vote, saved the day.

And so it went on. There was the case of the chief recreation officer (Shetlander James Scott) who didn’t always rubber stamp the ways of doing things, and whose job was on the line in a highly confidential report, which also hit the Times headlines.

It transpired that he’d been praised in the report, but it had been changed, and the Times exposed the about-turn. In the aftermath, one councillor was forced to resign. And later, another officer had to quit his post when it transpired he had been rather inventive about his qualifications.

The divisions lasted until the end. From 1973 until the Millennium, the UUP hogged the top posts, although at that stage, the SDLP managed to make the Mayorship with Dolores Kelly and Ignatius Fox (a cross-community worker rather than a politician). But then the DUP took the initiative, and it wasn’t until the final year that SF were afforded the “crumb” of deputy.

Still, it was rarely dull, which is more than can be said at the genesis of the new ABC super council. I’ve been at a couple of meetings which mainly consist of the minutes being presented, following by much nodding of heads and little debate. I’m informed that, 18 months after its formation, the structures are still being formulated. Whatever that means.

The new constituency is vast. And I’m not sure that Portadown has much in common with Keady, or Banbridge with Derrytrasna. Time will tell as the 1,500-or-so employees get to grips with the new order.

My favourite memory, of CBC, though, is the second local council election (1977) when the Vanguard Unionist Party had collapsed spectacularly. One candidate (54 first preferences votes in a 1,000-plus quota) came storming towards me and blamed the Portadown Times for wrecking his chances.

I can still hear the returning officer, the late Billy Mayes, laughing out loud…

PS – It would be remiss of me not to mention Woolsey Smith (now retired) with whom I worked on so many campaigns – another community worker who cared for people more than politics. Enjoy your well-earned rest, Woolsey!