Colin McCusker – the last in line of Craigavon Mayors – began his reign in controversy, and finished it on Tuesday night by attending a service of thanksgiving for the life of one of Northern Ireland’s more famous (or infamous) local authorities.
Back in June, his predecessor Mark Baxter (DUP) refused to place the Chain of Office around the new incumbent’s neck – a reaction to the fact that McCusker’s UUP group had backed Sinn Fein’s Catherine Seeley as his Deputy, the first ‘top-table’ honour for SF since they entered the Civic Centre 30 years earlier.
Other DUP members had many unkind words to direct towards the 6’3” McCusker – referring to the reign of his late father, the iconic and respected Harold McCusker MP. But the new Mayor was totally unfazed by it all.
“Many slings and arrows were also directed at my father during his political career,” he recalled. “I don’t live in his shadow – never did. But he taught me by example to be my own man – to think for myself – and that’s the way it is.”
Ironically, the DUP nominee who missed the honour as the Last Mayor of Craigavon (Darryn Causby) is the first Lord Mayor of the ABC Council that formally took up the reins on Wednesday. His Deputy is – Catherine Seeley. “That was under d’Hondt which Armagh City and District Council has adopted, anyway,” said Mr McCusker. “The DUP knew it was coming but still chose to make a fuss at our annual meeting. They share power at Stormont, and were simply bad losers at Craigavon. But let’s move forward – not back.”
He did, though, admit to looking back to the first day of Craigavon Borough Council – the times when the Ulster Unionists regarded the Mayoral Chain as their own property. “Things have changed,” said the Mayor. “But we thought that we would move things full circle and mark the fact that Ulster Unionist Joe Johnston was the first Mayor of Craigavon from 1973-75, and I’d be the last.”
Lurgan businessman Mr Johnston served for 18 months, with the new council starting in October 1973 – McCusker finished after 10 months. But neither man holds a record. The late George Savage, for example, served two consecutive terms in the mid-1980s when CBC refused to hold an AGM in protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Hugh Casey (Ind Labour) and Sam Lutton (UUP) served six months apiece in 1996-97.
Colin McCusker was the only Mayor never actually elected to Craigavon Borough Council. He was co-opted early in 2012 after Jo-Anne Dobson MLA vacated her council seat to comply with the party’s ‘one-job-only’ ethos. That was after he had just failed to make the Assembly, with Dobson squeezing past him on the final count. The first preferences of the UUP three were – Sam Gardiner 3,676; McCusker 3,402; Dobson 3,348. McCusker registered his first election win in the May poll to ABC last year, and followed it up with the Mayoral election, making that pact with Sinn Fein. He said, “I make no apologies for that. We did ask the DUP to co-operate with us, but they refused, never came back to us, and the last minute deal was agreed with SF.”
“I have few regrets,” he added, but admitted that he felt let down when Seeley refused to lay the Remembrance Day Wreath in Lurgan in November. “She missed an opportunity to build bridges between the communities, and I regret that. But, there have been bonuses. It has to be said that the Craigavon nationalist community – whose votes give the non-unionists their mandate – now feel included. And it has been the passport for me to visit – and to be courteously welcomed - to areas like Aghagallon.
“Things will be totally power-sharing – in which I intrinsically believe – in the new ABC Council. Armagh has practised d’Hondt for a number of years and there is little or no tension in Banbridge. They co-operate and that is already happening in the ABC ‘shadow’ set-up.”
He said the UUP had one eye on the Westminster election when they secured the Mayoral Chain. “We learned that one from David Simpson when he ousted David Trimble in 2005. He was Mayor in the previous year and the publicity did him a power of good. We believe this time it will have an indirect effect on our candidate, Jo-Anne Dobson. We’re convinced we’ll take Upper Bann and that Tom Elliott will make it in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.”
It all finished for Colin on Tuesday with the opening of Bleary Business and Community Centre, a charity barbecue at Craigavon lakes for “the hard-working council staff who have achieved so much, but whose efforts have so often been overshadowed by the more controversial headlines of the council”.
The final event was the thanksgiving service organised by the Upper Bann Vineyard Church, “a fitting end in peace and worship.”
He said, “My term may have started in controversy, but as secretary of Lurgan Orange District, I have had few problems in the community.”
Colin and Anne-Louise McCusker live at Levaghery on the Gilford Road, and have two children – Jayne (8) and Sam (7) who attend Edenderry Primary. The family attends First Portadown (Edenderry) Presbyterian.