“I was probably one of the first ones to bring platform shoes to Northern Ireland so that’s one of my claims to fame.”

John who grew up in a family of nine on the Shankill Road, left school at the age of 15 in the retail trade. It was at the height of the Troubles and the city centre was a dangerous place to be.

“They talk about the Europa (Hotel) being blown up a lot of times but I think McMurray’s was blew up nearly as much. Every other week you were getting either a fire bomb or a bomb itself.”

“You just didn’t think about it, it was a day’s work but you just didn’t know what was ahead of you. There were a lot of bomb scares. There was fun in it too, even in those days, it was a good mixed community, they (the workers) were all young, they socialised at weekends together.”

John got married at 21 and he and his wife moved to the Woodvale Road. “There was a bomb round the corner on Ainsworth Avenue and the blast came straight up the entry and blew the front of our house out. So we got the house fixed up again and then decided when our son was born, to move out to Newtownabbey.”

Moving to a brand new estate in Newtownabbey, John recalls a stark contrast of lifestyles. “It was a completely different culture, and in those days it was pretty mixed as well. A lot of people had moved from north Belfast, west Belfast, you thought you were way out in the middle of the country.”

It was this relocation to the Ballyduff estate that provided the catalyst for John’s involvement with community work. “There was talk about a community centre being built and the residents didn’t want that in case it was turned into a paramilitary shebeen. We got involved with that to make sure it was Council run and that there would be no drink in it.”

John’s became the Chairman of the Newtownabbey Foster Parents Association. “Audrey and I fostered for 25 years and in that time we fostered 42 children from kids 6 weeks old to 17 year olds besides having four of our own children.”

John’s passion in helping people led to him leaving his secure job in retail to pursue a career with Bryson House. “I really enjoyed it and it was through that we decided to start up a community group in Ballyduff. I started doing courses with the W.E.A and then I went back to Tech in the 1990s to do a diploma in Community Group Management. And then I went into community work full time.”

During the Troubles, Ballyduff was a tense area due to the highly diverse tenant population. “When the Troubles really got bad, unfortunately a lot of the Catholic families either moved out or were put out. In those days the police would have used me for mediation. We had both loyalist paramilitaries, the U.D.A and U.V.F on the estate. Police didn’t like to work with them so they got me to do the mediation for them.”

Such was the success of John’s community group he obtained funding for his local community and developed a community-based organisation known today as the Ballyduff Community House. John outlines the issues they tackled as, “everything that you could think of from mother and toddler groups to poverty. Just whatever issues were on the estate, we dealt with it. With the Troubles, with paramilitaries, trying to get better housing conditions. Although it was generally a new estate, it was still put up very quick so there was a lot of poor housing.”

With the success in dealing with community issues and triumphing in obtaining new social housing on the grounds of an old school, John decided to make the transition into politics. “Doing the community work I was always involved with every party, it didn’t matter what party it was. If they needed help or asked me for my advice I went to them.”

Several parties invited John to stand for them in elections and after respectfully declining the opportunities, he and other like-minded members of the community decided to start their own party, the Newtownabbey Ratepayers’ Association, “I thought it would be a good idea, it wouldn’t label me as any political side. So we put four candidates up about 18 years ago and we got two of those candidates elected as rate payers.”

John then decided to part ways with the Newtownabbey Ratepayers’ Association due to different views and ideas. After much thought, he stood for election with the Ulster Unionist Party on the grounds that he would vote with his conscience and not solely with the party.

His success in the political arena, John attributes a lot of his time as a community worker. It was an important learning experience where he developed a lot of essential skills. “It’s a good grounding, I mean you’re there, you see people’s troubles. I don’t see any difference as a Councillor from a community worker. I actually think local government shouldn’t have politics in it … if you’re out there for the best of the community, you can do it without politics.”

“I’ve been asked to stand as an MLA but I’ve said no. I think the Council is enough for me. I was just elected as the chair of the South Antrim Association for the UUP and that gets me a foothold into the UUP Executive so I can see myself going in that direction. But for the likes of the Assembly or Westminster or anything like that, no. I’m happy on the ground working with people.”

Reflecting on his career as a community worker and politician, “I think of my mother and father in the Shankill Road, never when I was a wee boy running about, did I think I would be Mayor of Newtownabbey. It’s a great honour, but I can’t wait until the end of June to hand my chain back and I can get on with other stuff that I want to do.” 

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