02 April 2005

An Phoblacht

Leonard selected to contest East Derry seat

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Councillor Billy Leonard has been selected by Sinn Féin as the party's candidate to fight for the East Derry seat in May's Westminster election.

At a party convention on Wednesday 23 March, delegates selected the sitting member of Coleraine Borough Council.

Speaking from the party's East Derry headquarters in Dungiven, Paddy Butcher congratulated Leonard on his selection.

"Billy has earned a well deserved reputation as the champion of ordinary working-class people in the Coleraine Borough area," he said.

"His work rate on grass root issues such as housing, benefits and road safety is second to none. He has stood alone as the only effective voice against the unionist home rule attitude which has dominated local politics in Coleraine since partition."

Sinn Féin colleague Francie Brolly described Leonard as an ideal candidate and praised his inspirational leadership as a councillor in Coleraine and his "commitment to all-Ireland issues such as tourism, the environment, equality and the promotion of the Irish Language and culture".

Leonard, the party's only councillor on Coleraine Borough Council, joined Sinn Féin in January last year having been elected to Coleraine Council as an SDLP representative.

However, Leonard's background as someone from a Protestant household and a former part-time member of the RUC, makes his decision to join Sinn Féin all the more interesting.

He grew up in a unionist household in Lurgan, County Armagh. His father was a member of the RUC who retired just as the conflict in the North erupted. His own membership of the RUC was short lived and his time as an RUC reservist saw him dealing with mundane and uninteresting tasks.

Speaking recently to students from Queen's and Jordanstown Universities, Leonard recalled the election of Bobby Sands and how he thought it went a long way to explaining what republicanism was all about.

Living, as he did in Dublin for a number of years, Leonard was surprised at how people in the 26 Counties saw the conflict from a unionist perspective, "the Dublin 4 mentality", he called it.

Moving back to the North, Leonard decided that he wanted to become politically active and joined the SDLP.

However, he became disillusioned with the party, seeing it as lacking direction and nationalist in name only; a party that wasn't interested in pursuing the objective of a united Ireland.

His move to Sinn Féin in January 2004 saw him abused and ostracised by unionist councillors on Coleraine Council.

Needless to say, the SDLP were unhappy with him and to this day two of the three SDLP members on the council have yet to say a word or acknowledge his presence, despite the fact that he sits beside them in the chamber.

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