Council Chair Billy Walker Looks Back Over His Year In Office 2014-15
The council has been subsumed into the new super council of Newry Mourne and Down District Council, and Billy, a DUP councillor, cherishes the memories and achievements in his role as chairman.
He said: “It was a fantastic honour to be selected as the last chair of the Council. On 4 June in 2014 I took up my post as Chairman and the very first event I covered was in Castlewellan on International Women’s Day.
“Since I took up office I felt it was a great privilege to be the last chairman in this great district. Many people out there may have doubted my ability to deliver and that I would not go to certain nationalist-oriented events etc because of my political views. The last event I covered as chair was the promotion of a book in the Irish language!
“I made it quite clear from the onset that I would set my political persuasions to the side for a year ane went everywhere whether it be the Flying Horse estates, Castlewellan, Ardglass, Saintfield or Ballynahinch.
“I was amazed at the hospitality I received and everywhere I went I was made welcome. This gave me a great sense of personal satisfaction as people supported me in my office as chairman.
“There were many highlights over the year and the biggest was the royal visit to the County Down and Downpatrick Railway by Prince Edward. The last time a royal visited the county town was the Queen Mother about fifty years ago.
“Also, I very much enjoyed the trip to Ennis for the Cooperation Ireland final and I was delighted to see the Downpatrick Community Collective figure in the Pride of Place awards. There were a thousand entrants and this was quite an achievement. There was a great sense of pride by all who took part.
“I learned through the year that we must not lose sight of what voluntary groups actually contribute to our community. Many are working away quietly on their own making life better for us all.
“I’ve seen too how much of a contribution that the County Down Rural Community Network is making to the area. My thanks go to Nicholas McCrickard and his team for their fantastic efforts and commitment.
“A special thanks too to Damien Brannigan, the Community Relations officer in Down District Council, who organised the St Patrick’s Day festival and parade. It was a terrific cross-community event and does our district proud. It was great to see the Downpatrick Presbyterian Church up near the head of the parade as it snaked its way down to Market Street.
In the past I may have seen this event as a one-sided affair, but now there is no doubt that it is a truly brilliant community festival for everyone. This was my first visit and I would have no hesitation in going back.
“I was also privileged to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury who attended the parade and a special service where afterwards he laid a wreath on the grave of St Patrick at Down Cathedral.”
But Billy cited other key events that stood out in his year in office. He said: “I thoroughly enjoyed the Hallowtides Festival in Newcastle. It really was a lot of fun for all the family. I would also like to pay tribute to the officers of the old Council for their sterling work in organising many top class events.
“They are a very professional team and my hat comes off to them especially those in the marketing department. The Festival of Flight too is a tremendous event and we must keep it going.
“When I took over as chair, I said I would put youth to the fore and I can say I worked with many schools and groups across the district. Many made visits which I hosted at the Downshire Civic Centre and met in the council chamber. They are the citizens of the future, our politicians, doctors, tradesmen, and teachers and we must invest in them.
“I introduced the groups and schools that visited the council offices to local government and gave them a short tour of the building which they all enjoyed. This was a valuable insight for many of our young people. They asked very pertinent questions and were very clued in.
“The high point of working with young people was my Inspirational Youth Awards which was held in the Downpatrick racecourse function suite. I was just absolutely delighted at the response to these awards and it was a very memorable occasion.
“Over the year I was humbled by the response of the people in Down District. At first I was somewhat sceptical about how I would get through the this awards but it was very much a cross-community event and hundreds of people from across our community participated.”
Billy Walker added: “For many people in our district it was the first time too for them to cross boundaries and this was a great achievement for me to be part of all of this. There were many doubters waiting for me to trip up but I kept a steady line and rose to the occasion.
“I would like to thank Claire Keenan my secretary in the council who has now retired for her unswerving support. She booked me in to over 700 events which I attended. This was probably a record for any council chairman and will be hard to match in future by anyone else. And outgoing chief executive John Dumigan too and his directors were all very helpful and courteous.
“I still have my political views which I hold dear but I set them aside for that ten months while I was in office. I feel that I am a better and more rounded politician now and can see both sides of the equation. There were times when I had to make a call – I had to be seen as the chairman of the council representing everyone’s views.
“So several times I had to be careful in my role and had to simply bite the bullet. But I never heard a dissenting voice saying I should never be there – I thank the people of Down Districk for this, for their acceptance of me.
“It really was great fun. One of the best moments was the charity boxing tournament my friend, SDLP Councillor Terry Andrews, and I organised. We fought each other for three rounds in a packed Bridge Centre to support PIPS and the local youth club.
“The event was figuratively speaking a knockout. We had pledged that the winner would fight Stephen Nolan but the BBC put the dampers on it saying it was forbidden in his contract. It was an evening of great banter. We had a pair of gloves signed by Barry McGuigan to raffle too. The real winners were the charities we supported.”
Coming down from a frenetic term in office has been a challenge in itself for Billy. He took a holiday in Scotland for a week following the end of his tenure in office and is now re-adjusting to life as a councillor on the new Newry Mourne and Down District Council.
His year in office will have put him in good stead for promoting good community relation across the new council area and Billy looks forward to the many challenges ahead.
He has been at the forefront of a number of controversial political issues, one namely being the opposition to the use of the Irish language on council headed notepaper and business cards etc, and on the new council logo and signage.
His deeply held Unionist views may well re-surface as the new council trundles on, but he is a wiser and much more confident politician following his tenure in office and will no doubt argue his corner for a fully inclusive agenda for South Down.