A former member of the hated RUC police and a member of the Orange Order has become Sinn Fein’s newest Assembly member.
Coleraine councillor Billy Leonard, who left the SDLP to join Sinn Fein five years ago, was selected to replace Francie Brolly, who is retire by Christmas.
The newest Sinn Fein Assembly member, chosen at a selection convention in Dungiven on Thursday, spelt out his immediate priorities he hopes to bring to the floor of the Assembly - jobs, education, infrastructure issues and tourism.
Mr Leonard admitted many would find his political career hard to believe and understand.
Describing his personal journey from an Orangeman and an RUC reservist to a nationalist and then a mainstream republican, Mr Leonard said the biggest issue he had faced was challenging the British/unionist identity and adopting his ‘Irish-ness’.
“I have a great love of history and politics but the biggest transition and challenge for me was the Irish identity. I had already left the Orange Order long before my transition,” he said.
Speaking about his political outlook now, he said: “I think we need to be more imaginative about the types of jobs we can hope to attract. I think we need to make sure education systems are delivering; on infrastructure we need to look at road and rail links and the Foyle Ferry and I think we should have a more comprehensive tourism package in the north-west,” he said.
“The North West region is one of the most deprived areas on this island and it is important that we have strong leadership to ensure East Derry is given its fair share.”
Councillor Leonard paid tribute to Mr Brolly ant his rival for the selection, Limavady borough Sinn Fein Councillor Brenda Chivers.
“It is an honour to be chosen to replace outgoing MLA Francie Brolly to represent the people of East Derry. I would like to pay tribute to Brenda who I have the greatest respect for and I look forward to working together with not only in building Sinn Fein in the constituency but in ensuring the people of East Derry are accorded equality.
“Sinn Fein is about giving strong leadership and I will be joining a team in Stormont who will stand strong for peoples rights and for equality. We will be working to bringing about prosperity to all the regions of this island by building an Ireland of Equals.
“I know that the workload of an MLA is daunting but I am prepared and with the help and support of a strong Sinn Fein constituency team I am sure we can deliver.”
However, local Republican Sinn Fein representative Mickey McGonigle hit out at the Sinn Fein’s selection of “Constable Billy Leonard”.
It is fitting perhaps that those who continually call for collaboration with the British Crown Forces have selected an RUC man to represent them in the colonial assembly in Stormont.
However it is a grave insult to the Republican people for these people to claim that they represent in any way the ideals of an Ireland free from foreign rule. The Provos should have the decency to admit that it is they who have adopted Constable Leonard’s position, and not he who has adopted theirs,” said Mr McGonigle.