Ex-RUC man becomes Sinn Féin councillor

A councillor in east County Derry has today switched allegiance from the SDLP to Sinn Féin in a dramatic political development in the area.

Billy Leonard, who was elected to Coleraine Council as a member of Mark Durkan's nationalist SDLP, informed party officials at the weekend that he was quitting.

Mr Leonard, a former Protestant lay preacher and a former member of the RUC, will become the first Sinn Féin councillor to hold a seat in the predominantly unionist Coleraine Borough Council.

The Portstewart-based councillor has shocked his SDLP party colleagues with his decision to resign from the party, which holds four seats on Coleraine Council.

He becomes Sinn Féin's first councillor on Coleraine Council. Despite being the only nationalist candidate, he topped the poll in the Portstewart area of Coleraine borough.

Sinn Féin overtook their nationalist rivals by capturing 24 seats in the Belfast Assembly to the SDLP's 18 in the November election.

The Leonard family home was last year targeted by pipe bombers and a device was found in the garden of their Portstewart home.

Today the Portstewart man reiterated his commitment to representing all people and has stated his move came after a lot of reflection.

``The sea change in politics in the broad nationalist family since the Good Friday Agreement has been incredible and I want to be part of a movement that has vision and strategies and keen aspirations for Ireland,'' he said.

``I believe Sinn Féin has all these and it is committed to building a just peace and will continue to be strong on key issues.

``It is obvious to me that Sinn Féin is both willing to discharge its responsibilities with unionists and also be determined to stand against unionist intragencies when required.''

However, the former SDLP man, who has a reputation for his ambition and hard work, said his move to Sinn Féin would not affect his constituency work.

Mitchel McLaughlin, chairman of Sinn Féin, said Mr Leonard's decision was taken after a long period of reflection and discussion with his family.

He added: ``It is a courageous decision and I am sure was not taken lightly.''

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© 2004 Irish Republican News