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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 14:52 GMT
SDLP man defects to Sinn Fein
Billy Leonard said Sinn Fein matched his political ideals
Billy Leonard said Sinn Fein matched his political ideals
A County Londonderry councillor has switched allegiance from the SDLP to Sinn Fein.

Billy Leonard, who is a former member of the police reserve, informed party officials at the weekend that he was quitting.

A former Protestant lay preacher, Mr Leonard becomes the first Sinn Fein member of Coleraine Borough Council.

The married father-of-six, who is originally from Lurgan, said he was frustrated by the SDLP's general lack of direction.

He said he joined Sinn Fein because it had the vision, strategy and commitment which matched his political ideals.

I put a lot of work into the SDLP but I feel that despite the efforts of some they have not positioned themselves for the challenges of this period.
Billy Leonard

"At the same time, I can still work as a local councillor dealing with the issues for all the people, for all the members of the community," he added.

Mr Leonard said he had left the SDLP without acrimony.

"My reasons are entirely political. I put a lot of work into the SDLP but I feel that despite the efforts of some they have not positioned themselves for the challenges of this period.

"More and more people recognise this, therefore my move is a personal reflection of a larger trend. They clearly see the major role Sinn Fein is playing and will definitely continue to play."

When asked if he was a Protestant who believed in a united Ireland, he said he did not take any religious labels now because he was in politics.

'Puzzled'

But he said he believed in a united Ireland which he thought was a "valid objective".

Speaking on behalf of the SDLP East Derry constituency council, John McAuley, said he was "disappointed and puzzled" at Mr Leonard's decision.

"We share a deep disappointment with those who worked to elect him and those who voted for him," he said.

"The most honourable course of action for Councillor Leonard to take now would be to resign his council seat and allow for the co-option of an SDLP councillor.

"People in Portstewart and Portrush elected an SDLP councillor. That is what they should have."

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin 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."

The SDLP has been recovering from the loss of six seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly election last November.

Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP by capturing 24 Stormont seats to the SDLP's 18.


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