Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

A journey from orange to green

By Freya McClements
BBC News

Billy Leonard
Billy Leonard was Coleraine Borough Council's first Sinn Fein councillor

He was once a member of the Orange Order and the RUC reserve, but when he takes his seat in the Assembly it will be as a member of Sinn Féin.

Coleraine councillor Billy Leonard has been selected to replace Francie Brolly as the party's assembly member for East Londonderry.

In a land where politics is expected to break down along religious and national lines, Mr Leonard's appointment marks the culmination of a long personal journey.

A former Protestant lay preacher from Lurgan, Mr Leonard initially joined the SDLP before switching to Sinn Fein in 2004.

He became the first member of the party to sit on Coleraine Borough Council.

Mr Leonard said the turning point came when he began to think about his own identity.

"The big transition was when I started questioning the Unionist/British identity into which I was born, and the British view of history I was given at school.

"That evolved into my becoming a very contented Irishman.

"That transition happened decades ago, and I hold my Irish identity not in an adversarial sense, but with a lot of pride.

"The decision then became whether I would just be someone who was interested in politics, or would I make a contribution?

"I love my politics, and I prefer to get on with the politics of today and tomorrow rather than think about the labels that some people find exciting.

"I accept my background, it's part of my life, but I'm interested in the politics of today and tomorrow.

"I firmly believe in a United Ireland of Catholic, Protestant, Dissenter, migrant worker, and everybody in modern-day Ireland - and in representing the people in East Derry at grass-roots level," he said.

Mr Leonard said he was "honoured" to be selected as an assembly member, but he regarded himself as just one part of the party's activists.

"The Assembly is a political platform, and obviously it gives access to that platform, to the plenary sessions and the committees, so it is an avenue where I can raise issues about East Derry on the floor of the Assembly and in the committees.

"It's a platform to further political work in and for East Derry," he said.

"When I finish this interview I'll be working on an issue for a constituent and then getting on with the two great political principles in my life, a united Ireland and grass-roots politics."

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