OBITUARY: ‘Anti-sectarian’ community worker Yvonne Sterritt from hardline nationalist neighbourhood

Yvonne Sterritt was 'speechless' when she got an invitation from the Queen in 2012
Yvonne Sterritt was 'speechless' when she got an invitation from the Queen in 2012

Yvonne Sterritt was from a Catholic background, and lived in the hardline nationalist Garvaghy Road area of Portadown.

Despite growing up on one side of a deeply divided town, the community worker pressed for acceptance of the police and for better relations with the town’s unionist population.

Born on July 29, 1958 in Portadown, she was the daughter of Marie (nee Sharkey) and Robert Walker.

She attended St Joseph’s Primary School in Crumlin (where her father worked at the nearby airbase) and then St Michael’s Grammar School in Lurgan.

She then embarked on a succession of jobs, varying from a factory to a receptionist at the Seagoe Hotel and a phone operator for BT (the latter being where she met husband John, whom she wed in 1980).

She then got a post working with elderly residents in the Drumcree Centre during the mid-to-late 1980s; her first real foray into the world of community work.

Daughter Elaine said she began to forge links with the Watson Centre, based in a Protestant part of the town, and started to organise cross-community activities with the pensioners, bringing groups on trips to places including London and to the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

“A lot of these people grew up and then with the social divide in Northern Ireland, they became segregated,” said Elaine.

“These people lived together, went to school together, worked together before that.”

She went on to join the District Policing Partnership in the town, and later the Policing and Community Safety Partnership, as well as taking on a voluntary role as a “custody visitor” (acting as an independent monitor who would check on the welfare of those who had been arrested).

Elaine said: “I think it was bringing things all forward. Things had to change, and the only way things were going to change was by working with people. She saw that engaging was better than ostracising and cutting people off.”

Asked if she would have described herself as a nationalist at the end of her life, her daughter said: “No. Mum’s views I think changed over the years. I think she saw everybody as the same. She would have described herself as ‘a housewife that helped people’.”

While she was chairwoman of Ballyoran Community Association in 2012, she was invited to be a guest of the Queen during Her Majesty’s visit to Enniskillen.

She was delighted to accept, saying at the time that she had been left “speechless” by the invitation, and that she had “great admiration” for the monarch.

She had been displaying signs of being unwell for a couple of years before her death, and in July 2014, her own mother died of liver problems.

After that, Yvonne’s health began to decline. She too was suffering from liver failure – the cause of which was an auto-immune disease – and died in Craigavon Area Hospital on August 2.

She was 57.

Her funeral at St John’s chapel on August 5 drew figures from the PSNI and across the political spectrum. She was buried in the adjoining churchyard.

Robert Smith, DUP councillor and current chairman of the PCSP, said: “She was completely anti-sectarian, and just had a heart for the community.”

He added: “I’m sure there were others who didn’t have the same values she had.”

He said members of the DPP would have been targeted by paramilitaries in the early stages of it being set up.

“She was aware of that threat at the start, but it would never have deterred her from what she did.”

She is survived by widower John, father Bobby, daughter Elaine, sons Jonathan and David, two brothers, two sisters, and five grandchildren.