Obituary: Peter Kelly, a credit union legend

‘Let’s not make him a statistic but remember his contribution to society’

Chris Smith, an activist, mentor and director of credit unions for over 30 years, remembers Peter Kelly, a legend within the credit union world.

Peter Kelly, an Antrim man who lived in Wigan, Lancashire, lost his life to Covid-19 on 15 October 2020. He was 69. But his many friends and family want to remember the mark he made rather than the manner of his passing.

I met Peter as an activist in what was then called the Manchester Chapter of Credit Unions. This was the early 1990s, and the crowd that made up this group was from many tiny aspirational credit unions right across the county. Peter was from Platt Bridge Credit Union and I was from Dukinfield Credit Union (both now absorbed into something bigger and better).

Back then Peter, and his loyal and loving wife Diane, became the backbone of the Chapter and much more, educationally, and socially. Most things were organised or inspired by Peter and Diane. I loved Peter for his gentle Irish conversation and his generous gift of credit union knowledge that he shared with any seeker. 

He was a realist and pragmatist, which was handy around lots of vocal, passionate ideas people; in other words, he kept our feet on the ground as we tried to change the world through the application of credit unions. Such was the affection for him, by the credit union crowd, that I remember one occasion when we all attended one of the famous chapter ‘Blackpool Training Weekends’. As one particular training session began the tutor asked for us all to introduce ourselves and as Peter announced, “I’m Peter Kelly” a succession of delegates arouse individually, and in succession, stating, “No, I’m Peter Kelly!” (in the mode of Spartacus, in the 1960 Kirk Douglas film). This moment was relived for years afterwards.

It is a measure of his family that they said, “Let’s not make him a statistic but remember his contribution to society”.

Born on 26 September 1951, Peter was the first of seven children born to parents Tony and Evelyn Kelly who moved home several times to accommodate the ever-growing family before finally settling in Antrim. Peter’s parents wanted to get the best of education possible for the family, and to that end, Peter became the first of his generation to attend grammar school – St Mary’s in Belfast.

During his academic studies, Peter excelled at everything, from his courses to sports and games. He was a champion athlete, a chess champion, a tiddlywinks master and he attained the qualifications to enable him to train as a teacher. He had what you might call brains and brawn. The only teaching place offered to Peter at the time was in Manchester – however he decided he didn’t want to leave home. The main reason being that the ‘Troubles’ had begun, and Peter needed to stay at home. Little did he know that Greater Manchester was to feature later in life. 

Peter’s first job was with Barney Eastwood, the founder and owner of Eastwood’s Bookmakers and world-renowned boxing promotor famously connected with world champion Barry McGuigan. Peter was Barney’s right-hand man and oversaw the business within the betting shops. It was when Barney’s boys were old enough that he decided to leave. But like so many of his generation, new opportunities would soon emerge in Antrim. Peter later worked for British Enkalon, operating a machine in the Warping department. When Enkalon made the political decision to close the plant in Antrim, as many other large manufactures did at this time in the eighties, Peter struggled to find work but eventually did secure a job as a security guard in the town’s shopping centre. He used his spare time to volunteer and put his talents back into the community. Peter was helping and advising people on social issues such as benefits and housing.

But the life-changing move he made was volunteering at the Antrim Credit Union and he ended up managing the business for many years. He even found time to go back to college to study psychology. He also took an interest in local politics, particularly the Alliance Party, where he was a well-respected and well-liked member. Politics in Northern Ireland was a lot different then and putting yourself forward as a candidate was seen by many as a brave thing to do. Peter stood twice in Antrim Town, for a by-election in 1987 and a full Council election in 1989.

During his time as manager of the Antrim Credit Union, major changes were announced by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU). Normally for the AGM, a small venue would be selected for the members who wished to attend; however, on this major occasion, the ballroom at the Enkalon Social Club was booked and hundreds of people were able to attend. After listening to Peter’s delivery of the changes, which took considerable time, a good time was had by all.

It was his love of Credit Unions that took Peter to Manchester in 1991. In the early 1990’s many UK local authorities encouraged credit union start-ups to tackle poverty in areas of deprivation. As the decade wore on, this strategy proved unsustainable and Peter was one of the first to speak out as he was totally immersed in the day-to-day running of the tiny Platt Bridge Credit Union in Wigan. Credit unions run a basis of a ‘common bond’ between members, such as a locality, an association, or a workplace. Peter famously stated: “There is no common bond in poverty”. Pointing out that credit unions cannot thrive without a mix of members from a broad economic background, Peter stated: “Credit unions need a good mix of savers and borrowers. A credit union cannot survive, or thrive, serving mostly a community in hardship on benefits and support.”

Peter ended up with two of the greatest loves in his life – the Credit Union but more importantly Diane and her lovely family. The Kelly family witnessed a new man. He had found his calling. He found a purpose, and more importantly, he found his home. Peter and Diane had a happy life, and he adored his children and grandchildren. 

Peter was loved by many and cherished for being a gentle and kind man, with a passion for his wife and family but also a passion for credit unions that he readily shared. H his lovely smile and that wonderful Northern Ireland accent will stay with me all my days.

He will be greatly missed by his wife Diane, her children Simon, Damian and Leanne and all the grandchildren – as well as Diane’s extended family and Peter’s credit union colleagues, friends and associates, and all who knew him in Ireland and England. People will miss his big smile and bigger heart.