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THERE'S a twinkle in the blue eyes of Cllr Nick Nolan as he recounts his favourite story about the infamous Italian political clan the Borgias.

Furious with a travelling merchant, Cesare Borgia decided to set an example. He had the unfortunate trader cut in half and placed in the town square fountain so everyone would know just who was in charge.

"That's real power," says Cllr Nolan, with an engaging smile.

He relaxes back in the armchair and praises the Borgias' political adviser, Machiavelli, whose name is a byword for dirty tricks and back-stabbing.

"I love it. I love all that," he said, looking mischievous in the front room of the house he shares with his wife Judith in his Holbrooks ward.

He may not have sliced any bodies in half in public, but Cllr Nolan has cannily run an effective campaign within the Labour group of councillors to unseat leader Cllr John Fletcher and his deputy Cllr Arthur Waugh.

Up to the last minute, Cllr Fletcher appeared not to have fully appreciated the extent of the revolt spreading around him.

The new leader takes charge in exciting times. The council is about to adopt a Westminster-style form of government, with a 10-strong Cabinet discussing policy, possibly behind closed doors, and other councillors forming scrutiny committees to question decisions.

He is quick to quash suspicions that he and his deputy, Cllr John Mutton, a former milkman who once supported Militant, are so old Labour they want to ditch the new arrangements.

There are high expectations of his new administration. Will he spend more money on child protection services which were heavily criticised in a damning report two years ago?

"I really can't say that, at the moment. My first job will be for myself, John Mutton and other cabinet members to review our priorities, see what we can do better and see where the gaps are and if we can fill them. I can't commit the Labour group to things (extra cash) like that."

How will he deal with single status pay row with staff? Cllrs Fletcher and Waugh had been heading for a showdown with unions over the deal. It was one of the main issues which split the Labour group.

Cllr Nolan sidesteps. His wife Judith works for the city council and he has always declared an interest and not voted in debates. Single status will be dealt with by Cllr Mutton.

As for general policies, he said: "I think there's a need to change the emphasis rather than direction. John Fletcher spelled out the achievements of the group in the past three or four years and I think it's a proud record.

"But it's not often appreciated by those who benefit. In Hillfields there has been amazing work revitalising the community and we end up with three Socialist councillors.

"I think we should re-state that our prime role is as deliverers of quality, meaningful public services. First and foremost, that's what people think we're about."

And he goes further: "We have to admit we may not be right all the time. We should have the courage and good grace to say when we get things wrong."

He is proud to be the first Irishman to become council leader. Born and brought up in Fermoy, County Cork, in a political family, he ran away to sea aged 17 and arrived in Coventry to be best man at a friend's wedding - and never left.

He landed a job as a telephone engineer in the then General Post Office and stayed for 25 years, before taking early retirement. His trade union sponsored him through university where he took a degree in politics. He is said to have a 1st class degree, but blushes as he refuses to confirm or deny it. He sees himself as an "ordinary person", although he was once widely tipped to become a Labour MP or MEP.

He counts himself lucky to be here.

Less than six months ago he was rushed into hospital for a triple heart bypass operation. It ended years of illness when he was troubled by angina. Now he looks fitter and healthier and is able to walk into town for the first time in years. And it has given him extra confidence.

"When you have a triple heart bypass, nothing else is going to faze you," he said. "What can they do to you after that, other than publicly flog you in Broadgate?"

Machiavelli would have approved.
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Author:Scott, Fiona
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:May 8, 2000
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