This is the second instalment of the series and this week 50:50 NI meets Emma Sheerin. Emma is a Sinn Féin MLA for Mid Ulster, and the party’s assembly spokesperson on Equality and Human Rights. A PPE Graduate of QUB, she’s been a Sinn Féin activist since her teenage years, and feels that human rights are universal, and should be enjoyed by everyone. She was voted onto the Sinn Féin Ard Comhairle in 2018, and is the Uniting Ireland officer for the northern Cúige. Emma believes that the reunification of Ireland, and the formation of a socialist republic, will be the first and most important step in creating an Ireland of equals.
Have you always been interested in politics or is it something you came to later on?
I suppose it was from about the age of twelve or thirteen. I started getting interested in Irish history. The house I grew up in wasn’t very political. My mum is from Donegal so she grew up somewhat removed from everything going on in the north but then when my parents got married they lived in Strabane so she was then confronted with the realities of the north in the ‘90s. You know, British soldiers in the garden and receiving abuse at the border and all that.
When I was about fourteen there was the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. I remember wondering what it was about so I started doing my own research, reading books and watching films. I became completely enraged with what had happened here and how we were still suffering injustice. What struck me was the absence of fairness. Ireland had been colonised way back and there were just so many events where people were being exploited.
My dad is a farmer in the Sperrins so I could clearly see how my family had been displaced and sent to the mountains and this was just so unjustified and skewed, this enraged me. So the Easter Rising, partition and then the hunger strikes. I remember reading a Bobby Sands autobiography and thinking about how that had happened only twenty years earlier.
In my teens, I joined Sinn Féin at a local level and became involved in local activism. Through this, I saw my local councillor and the work he did for people. People would call him for all kinds of reasons; because of family disputes, or if they needed a care package for a relative, over a planning issue. There was such a range of issues. I had this opportunity to see how political representatives can make a change in people’s lives. I never knew what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to help people and so that is what drew me to politics and I just became more and more involved. Now I’m here!
So, we have touched on this you mentioned getting to see the work that your local councillor did but was there one thing that inspired you to get into politics or was it the experience you just shared?
I suppose the compilation of all of that and the awareness of the situation. There were a lot of things that really irritated me. For example.My granny on my dad’s side was from a very, very rural area. Her family scraped enough money for her to go to boarding school but when her dad died she had to leave school. Her brother was going to be a priest and so all the family money I imagine went into that. It hit me when I was going to university myself, that all of my peers who wanted to university could, and 50 years ago that wasn’t an opportunity that nationalists in the north had. I recognised my privilege and the sacrifices and struggle that others had made so that I could go to uni. Listening to the stories my dad had told me over the years, you know, about going to a football match only 20 miles away and getting stopped three times. All of this helped me realise that I had been lucky to be born in the time that I was.
I was also irritated by all the instruments of the state and different bodies that use the language of partition; NI water, Power NI. None of these things recognised me as an Irish person.
What helped me make the leap and get into and involved in local politics would have been the example of our local councillor, Brian McGuigan. He is such a worker. He has been around for so long and involved in so many things but still has that drive to create an Ireland where everyone has an equal opportunity. That’s what really prompted me to join and become active in Sinn Féin.
That’s great! That’s really nice that you have a role model.
So, you are quite young. Did you become a politician straight out of uni or did you do other things before entering politics?
I studied PPE at Queens. After that I worked in retail, selling curtains! I sort of wanted to do a masters but I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to study. At one point I considered journalism but because I was so politically motivated, I couldn’t have been unbiased or impartial. I then got a role in CitiBank as a compliance officer. After a few years, I got a job with our MP, Francie Molloy. These few years in the office compounded everything I had seen local activists do on the ground. The range of issues that people brought and seeing the impact that MPs can have on people’s lives. This was a good grounding for where I am now. I was co-opted into the Assembly in 2018.
Geat! So you’ve said working for your MP was a good grounding for where you are now. Do you think that other previous experience was helpful or gave you skills that were useful for being a politician?
I probably did. I think no matter what role you go into if you go in with a good attitude, willing to learn, you will. Obviously as a socialist some of the work in my previous roles grated on me. Dealing with people, admin skills, basic things around meetings, learning to be productive with time, working in a group, compromising, you learn all that which is useful. Working with my MP gave me the knowledge of who to contact for certain issues.
Obviously what we want to do is get people involved in politics. At Sinn Féin, you get into politics because you want to be involved with politics. I never said to myself; I want to be an MLA. Our party might be a little different in that you’re asked to do these things.
So, being driven by wanting to help others is really important I guess.
Is there a particular issue that you feel passionate about, what is it and why?
I wouldn’t say there was one in particular. I am the party’s equality spokesperson. That is the thing that made me get involved in the first place-equality. I mean there’s an awful lot of negative narrative around politics, particularly in the north. We are eligible for a lot of criticism, a lot of that is justified, but given the system of mandatory coalition that we have, and the fact that we have no tax autonomy, there is only so much Stormont can deliver- it’s about maximising that delivery.
The big thing for me is for us to get Irish unity and disinvolve the British government in our affairs. For me, It’s unrealistic to assume a parliament based in the south of England, catering for four regions in the UK, is ever going to prioritise the area that is separated by water and makes up less than three per cent of the population. I just don’t think we can have a perfect government that way.
In terms of issues that I’m passionate about since getting involved in this particular phase of what I’ve been doing, care in the community is a big thing. So many people contact us looking for care packages for elderly relatives or other members of their family who have illnesses and require care in the home. They are always told that twenty-four-hour care in the community can’t be provided, which I get, its resource led but I think we should change the criteria so that twenty-four-hour care is the model that we are striving for. The only alternative is putting someone in a nursing home and many families don’t want to do that. We should be increasing the resources and treating carers with more respect, including paying them a proper wage. It’s not a job you do if you’re not passionate about it, and this is something that disproportionately affects women- the majority of carers are women, and the majority of those carrying out unpaid care in the absence of a package are women. They are doing a job that takes so much compassion and mental strength. It’s also physically demanding and they get paid the same as they would if they were stacking shelves. So one issue I’d love to see resolved in the future is the way we provide care in the community.
So, being a woman in politics can be hard. What in your experience is a particularly hard part of being a woman in Politics?
Well, it probably doesn’t affect me as much but time management is a big thing. I was lucky in that when I started, Stormont wasn’t up and running so I got a soft landing. I was based mostly in the constituency. I was involved in APGs and the caucus in the Assembly but it wasn’t the same. When we got started again I was thinking ‘oh my God, is this for real’. On Monday and Tuesday, we have plenary. Then on Wednesday and Thursday, we have committees. In your pack for committees, there could be a hundred pages or there could be four hundred pages and you have to have read all of it to be ready for the committee. You also have to have an understanding of what you will be presented with. When you’re in Belfast you aren’t in your constituency office and you have people calling you about various issues while you are in Belfast while you are trying to prepare questions and prepare for committees. I find on Fridays I have to sit in my office late and get caught up on everything that I missed during the week. This disproportionately affects women because we often have caring responsibilities. I’m not in that stage of my life at the minute and when I think about it I have no idea how I would do this job or run for election and have a child. I share an office with another MLA who has children and she is on the phone to her mum making sure her kids are being picked up from school and getting their dinner.
I think, in the media, there is the narrative that there are two problem parties. That we are the green side of the coin and the DUP are the orange side and that we are both as bad as each other. This frustrates me because we are a progressive, socialist, left-wing party and the DUP are a right-wing, conservative party. An awful lot of the stalemate we have had are down to rights issues, rights issues that to the majority of the population would not be considered ‘republican’ issues. For example, the last time it was over the RHI scandal and a lack of rights for Irish Language speakers and the LGBTQ+ community. You know, we didn’t have marriage equality in the north, we also didn’t have abortion rights. There are many things we want to see enacted that the DUP are opposed to. People just assume that it’s green versus orange. These issues are not ethnonationalist, they affect everyone.
Within the chamber, there is a tactic from some MLAs who will shout down younger female representatives. They are often condescending. Particularly older male MLAs. I find it intimidating at times. You feel like you are starting on the back foot.
Yes, if you are a younger woman there seems to be that added layer of ageism as well as sexism present.
Can you think of any of the positives of being a woman in politics?
I suppose for me, my perspective in Sinn Féin is going to be different from other parties. For me I’m not conscious I am a woman because there are so many younger women in the party so you don’t feel like you are a minority. That’s positive. There is a lot of support from the other women in the community. If I need help all I need to do is lift the phone. Francie, our MP is a mentor to me, he is brilliant. There is no attitude that you are different because you are a woman.
We get a lot of school groups in Stormont, and you get to see younger women who are asking questions which is great. You know, if you can’t see you can’t be. I grew up looking at Martina Anderson, Catriona Ruane, Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.
So we have touched on the barriers that there are for women in politics. If you could make one change what would it be?
I would remove the societal norms. For example, I would normalise shared parental leave, you shouldn’t have to concede anything if you take parental leave, and for many families, because women tend to be in lower-paid roles, a man taking the parental leave means a loss of income. Things like that.
Party quotas throughout other parties would also be great.
Great! Quotas are fantastic!
Ok. Last question. If a woman today was interested in getting into politics. What advice would you give her?
The advice that I would give her would be to get out on the ground. Meet with people, listen to their issues, understand the issues in your area and see how you can tackle them. Get involved in cleanups, stewarding, volunteering with community groups. See how you can help. Just, be active in your local area and see what is important to people.
I had spoken to someone at the beginning of the lockdown who was opening a small business and he was having issues with his grant. It took a few weeks of back and forth but I finally was able to help. When this issue was resolved he messaged me and said before this he thought that no one in politics actually cared about people, that message meant so much to me. You know there is a perception that politicians are not aware and don’t care about people. The vast majority of people in the assembly, whether we agree or not, work on issues and work with constituents. I don’t believe that people would be there if they didn’t care.
If you are interested in getting into politics or are even just curious about how it all work get in touch with 50:50 NI at firstname.lastname@example.org