This week 50:50 NI meets Sinead McLaughlin. Sinead MLA is an SDLP politician who has served as Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Foyle constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly since January 2020. She is the SDLP’s spokesperson for the economy and energy, the deputy chair of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s economy committee and is a former chief executive of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, I have been an avid follower of politics both at home and abroad all my adult life. I became a political activist in 1987, when I first joined John Hume’s election campaign team. My motivation for joining the SDLP was my belief in the importance of resolving Northern Ireland’s conflict by peaceful political means.
What inspired you to become a politician?
My transition into politics first started as a result of the Brexit Referendum. I became the Vice Chair of the RemainNI campaign as I am very pro-European and I knew from an early stage that if the UK chose to leave the EU, it would have a particularly adversely effect on this island. Sometime after this, Colum Eastwood persuaded me to move into politics. After many years of working on the periphery of many political forums as a business advocate, I decided that rather than be a political lobbyist that I might be more effective working within politics.
What did you do professionally before becoming a politician? Did you enjoy it? Do you think that this helped your political career?
Prior to entering political life, I spent 13 years working in the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce. I was initially engaged as a Business Operations Manager and then became Chief Executive in 2010. I loved working and representing the business community in the North West. It was an extremely challenging and satisfying job. Promoting business development and supporting economic growth was central to my daily work and in many ways my political work is very much aligned to my previous professional role.
Is there a political issue that you feel particularly passionate about? What is it and why is it important to you?
I am particularly passionate about economic development of the North West Region. I have lived in Derry all my life and my home place has suffered greatly through lack of investment over many decades. I want to do everything I can to support wealth creation and economic welling for each citizen in Derry. We have been let down by previous Executives who have consistently failed to level the playing field.
I am also passionate about supporting women’s rights and again this is a matter of equality.
It’s no secret that being a woman in politics is hard, what, in your experience, is the toughest part of being a woman in politics?
It is an honour to represent your constituency and I think it is important to never forget that you are only in this position for as long as your constituents believe that you and your party are best placed to represent them. In many ways this is the burden of responsibility for every politician, as well as a privilege. However, there is an extra burden on young women entering politics. This is not a 9-5 job, nor is it a 5 day week job and if you have a very young family – I am sure these women must miss many bedtime stories so there many home and family sacrifices are being made by women in politics. I realise I am lucky that my two daughters are 27 years and 25 years and independent young women and I have a very supportive husband at home, which does makes life as a politician much easier for me.
What do you think is the best part of being a woman in politics?
I think that women bring a different dynamic to politics and I appreciate being in a position that I can support and be the voice for others. Let us not forget it has only been in recent times that we have had female party leaders in Northern Ireland and that America has yet to have a female president. Women in politics matter a great deal. Firstly, it is a matter of equity, human rights and democracy that women hold senior political positions. Secondly, I believe that women in politics have an enormous impact on the issues that are raised and the policies are formed and lastly I believe that women can reform, revise and eliminate discriminatory reform against girls, women and those socially alienated in our society.
Unfortunately, there are many barriers to women entering politics, be it long hours, harassment or a number of other issues. If you could change one thing, or introduce one new rule to make being a woman in politics easier. What would it be?
I do not think it is as simple as addressing one issue. It is much more nuanced and it requires a focus on eliminating the underlying interconnected barriers that women face. The obstacles women face includes, the antiquated system of our legislative chambers, the lack of professional networks, outside caring responsibilities that make it harder for women to take on unpredictable working conditions to name but a few. Women also get harshly critiqued about how they dress, how they look, how many wrinkles they have and all the misogynist comments that can go with it in social media. This part honestly is very demoralising as it is just another unnecessary hurdle that needs to be jumped over.
Finally, what advice would you give to a woman reading this who wants to, or is interested in becoming a politician?
Access and study all the political parties and join one that best fits your political ideology. It is only from the inside that you can make a difference, so get stuck in and let your voice be heard. Politics needs you!
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