This week 50:50 NI meets Caoimhe Archibald. Caoimhe has been MLA for East Derry/Londonderry since 2016. Caoimhe is the Sinn Fein spokesperson for the economy and Chair of the Northern Ireland assembly Economy Committee. Additionally, Caoimhe has a PhD from QUB in molecular mycology.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, for as long as I can remember I have always been interested in politics. It would have always been part of our family discourse and not necessarily just party politics but social justice issues and equality
I remember when I was 11 or 12 my dad was doing an access course and I got really interested in what he was studying. It was Irish politics and history; the penal laws and the famine, and I guess that inspired my interest in more contemporary Irish history and politics.
As a kid, I always went along with my parents to vote and they were part of that generation for whom the right to vote was really important and hard-won.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to become a politician? Was it being around and talking about politics at home?
Well, I never really set out to become a politician. I had family members who were active within the party and I had held several positions in the local party such as local chairperson. In 2014 I was asked if I would consider running in the 2015 general election as a prelude to the upcoming local elections in 2016. I gave it some consideration. At the time I was still working as a research scientist, which was a job that I really loved. I did think about it a lot and I decided that opportunities like that don’t come along very often and if I was serious about wanting to make a difference it was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass so I decided to do it.
Amazing! You mentioned you were a research scientist, what did you do in that role?
Worked in molecular plant pathology. It was mushroom research, I worked on diseases in mushroom crops so my work was very applied and I worked a lot with small to medium-sized businesses. You could say there were a lot of transferable skills in terms of research skills, communications skills and attention to detail.
I guess then these skills would have prepared you for life as a politician.
Yes, as a research scientist I got the chance to work with people who were really passionate about what they do in their businesses, in this line of work you still get to do that. You meet people who are passionate about their business, or their community and get to work along with them.
I also think being a politician is more of a vocation than a career.
Is there a particular political issue that you are passionate about?
I’m not sure I could just pick one issue. I would say I am passionate about equality that cuts across so many things. From women to young people to our LGBTQ+ communities and our BAME communities. Also, Socio-economic equality, tackling deprivation and poverty as well as removing barriers to accessing education and employment. The pandemic has really exposed many of the inequalities that already exist and as we come out of it we really need to seize the moment and build back better, making sure we don’t slip back into how it was before.
Also, I’m really passionate about the need to address the climate crisis and this is something we need to include in any economic recovery plans. Of Course, I am also passionate about Irish unity. I genuinely believe that a lot of the structural issues that we experience were born out of partition. Through Irish unity, we can shape the development of a new economy and public services that would better meet the needs of our citizens.
You mentioned earlier how when you were young your dad took an access course, do you think that has informed your passion for social justice and equality?
I guess growing up, education was really important. Both my parents gave us a good example. My mum went back to university to become a teacher when we were very small and my dad took that access course. I guess that did shape my outlook on the importance of being able to access education.
It’s great to have a positive example set by your parents.
In your experience so far, what has been the toughest part about being a woman in politics?
I think politics is tough enough regardless of gender with social media and constant scrutiny. Women are certainly held to a different standard and that needs to be called out when it happens. We saw a recent example of it when Jill Biden was criticized for using her title. I thought that was shameful. It was clear everyday sexism being fully exposed.
I think women can also be very self-critical. I still occasionally suffer from imposter syndrome and it’s really important to admit that so no one thinks “it’s just me”. I guess I’m lucky because I have very supportive colleagues within the party and I have been given many opportunities and that helps build your confidence. I also have to make sure I’m passing that on and supporting the other women in the party too.
That’s something I hear very often; women saying that they didn’t have the confidence to get into politics before they started their political journey.
What do you think is the best part of being a woman in politics?
It is having the opportunity to be a voice for others. You meet people in your community and you discuss something that they are passionate about and you get to raise that issue and give it a platform. I think it is so important that we have women in the legislative process and the policymaking process because we bring something important to the table, we bring experiences and can help make things better for other women, that is so important.
Great! So, we have touched on the issues that exist for women in politics. What would you do to make it easier for women to get into politics?
Smash the patriarchy!
I do think our institutions are still quite gendered, still predominantly male. There are times when you look across the Assembly chamber and all you see are men.
I think it’s important that our institutions become more reflective of our population of course in terms of gender but also in terms of race, ethnicity and sexuality.
Work-life balance is a big challenge. There is a big workload that comes with this job but I guess having more flexibility and more family-friendly working would be needed.
I think one of the positives of the pandemic has been learning that we can do things from home and it is possible to make things more flexible
Yes, things that wouldn’t even have been considered a year ago are now the norm and there are things that we can take out of this experience.
And finally, if a woman wants to get into politics what advice would you give her?
Get involved in campaigns that you are passionate about. If you are motivated to get involved in party politics look at the parties that are there and go with the one that aligns most closely to what you believe in and what you are passionate about.
Go for it! We want people who are passionate to get involved.
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 email@example.com