This week 50:50 NI meets Cara Hunter. As a former councillor and deputy mayor, in 2020 Cara became MLA for East Derry at the age of just 25. Cara is passionate about mental health and access to mental health services. She is currently the SDLP spokesperson for health.
Have you always been interested in politics?
I grew up in a family that was political at the dinner table. When I looked at politics as a young person I saw it as really polarised and divisive. Something that brought people away from each other rather than together so I was very disillusioned with it all.
I lost my best friend in 2017. He had taken his own life. It was around the time that Stormont had collapsed and I thought that it was something that we couldn’t just sit on, I was very angry and annoyed that the government had collapsed and there was a lack of urgency on mental health, there was no urgency on crisis intervention or mental health in our schools. When I was at school I wasn’t taught about mental health at all.
So while my interest in politics wasn’t always there in the beginning it came about through unfortunate circumstances and I really wanted to make a positive change.
So, that is what inspired you to become a politician?
Yes, so my friend passed away in March of 2017 and I started to connect the dots and I began noticing the barriers to accessing mental health services and support. For example infrastructure and transport. If you live in a rural area and are feeling suicidal but do not have access to a car you have to call an ambulance to come to you and there are a lot of stigmas attached to this still especially in small towns. There are so many small problems, there is nowhere to go, no out of hours just so many barriers.
So what got me into politics and becoming a politician was the hope of making even a small change.
You are very young, so this may not apply but did you work before becoming a politician and did this work prepare you for life as a politician?
I studied journalism at University. I started studying in California and then finished my degree in the UK. So having been a student myself I understand the issues that affect students. When I graduated from university I found it hard to find a job and that can be a difficult and sometimes shameful experience.
After that, I worked for Kellogs for 6 months in their communications department which was an amazing experience. Then I returned to the north. I started making a documentary on transgenerational trauma and during this time I met our local MLA and he had said to me you know if you are this passionate about these issues you should consider running as a candidate. At the time I didn’t even know I could, I just had no idea how people get into politics because at school no one ever mentioned it as an option, I know being a politician isn’t a career but there is no information on how to become a politician if that is something you are interested in.
So you have mentioned your passion for mental health would you say that is the one issue you are most passionate about?
Yes, definitely. At the minute there are discussions around a mental and emotional wellbeing framework for schools which is needed at that age, and especially with the rise of cyberbullying and other issues online. It’s important to educate young children on this because anxiety is a word that was never mentioned when I was at school and you could potentially have anxiety but not have the language to describe it or understand it. Also access to counselling in school.
Last year I set up the dual diagnosis APG which is set up to address when people have addiction married with mental health issues which are expected in post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland.
This work has filled me with optimism because across the chamber, in all political parties everyone cares.
So, in your experience as a woman in politics what do you think is the toughest part about being a woman in politics?
There are several real difficulties. I have experienced both internally and externally that because I am a young woman people assume I don’t know what I’m talking about.
When I was a councillor I tried to be as proactive as possible and my party gave me deputy mayor for 2019. It was an amazing opportunity, I got to learn so much and meet so many people. I would try to take regular photos of all the work I was doing in the community and so many people would comment on these pictures saying things like ‘there she is posing again’. If I was a male councillor people would say I was being proactive but because I’m wearing a skirt when I’m doing it, I’m ‘posing’.
Security aspects of being in politics are another thing. When I was running as a councillor during the winter when it’s dark people would ask me to come to their house even when I didn’t really need to be there. When I was in the council I asked if we could be provided with a space to meet people in a safe environment so that I didn’t have to be asked out to peoples houses at night where it was potentially unsafe.
There have also been so, so many instances of people acting inappropriately on social media with threatening messages and then there are the bigger issues of maternity leave.
So on the other end of the spectrum, from what you have experienced, what is the best part of being a woman in politics?
The positive is that women are stronger on policies that are about women and I think from my experience, women are more progressive on many issues.
It’s also great to be able to carve a path with other women in the assembly to make sure more women can get into politics in the future. We have to keep the door open for the women coming after us.
If you could make it easier for more women to get into politics, what would you do?
I think more accountability from social media giants on the harassment that women get online. There is so much bullying and harassment online and it isn’t part of the job, I wouldn’t have to put up with this like any other job so i shouldn’t have to in this one.
Also, looking at equal footing in terms of councils because for example I believe Belfast city council provides office space but my council didn’t and as I’ve said before I think that would be very useful in terms of safety.
So, If a woman is inspired by you to get into politics, what advice would you give her?
We 100% need more women. We see so many women who are active in their community and they don’t even know politics is an option for them. Just get involved, persevere!
There is definitely a sense of solidarity among the women in politics across all of the parties.
If you have questions go to your representative and just go for it!
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