This week 50:50 NI meets with another inspirational women who is chair of her council. Laura Devlin is Chair of the Newry, Mourne and Down council and has been a councillor since 2013. Laura is also the SDLP spokesperson for tourism.
Have you always been interested in politics?
My family have always been SDLP supporters. Although, I didn’t study politics at school. When I left school, I started university, but I didn’t enjoy my course, so I returned home. Local MLA Eamonn Oneill was seeking a secretary in Castlewellan so I took on that role at 18. I didn’t know a lot about politics but from working for Eamonn I realized politics is very simply helping people. That’s the reason I love politics because people come to you with problems and often I can assist, and that issue could be life-changing for them. So, I just really fell into politics.
So, is this what inspired you to get into elected politics yourself?
I worked for Eamonn for four or five years and then I went to work for Margaret Richie doing press, speeches. I always said that I wouldn’t put myself up for election but then Eamonn actually wanted to step back from Council and asked me to put my name forward. He really gave me a push to do it. This was in 2013, I was co-opted into the old council and I was then reelected in the following election and I love it.
So, do you think your previous roles in politics prepared you for life as an elected representative?
Totally. When you work in the politician’s office you are answering the phone to such a broad range of people; people who are homeless, people who have benefit issues or it could be a chief executive, a police inspector. You really are changing it up all the time. The constituency work really is a good grounding for those who would like a job in public life.
Is there a political issue that you feel particularly passionate about?
Yes. Social justice and the pandemic has really highlighted how there is a vast difference between people who have money and those who do not. I was always taught from a very young age that you go out and get a job and work for your money but for some people that isn’t possible. Many people would love to work but can’t. These people need to be supported. There is such a lack of housing and issues within our welfare system. Everyone should be assisted and helped to improve their life and quality of life.
So, you are currently a woman in politics and the chair of your council. What, in your experience, has been the toughest part of being a woman in that role?
This year in particular has been tough. I took on the role of chair in June and at that time schools, creches were still closed. I have two children who were 4 and 1 this time last year. I was trying to look after kids, chair meetings and do casework from home, and my husband was working from home too, so it was full on. Also, the volume of casework really increased because of the pandemic. So, I think any parent trying to work with no childcare was hard. I think being a woman in politics, in general, is constant juggling.
The remote way of working has helped though. Before I would have been travelling to meetings /events across the council area from Downpatrick to Newry but now I can do it all from home and I’m not away from my kids every evening! In the past, I would have brought my children to meetings with me. I don’t think it’s very easy to balance everything as a woman in public life, but I am very fortunate to have a supporting family and party.
What do you think has been the best part about being a woman in politics?
Particularly this year I think it has been great to set an example for other younger women who have families and show that you really can do this. I also think it’s important to form relationships with others. No matter what political party you are from, I am more than willing to work with anyone.
I also think that there is a lot of empathy in women, it seems to come more naturally to some women.
If you could make it easier for more women to get into politics what would you do?
I think there absolutely has to be maternity leave. I don’t think it is fair. My daughter was born seven weeks before the council election and I had a Caesarean, so I couldn’t drive for a while. As soon as I could get out to campaign, I was out with Polly in her pram – all my election material was underneath. Knocking doors and campaigning away. Those within my party were so supportive during that time so I am really lucky, but others might not have that support especially people who are independent candidates. So, maternity leave has to be up there if we are looking to attract capable, young women. We need women of all ages and abilities who have those life experiences which will help shape local public services.
Finally, what advice would you give to a woman who wants to get into elected politics?
It’s totally doable! It really really is. You are never going to find a political party that is a perfect fit. Once you are within a party you can change things. Have a look at what parties are out there and look at the kind of people they attract and just get involved in the party structures. It’s then usually a process of putting your name forward. But I certainly haven’t regretted 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 firstname.lastname@example.org