After a short break 50:50 NI meets is back! This week our CEO talks to Connie Egan. Connie is the Alliance Councillor for Bangor West and the Alliance deputy group leader on Ards & North Down Borough Council. Connie is also a researcher in education policy.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes and no. When I was a teenager I didn’t really know much about politics at all and my favourite subject at school was actually history. I chose to study politics at A-Level because I thought I needed to know more about this, as it’s so important. I absolutely loved it and went on to study Politics and Philosophy at Queen’s.
I didn’t really get into party politics or get involved with Alliance until after I left university. So university for me was a real learning curve and about finding out who I was and what I believed in.
What inspired you then to get into party politics and eventually become a politician?
I think most people will say that they never set out to be a politician. It definitely wasn’t an option that I considered. I think I started getting involved in politics because I was really involved in activism. I did a lot of canvassing for the Alliance Party because from 2016 to 2019 there were lots of elections. I also campaigned in the south for the yes vote for the abortion referendum. I campaigned for marriage equality in Northern Ireland and I am also a volunteer for Alliance for Choice. So I did a lot of activism and obviously, these issues are things that I am really passionate about in our society.
Then the 2019 council elections were coming up and Alliance were actually looking for a second candidate in Bangor West, which is where I have lived all my life. Members of the North Down Alliance Association asked me to stand and they were really encouraging. Without their support, I don’t think I would have done it. I just got stuck in with the councillor who was already elected in the area. We started campaigning on local issues, things that I knew were important to the people living there and I got elected! I actually topped the poll!
What did you do professionally before being elected and now as a councillor? Do you think that job prepared you for life as an elected politician?
At the moment I am employed by Alliance. I work in Chris Lyttle’s office as his researcher. I focus a lot on education and before I was employed by Chris I actually worked for Alliance in their Stormont office, which I loved. It was my first job out of university.
Before all that I worked for years in an off licence. Which I have to say 100% prepared me for my role as a councillor. I think dealing directly with the public and doing customer service was absolutely a massive help. Being able to engage with the public is such an important part of being a politician.
OK, so politics has been a really big part of your life since university really.
Yes, I think I just got involved and then started getting more and more involved!
You have mentioned a few issues that you are really passionate about such as abortion rights, marriage equality and others. Why are you passionate about these issues?
Yes, there are so many issues that I am really passionate about but I think overall encouraging and amplifying the voices of underrepresented people, particularly women and young people is really important to me. I think if we look at the people who are elected in and sit in Westminster and Stormont and even in my council chamber they don’t really accurately reflect the diversity of the society we live in. I really think that young people should be allowed to vote at 16 and should definitely have a greater say in decision-making made by policymakers. I think that this generation is going to be most affected by the decisions that are being made today and they are going to have to live with the impact of these decisions. We have seen it with Brexit and we are seeing it now with climate change. We must have their voices heard. I also think that the barriers for women entering politics need to be dealt with. Sexism, online abuse, lack of maternity leave all of this puts women off getting involved and I really want to address that as well.
Great! Well, that is exactly what we want to do at 50:50 NI.
All of these issues make being a woman in politics tough, I’m sure. What is your experience, the hardest part of being a woman in politics?
Without a doubt, it has been social media and the messages that I get online. The messages, if you had shown me those before I stood for election it 100% would have put me off. I think you have to grow a thick skin unfortunately and these people will never hound me out of doing it now. But I think we see these messages on social media aimed at women in politics. It definitely puts a lot of women off getting involved because they don’t want to deal with that. And who could blame them?
It’s unfortunate as well because there is a lot of pressure, I think, to be on social media. It’s almost seen as part of the job now.
Yes, and it can be amazing. It is definitely one of the best forms of engagement when it is used positively. I have had so many issues and casework brought to me via social media. It can be really great and a good form of communication but there is this dark side to it. The negativity, the bullying, abuse and harassment are really awful.
So, Obviously being a politician is tough but it is also an amazing job. What, in your experience, is the best part of being a woman in politics?
It’s amazing and quite empowering to be able to use my position and my voice to effect change. It is a privilege to be in this role and it is also so rewarding. Through the council, I have been able to speak up for minorities, young people, women’s rights and LGBT rights. I have been able to push for just a more inclusive society. In 2019 when I got elected I was actually the youngest woman who had ever been elected in the borough and I think in the next council elections in 2024 we need to see more diversity. It’s so important that the people who represent us in council, in Stormont, in Parliament, represent our society.
We have touched on a few of the barriers that exist for women getting into politics. The lack of maternity leave, harassment on social media and everything else. If you could change something to make it easier for women to get into politics, What would you do?
It would have to be to remove complete anonymity from social media because there is just no accountability. I completely recognise that some people will need to be anonymous when it comes to what they post online for work reasons but I think that social media companies need to know who is setting up these accounts because there needs to be some accountability and responsibility. There is a lot of harassment and even defamation that is posted by these anonymous accounts and it can’t be actioned and it is so difficult if the account is completely anonymous. Especially if you want to take it forward and pursue a civil case, it’s so difficult. It is unacceptable and has been really highlighted recently in the media with Arlene Foster and her recent case against Dr Christian Jesson, which she has won. I think it just can’t continue and we need to have a turning point.
Finally! What advice would you give to a woman that wants to get into politics?
I would tell them they can do it! You can definitely do it.
I remember when I was 16, my local MP was Lady Sylvia Hermon and she came into my school and she told the whole class that anyone in our class could do what she does and I remember thinking, there is no way. Never in a million years could I do something like that but here I am now.
I just think there are so many amazing women involved in politics and we want to hear their voices, we want to hear younger people coming in, we want to hear a diverse range of voices. We need to encourage and support people to get involved. It can be tough putting yourself out there but you can get involved in the party or even just a local campaign in your area or activism on something that you feel passionate about.
From my experience with women in politics, all sort of have a common understanding, all of us have been through the same thing. Politics can be full of negativity but getting involved is just so rewarding and it has been really worth it for me.
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