This week 50:50 NI meets Cathy Mason, the Chair of The Newry, Mourne and Down Council. Cathy is the representative for Slieve Croob and has been a councillor since 2019.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, and no I suppose. I probably got into politics in my teenage years and because of my dad. Politics wasn’t huge in our house but my dad was really into history and he taught me quite a lot about Irish history; about the conflict and things like that. So my love of politics was probably born out of that.
Was there something in particular that inspired you to take that step into elected politics?
Again it probably goes back to those conversations with my dad. I always knew that politics was something I was into. I didn’t necessarily know that I was going to become my career. I think specifically here in South Down, 2017 is when the spark lit inside me. When Chris Hazzard became the MP for South Down. That was a real historical win and it was the first time Sinn Fein ever had the seat here. So I think for me and for an awful lot of young people in the area it lit that wee spark and we realised there is a place for young people in politics here.
I’m very lucky in that my party encourages people to speak up and young people to speak up. When I was getting more interested in politics, women like Mary Lou and Michelle were a big inspiration for young women and they still inspire me every day.
Also, I live in a small village and looking around you would realise you know, this needs to be changed, and that needs to be done, and we need someone in council to speak up for thesis issues and for things to happen. So all of that was the real spark for me.
What did you do professionally before becoming chair of the Newry Mourne and Down Council? Do you think this experience prepared you for life as an elected politician?
I studied business studies at University and I always worked in the catering and hospitality industry and I worked in sales in the foodservice. I have always had a public-facing role and it probably gave me an insight into dealing with issues and dealing with the public so that prepared me for dealing with the public but I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for public life and politics.
I really enjoyed working in the hospitality and food industry but I also always knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever.
Are there any political issues that you are particularly passionate about?
One of the biggest things for me, and I have already stated that this is my priority for my year as Chair, is mental health and wellbeing. I have a few main themes in that with economic recovery, and sport and community facilities especially in the times that we are in.
It really is my biggest priority especially here in South Down where we have some of the worst levels of counselling services in our GP surgeries. We really do need a real robust review of mental health services and we need the resources in place.
In my local GAA club, I am one of the mental health and wellbeing officers within the club so I have dealt with this, I’ve dealt with really heartbreaking stories and this experience has inspired me to take this step and prioritize mental health.
That’s great to hear!
In your experience as a woman in politics, what has been the toughest part of that?
For me, it has been the work-life balance. I have two young children so it has been juggling that. This is not a nine to five job, by no means, it’s constant. I am really lucky in that I have fantastic family support to help me juggle that. I couldn’t do it without my husband and my mum. So that for me is the hardest part.
I am aware that misogyny is there and I’m sure I will come up against it but I am lucky that to date it hasn’t been a major issue for me however I have been in situations where because I am a young woman I have been overlooked. So that undercurrent is still there. The underreporting of women as well as a big issue. In this council area, there are only 11 women in the chamber so we can be spread pretty thin in terms of making sure that women’s voices are heard on all the issues.
And what, in your experience, has been the best part of being a woman in politics?
The best thing is probably being able to bring your voice and represent other women; other mothers and other younger women. We run things like the period poverty campaign and things like that and just being able to do that for women and also get other women involved in politics.
One of the highlights for me last year in council was being able to set up the women’s working group. To be able to do that was a real pleasure.
Amazing, that sounds really great.
Unfortunately, there are still a lot of barriers for women getting into politics. If you could change one thing to make it easier for women to get into politics, what would it be?
We have a policy within our party that there are gender quotas so there has to be a balance in candidates stepping forward for election. I would love to make that statutory so that all political parties have to also do that. It would mean that political parties would have to actively go and look for women to come forward. Also, it might get them to change things like the times of meetings and things like that.
That’s one thing that I would do.
Finally, What advice would you give to a woman who is inspired and is thinking of running for election?
Look around and look at the female leaders who are around. Not just here but everywhere, look at the pandemic and how everything has been dealt with by leaders like Jacinda Ardern. It’s inspiring. Despite what trepidations you have, just go for it.
Have confidence in yourself because everyone is capable. Women are fantastic political leaders there is no doubt about it so go for it!
Ask for help as well, there is a real camaraderie among women in politics and we all support each other. So don’t be afraid to ask other women for help or advice or guidance.
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