This week 50:50 NI meets Claire Hanna has been the Member of Parliament for Belfast South since 2019 and was previously a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland from 2015 to 2019.
Have you always been interested in politics?
I always have been on some level. My parents were both political. My dad would have been involved in civil rights at and my mum a nurse and activist and elected representative in later life, and both very interested in international issues. So, yes politics and current affairs, taking an interest in things, were always part of our lives. SDLP activism was also always part of our lives.
In my mid-twenties, I became more specifically interested in political activism. I wasn’t really party political until well into adulthood.
What inspired you to then take that step into party politics and stand for election?
I was brought up in a house where we were adherents of Hume and interested in power-sharing, working the common ground and addressing the practical issues of people here.
By the time I ran for the first time, which was in 2011 those values didn’t really feel present in Northern Ireland. I had been for a few years working for Concern, in international development, around campaigns and advocacy and there was a lot of our work where we lobbied politicians and encouraged people to lobby their elected representatives so I was aware of the power of elected representatives.
When I was approaching thirty, as you do, I became more interested in the services and local side of issues.
My mum had been in politics and it was important to me that we didn’t overlap electorally. I wasn’t keen on going co-opting into a seat that she had just been in so I stood back for a few years until she retired.
So you mention that you worked in international development which is great because I also used to work in international development!
Do you think that career prepared you for life as a politician?
Yes, after I left school I took a year out which turned into about a decade out! I was working and travelling and then worked for the BBC for a few years and then I stumbled into Comic Relief which led me to realise that campaigning and advocacy was what I wanted to do. I was in Concern in various roles for about 10 years. During that time I also did a degree in International relations and a Masters in law. That experience in advocacy and campaigning, as I said, made me aware of the power of elected representatives to shape debate and make change.
Also working in both a long term development and an emergency context and in places like Bangladesh and Haiti really teaches you about delivering public services under really challenging circumstances and a lot about perspective.
Are there any political issues that you are particularly passionate about? If so, what are they?
Loads! I suppose drivers that motivate me are internationalism and then Brexit flowing from that. Brexit crosses so many issues here and has been an interest to me since before the referendum, based on my world view and economic outlook.
Climate issues are also important to me and from my work at concern, I’m very aware that it is not a future issue, it is a right now issue. I remember being in Zambia in 2006/07 seeing an irrigation project to mitigate and address already problematic new weather events that were having an impact on the area. It is also a generational justice issue.
I’m also really interested in the arts. Personally I enjoy them, and in Northern Ireland the arts have been, for decades, organic shared spaces. They facilitate human connection and our understanding of ourselves. Of course they are also a key economic building block and we will lose out if we don’t nourish the arts.
That’s really great, those are all such important issues.
In terms of being a woman in politics, what has been the toughest thing for you?
I was struck by Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women and the concept of the brilliance bias, you know when we are asked to think of a scientist or a politician etc it’s usually a man that comes to mind. The giants in our politics have always been men, or so it seems. So that and other peoples onboard bias about where knowledge comes from and who is knowledgeable. For example, when I was a councillor the area I was in was quite prone to flooding so I made myself quite expert in return valves and sewage infrastructure and all of those things. I remember being at several meetings and after my then MLA colleague who was a man remarked that in every meeting the questions about this issue would be directed at him but I had all the answers and information. In the Assembly I was SDLP lead on Finance, a fairly male dominated policy area, and remember once being asked suspiciously ‘what qualifies you for this role?’ when, frankly, none of the other MLAs on the committee had any more demonstrable expertise than I did.
Then there are issues in terms of abuse and attacks. It’s well documented about social media but it’s not just online. I remember in 2012 when there was the flag protest I had my windows put in and many other women such as Naomi Long were threatened and I don’t think it was a coincidence that those threats were directed towards mostly women.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, what do you think is the best part about being a woman in politics?
It’s worth saying that generally I have had a good experience in politics. I have had really good role models who are women, such as my mum, who was a councillor and an MLA. We were both actually inspired into activism by a previous SDLP councillor for our constituency who was a South African civil rights activist and our SDLP general secretary of the last 15 years was a strong woman. My long standing election agent and main staff member are highly capable, confident and progressive younger women, so I have had great role models all along. I find integrity and resilience so much more common in women in public life.
I do think there is a level of camaraderie and solidarity among women in politics here and I have good relationships with many women from other parties.
Some of the best politicians in the world at the minute are women and I think it’s therefore a good time to be a woman in politics.
Great! In terms 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?
I think it starts really early. I have three daughters and I know that the messaging and targeting from the get go, about how you should act and be, steers us in different directions. Baby girls are still offered frilly, impractical clothes that are harder to get about in and toys are often so differently marketed.
Selection processes should also change. The linking of public funding to gender balance of candidates in the South is a good move but in the absence of that tool, parties need to tackle that themselves and undoubtedly running a proactively gender balanced candidates strategy helps bring forward excellent women candidates who might not have been ‘next in line’ otherwise . There is also sometimes a confidence gap between men and women, I think related that that ‘brilliance bias’ and what people think or expect a politician to be and we need to tackle that.
Finally, what advice would you give to a woman who wants to get into politics?
My advice would be to get stuck in. There are brilliant women making change through all sorts of organisations but to change the make up of Parliaments and councils we need more women to join political parties.
Joining a political party is a bit like finding a partner in life. You might not find one that is perfect in every way but you pick the one that has the values closest to your own and you spend your life improving 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