50:50 NI Meets Déirdre Vaughan

50:50 NI is meeting another candidate this week as part of our #AEWomen22 campaign. Déirdre Vaughan is a SDLP candidate for North Down. she has a background in PR and political communications, and is passionate about mental health policy.

Have you always been interested in politics?

I am originally from West Belfast and we all tend to be quite political there. Growing up in the 80s-90s, politics was always a topic of conversation around the dinner table where everyone would have an opinion. I enhanced my interest in politics by choosing politics as an ‘A’ level subject which gave me a greater depth in understanding it. Even though I started my career working in finance, that interest remained, so by 2019, I went back to study as a mature student for a Master’s in Public Relations with a specialism in political communications. It was at that stage that I decided to forge a career in politics by joining a public affairs agency and at the moment, I am working for the SDLP as a Parliamentary Assistant.

What has inspired you to run in the upcoming election?

While I was focusing on my work and bringing up my family, I’ve was also interested in taking part in public service where I began volunteering with various groups, including Scouting Ireland. However, what motivated me to take the plunge to go even further was a sense of frustration in progress. We’ve been given an opportunity with the Good Friday Agreement but there has been a continual lack of political leadership to address the issues that really matter to me and ordinary people, such as the crumbling school estates and the NHS waiting lists which are the worst in the UK. It has been this abject failure that has driven this anger within me to put my head above the parapet to change the political narrative to focus more on everyday issues rather than just culture and identity. The latter is to be respected but in my opinion, they shouldn’t be at the forefront of our politics. 

How did you become a candidate?

The SDLP party leadership probably recognised that activist within me in the work that I’ve done within the community and as a volunteer youth worker. They encouraged me to enter the selection process for the North Down constituency but before I entered the process, I discussed the implications of getting involved in public life with my family and the potential loss of privacy because the reality is that it does have consequences for them, so getting the support from family and friends has been vital. At the same time, I recognise that the SDLP is a small party in North Down but I think our focus on people and issues is going to strike a chord and that is the impression I get when I speak to people on their doorsteps.

How will your previous positions in your career benefit your role if elected?

My expertise in communications should help me connect with the people of North Down in that they know my values and what I stand for. My experience in working with Sinead Bradley as a Parliamentary Assistant has also given me an insight into the political structures which can be a challenge for new people when they first come in as it can be a bit complicated. Also, not being a career politician has allowed me to connect with the normal struggles that every family has had to deal with, meaning that I can bring my lived experiences. Like when my children were growing up, and like many other women, I have had to face the challenge of trying to build that meaningful career while basically being the primary caregiver. In particular, trying to cover the cost of childcare which for me was a big issue and it will often be the biggest expense a family will have aside from a mortgage and perhaps even more in some cases. 

Is there a political issue you’re particularly passionate about and if there is, why?

There are so many issues that I feel strongly about and climate change is an issue that affects us all, but in Northern Ireland, the mental health crisis is one of the most serious we’re facing. The statistics are quite stark as we have a higher incidence of mental unwellness within the UK and this has been recognised by the current Health Minister, Robin Swan, who has developed a 10-year mental health strategy which was a big piece of work. However, I also think it is important to think of more creative ways in addressing the issue which can be implemented immediately. For example, for my dissertation, I developed a lobbying strategy that highlighted that the appointment of a minimum of two clinical psychologists per NHS area could have a profound effect on parents who suffered stillbirths. There are creative solutions that can be implemented immediately without the need for large pieces of legislation and the crisis is at a point where we can’t really afford to wait for large pieces of legislation to come into force. 

I am also passionate about addressing the brain drain that we have in Northern Ireland which is seeing our greatest asset, our young people, leaving these shores in their droves. I have a 14-year-old son who isn’t too far off from the further education stage and I believe that more needs to be done to make this place an attractive option for young people. In many ways, these two issues feed into and reinforce each other. Enabling access into education can unlock so many things, it can build a person’s self-esteem and that they are worthy of the same opportunities as everyone else and that they’re not forgotten about. We need to think more holistically about mental health as I believe the issue isn’t necessarily about funding but rather looking at creative ways of working, for instance, I would consider looking at practices like nature therapy to work alongside the larger pieces of legislation. Unfortunately, we don’t often think about creative solutions as a means to combat systemic problems.

What has your experience been like since announcing your candidacy?

My greatest fear was approaching people’s doorsteps to ask them about their private lives and what are the issues impacting them, especially as a “newbie” in electoral politics as I am unknown, but it has actually been a wonderful experience so far. People have been really polite and courteous, even when they may not be of the same political persuasion, it has been a massive privilege to have people open up and share their experiences. I really enjoy getting to know people in my community and what makes them tick, and what I’m finding is that most people aren’t driven by a divisive narrative over culture. What’s concerning people are the everyday issues like health, education, the cost of living, and so forth.

Being online can be a very different experience and as being relatively new to politics, I haven’t encountered too much abuse on social media, just the odd nasty comment. Some of my colleagues are facing much worse on a daily basis and I really do think that more needs to be done by the platforms to weed out these nasty personal attacks because it is very off-putting for women to enter politics with the prevalence of this toxic online atmosphere. All of this too links back to a culture of misogyny, Northern Ireland’s statistics on violence against women are horrific and we’ve had some recently well-publicized cases, and it is this culture of misogyny that allows these things to happen and it will also leak into online spaces as well. To deal with this, we need to go back to a grassroots level into education and our party would be supportive of building a standardized relationship education as even though there is a requirement for schools to provide relationship education, the nature of that is left up to schools. What we need is a standardized model that explores the issues of sexuality, consent, diversity, respect, etc. By educating our young people at school about these things, when they go out into the world, they can help make it a more positive environment for women and people who are different from themselves. It isn’t an immediate solution to the problem but for building a better future, it would be a strong starting point.

How do you think being a woman would help you as a politician if you are elected?

What I found is being a candidate and engaging with other candidates, even outside my own party, have been really supportive to the point where there is a level of comradery shared between the candidates. Many like me have had to balance the demands of family life while forging a career and I think that sense of shared experience, serves as a real morale boost when you’re on the campaign trail. Like when you’re having to go out on a Saturday and sacrifice precious family time, often for prolonged periods of time, this sense of comradery between the female candidates really helps.

I’ve also been lucky to have had some amazing role models – those strong west Belfast women – like my mum, in particular, who worked for years in the BBC canteen, is an absolute powerhouse of humour and strength. I’ve learned from her how to keep things in perspective and to not be afraid to make mistakes, which is a powerful and important lesson to learn. I would hope to replicate that with my colleagues in the SDLP and outside.

What advice would you give to a woman reading this who is considering joining politics?

It is important to go in with your eyes open as it isn’t a 9-5 job in that it is a very all-absorbing profession. Like you need to be available all the time for constituents to help with their issues which do not switch off at 5 o’clock in the afternoon. You may need to give up family time to go out leafleting and canvassing. So go in knowing that it does demand a lot of you. At the same time though, I know that it is a really rewarding experience as someone who has a passion for public service but it does come with challenges. However, it doesn’t seem to be putting people off as more and more women are taking the plunge which can only serve to enrich the political landscape here, and long may it continue!

What do you think is encouraging more women to enter politics?

I can only share what my colleagues and I speak about and it goes back to that sense of rage and frustration we feel. Men have pretty much dominated and driven this process and quite frankly, things are not getting done. If you take the NHS for example, it has turned into a tiered system which is unjust. I believe things like this are what is driving women into politics. I also believe that since #MeToo, women are seeing that misogyny is being called out which is encouraging for women to take the plunge into public life. For example, several of our female politicians would regularly be targeted on social media and that has recently been brought to the floor of the assembly and I don’t think that would have happened in the past – the attitude would have been that you’ve just to accept it as being a woman in public life and you’ve just to deal with it. 

What do you think we can do to make it easier for women to enter politics?

In terms of working patterns, the plenary sessions on a Monday and Tuesday can go on to 10 o’clock at night or even later. If women have young children, it might be an issue for them, so more consideration needs to be given to those with family commitments. I am coming to politics now in my 40s and where my youngest child is 11 – when my children were younger, I couldn’t have considered it. The whole structure is not set up to be particularly receptive for those with family commitments and we should try to change that.

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 info@5050ni.com 

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