As we get closer to polling day 50:50 NI is meeting more of the women running for election. Today 50:50 NI meets Sorcha Eastwood. Sorcha is an Alliance Party candidate in Lagan Valley, she has worked for the Alliance party for several years and has an impressive background in business and HR. Sorcha is passionate about many social and political issues, including domestic abuse, disability rights and women’s health.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes absolutely. Since I was a little girl I was absolutely obsessed with Westminster politics. I remember Margaret Thatcher being the Prime Minister, I remember Nigel Lawson- Norman Lamont being the chancellor at that time and I remember my mum sitting me down every Sunday afternoon in our back room and quizzing me on politics. She would ask me about all the capital cities in Europe and she would ask me to tell her about Margaret Thatcher. Obviously, I didn’t know much more than she was the Prime Minister. I just had a fascination with that from an early age. My mum was really dyslexic, she left school at 15 with no qualifications and worked in domiciliary care initially, so she was very keen for me to learn as much as I could and know as much as I could about everything.
The first time I stood for a seat was in the 2019 council elections, my mum was clearing out lots of old stuff from her house and she found a picture that I had done in P.5 and it said ‘Vote Eastwood’ on it. I had no idea that I had made that, I don’t remember making it but I do remember being aware of the Women’s Coalition and being really interested in them.
What inspired you to take that step into politics?
I think I always had the ambition to be involved in elected politics and growing up, where I grew up, Alliance were always very strong in Lagan Valley. They always had a good presence. There is a point in your life where you just want to be a young person and I think for a while I did just want to be a young person. I had a lot of strong women role models in my life growing up; My mum and dad didn’t have a very good relationship. My dad was a very violent man and I remember thinking ‘we just need to get rid of this man and we need to get out of this situation. I think when that was done it was really a steadying point for me. My aunt was one of the head contract lawyers at a big multinational and I remember thinking how great it was that she is so strong, she knew the law. That really inspired me to want to do law.
Then I actually went to do it. And realized it wasn’t for me! I studied law and politics and I realized I loved politics but didn’t like the law part so I dropped out.
Then I started working full time when I was 19. I did what is now called a higher level apprenticeship in retail management at Tesco and I loved it. At that time when you are in your early twenties, all you really think about is your career so I really wasn’t interested in politics at the time. I was interested in working. It wasn’t until I went back to university as a mature student that I became interested in politics again. This was around 2010, Naomi Long was standing in the Westminster election and she got elected. That was a big moment for me. I remember sitting up with my husband watching that election and that was it. My interest in politics was back. So after that, I went and started talking to people at the party like Chris Lyttle and Sian Mullholland. I joined the party and became the chair of Alliance Youth within a year of joining Alliance Youth
At this point, I didn’t see me being a woman as a problem. I really didn’t think people were going to have a problem with that but some people did. Although I am glad I got that experience early on.
How did you get on the ballot?
I joined the party in 2010/11 and I started attending my local association. I already had that link with Alliance Youth which was great. The youth wing is great because you can be in it until you are thirty. You get to work with MLAs and leadership in the party. That was really helpful and useful for me in terms of networking within the party itself. I had been a manager from a really young age, I had a background in business so I had represented business in a range of different events so I was really taken aback by how patronizing some people were. I think a lot of people thought I was very young and I think that can be a barrier when you are a woman who looks young.
Before 2014 and the switchover to the super councils I was approached by one of our key members in the lagan valley association and he asked me if I would be interested in putting my name down for the shadow councils. It wasn’t long after the flag protests and I really thought about it and if I have one regret in politics it would be that I didn’t go for it then. The reason I didn’t go for it then was because of where I lived and still live. I had family members in Lisburn who suffered intimidation and had to move away. I didn’t go for it in the end.
I did eventually run in West Belfast during the snap assembly election. I loved it. I took it really seriously. Lots of people did ask me why I was bothering to canvass seriously if there was little chance of me getting elected and I was bothering because if Alliance wants to grow we need to get seats everywhere and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t run in West Belfast, we previously held an Assembly seat there in the 80s. I remember coming home to my husband and telling him that I really wanted to do this at home in Lisburn. I think that made my mind up, this is what I want to be doing and I want to do it in Lagan Valley.
I started working for Stephen Farry soon after this as an advisor and that was a really important time for me. I was learning a lot from him and from being in high-level meetings and having opportunities to talk to people in leadership. I’m really grateful for that experience and opportunity. This gave me the drive to get council under my belt and then go on for the assembly and now I am running in this election.
Do you think your previous business career will help you in your role as an MLA, should you be elected?
I definitely think so. I think in Northern Ireland there is a lack of confidence in the institutions and in the Assembly particularly. I think because we have a very different system of politics here compared to the rest of the UK and Ireland we have a lot of people here who have only ever been in politics. They have experience and knowledge which is great but I think it’s also important for people like me who have had a life before politics to come into the assembly. People who are used to analyzing and making business based decisions. I think these are good skills that will help me.
Are there any political issues that you are particularly interested in?
My experiences growing up with domestic violence really inspired me to get involved. I wanted to write a letter to the court when I was in year 9 in school and I wasn’t allowed to. That really frustrated me because I wanted my voice to be heard and I wanted to be involved in the proceedings. Thankfully now we have legislation that stakeholders have been working on for years and Naomi finally passed the Domestic Abuse Bill which was amazing. This is the sort of thing that I want to drive forward.
Another issue that I was involved in when I was young is disability rights. We have members of our family who are disabled and couldn’t get access to public buildings. How depressing and disgusting is it that 30 years later we still have the same issues. I think in Northern Ireland people are always talking about rights, they are always throwing this is my right’ at each other but we have children with special educational needs who are being denied their rights to a proper education, we have disabled people who can’t access services, there are people who are blind who are being sent letters, they can’t read, about medical appointments. To me, this is a fundamental denial of rights and not treating people the way they should be treated.
Women’s health is something I am also interested in. I have endometriosis. It is something I really have to manage as it is a chronic condition. I have seen how women have to go about accessing health care and there have been so many issues such as the cervical smear scandal in the South. It just seems like women are expected to put up with this substandard treatment. So this is something that I do work on.
My family were very political but not party political. A lot of them were alliance voters and they always told me how important it is not to forget where you come from and to remember the struggles that people go through. I will never forget that because it impacts the whole community. I really take it to heart. I was raised to have a sense of fairness.
What has your experience been like since you announced your candidacy for this election?
When it became apparent that Jeffery Donaldson was going to have to leave his Westminster seat I had said that you know, Alliance would be ready to campaign and take that seat. This resulted in a lot of online hate and harassment. I receive a lot of harassment online as it is but this was different and cumulated in the police having to come to my house because of something that was said online. On the other hand, I have had really great support in Lagan Valley, people want someone different like me to vote for. I think since I have that reputation of being a worker and have been involved in the community I think people are excited about my candidacy.
One of the things I love about being an alliance candidate in my hometown is that I can go everywhere I can go to every event that candidates from some parties maybe can’t go to for political reasons. That is no comment on them but I’m proud of the fact that I can represent everyone because first and foremost I want to represent people.
Do you think being a woman will be helpful in your career as an MLA, should you be elected?
I absolutely do. I think that it provides me with an opportunity to speak about issues that maybe some people aren’t aware of. For example, I work with a lot of parents who have children with special educational needs. Many of these parents are burnt out and they don’t have the time to campaign and fight for their child’s rights because they are caring for their child and maybe their other children and they shouldn’t have to. My job is to be their voice and that is really important.
I have learned a lot of lessons along the way and I am judged to a much higher standard than some but I have faced a lot worse things in life and that is what provides me with real steel in my backbone. The trauma that I have gone through as a young adult means that I have a fire in my belly and I will not be deterred.
Finally, what advice would you give to a woman that wants to get into politics?
If you want to have a career in elected politics you need to understand how local associations work, how the voting system works and how to even get on a ballot. I think that all parties need to do a bit more work.
I actually get women who want to get involved all the time. I say if you’re really serious and you want to get on the ballot and get elected I will coach them through it. I’m happy to sit women down and figure out what they want. I will help them through the whole thing because I have been through it all and I can give them that insider information.
The best thing you can do is not hide behind yourself. Don’t be afraid of your own voice and don’t let being ambitious or competitive be used as a slur. Take it as a compliment because when those words are used to describe men they are meant as a compliment.
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