Today 50:50 NI meets Rachael Ferguson. Rachael is an Alliance candidate in Foyle, she is currently an elected councillor and has a background in retail and childcare.
Have you always been interested in politics?
When I was eighteen I went away to university to Liverpool and I stayed there for a long time then I moved back here in 2012 to have my son. This was the start of all the Brexit conversations and that’s when I really took an interest in politics. Due to frustrations I suppose more than anything else.
Then there were 3 years where we didn’t have Stormont here so because of that I became a lot more interested in our local politicians, their roles so it wasn’t something that I grew up learning about.
My parents brought me through the integrated system; my mother was from the Bogside, (she grew up through Bloody Sunday) and my father was from the country so politics wasn’t something we talked about until I probably got into my twenties.
What inspired you to step from not really being super interested in politics to being interested in politics and then saying I want to be a candidate?
When I moved home I had 2 children very close together and I got involved in some of the local community groups; the Women’s Centre, and the local playgroup. I got involved with their fundraising and through that, I realised very quickly that politics in the community plays in very quickly to politics in local government.
So I was watching very closely and I started searching fr a party that aligned with my views, that’s when I noticed Alliance and their views. I’m a big person about inclusivity like coming from an integrated background, I don’t know very much about my friend’s backgrounds, where they came from, or how their families nominated themselves whether they were green or orange. My other half is from Liverpool. So, Alliance for me was definitely the one that I wanted to go for.
What happened then was I got in contact with Naomi on Twitter because Alliance were running candidates here but there were no women candidates. Someone had said that to her on Twitter and she had come back immediately and said ‘well if you’re interested, get involved so I sent her a message. She happened to be coming down to meet one of the local schools in my area in a couple days and she said why don’t you meet with me. So, I met with her! Being from a retail background I was going to know nothing about legislation, I know nothing about politics but I know what the community needs and I know what they’re struggling with. When I said this to Naomi she said “Rachel, that’s exactly what we need”, she says “I need people who know what the community needs, who have a passion to do a better job for the community”. “the rest we can fill in, we can give you training, we can teach you legislation”. I took a couple of weeks to talk to my family and I decided I would run; just to have that female presence and to try and build a profile. My aspiration was to get elected in 4 years, not that year. So whenever I did get elected that year, it was very much “Oh right now I need to learn a lot!”. The team have been great in helping me and guiding me and two years down the line I actually think thank god I made that leap.
What did the process of becoming a candidate in this election look like?
So I had decided during the last general election that I was going to run. Our seat was contested, it was Colum Eastwood versus Elisha McCallion, so there was a lot of talk about how Alliance shouldn’t run but we had decided that we would run at every election to give people choice. There is an unrepresented middle ground. Then when this election came up I had the conversations with my family, with my partner and with my branch and I decided you know what, I’ve done it the last two elections, I’m going to do it again! I’m going to give people the choice to pick that middle ground.
What you do then is the party put out an expression of interest form, I filled that out and then you get approval from our executive to go to a selection committee. Our selection committee is very small here in Foyle but they are lovely people. On that night I told them my vision and what way I wanted to represent them here in Foyle. The committee then vote and thankfully, they voted to select me! I love how it’s about the local representatives. They get to choose, the local members instead of someone just planted in. I was really proud to have their backing.
You mentioned you have a background in retail, do you think your previous professional experience helped you as a councillor and do you think it will help you as an MLA if you get elected?
I’ve had about 12 years in retail and I worked my way up to what was called a technical expert. In retail people often will tell you about their woes, people would tell you about their worries and how life is impacting them. I found that experience really helpful with my constituency work because one thing I learned in retail was you don’t get anywhere by just telling people what they want to hear. It’s better if you explain the process and be honest the whole way you might not necessarily get the outcome that they want but they’re happy that you’ve walked them through it.
Being elected then, I was able to take time away from retail and I went back to working with the local playgroup. I spent a few months working in there as a playgroup assistant, which I absolutely loved. I’m aware that people think, how would you go from playgroup assistant to politics? You actually see a lot in that role. We deal with 3-year-olds and families that are struggling, you see how housing security impacts on the whole family even as small as 3.
Is there any political issues that you are really passionate about? And if so, what are they and why is it that you are passionate about them?
My main one and I suppose the one that led me into politics was mental health, mental health is a big issue. Back in 2012, I moved back here with 4 weeks to go with my son. I’d been in Liverpool since I was 18 and then all of a sudden I was here with no support network and no real friends. I suffered from post-natal depression. On his first birthday, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter! So, I was really struggling to get out of the house, for the first year I barely got out of the house at all. During this time I saw a leaflet from the Woman’s Centre informing me that they offered respite care. I decided I am going to give this a go, the woman in the Women’s Centre noticed very quickly that I was struggling with postnatal depression and they helped me into different courses and that helped me open up and talk to people about how I was feeling. They gave me the tools to build my confidence back up and to get back into work after my maternity with my daughter.
A couple of years later, just before I decided to run again, I knew I was very low again, I was struggling with work-life balance. It was causing me extreme anxiety so I went back to the Women’s Centre and this time they had secured funding for a one-to-one counsellor so I was able to do 13 weeks of one-to-one counselling and it was just amazing.
I can see why people don’t necessarily go to their GP, they’re afraid of things like the questions of ‘are you going to harm yourself? Are you going to harm your children?’ but if we were able to create pathways in the community like the local Women’s Centre, the local playgroups etc. So that people have access to that kind of support. After I got elected, I actually joined the women’s centre’s board. I suppose coming from a rural village that’s a huge issue because people really don’t talk about it in rural villages, we talk about stigma and overcoming the stigma but in the rural villages, it’s a silent stigma because people don’t want to be seen going in to access the services because your neighbour might talk. Mental health and creating a real clear pathway would be my passion because of my previous experience.
What has your experience been like since you announced your candidacy for the next election?
It has been a mixed bag obviously, especially on social media. you got Facebook where you have your supporters that will come in and say ‘Aw brilliant’ but I’ve noticed very clearly over the last couple of months when the election is on the loom that Twitter has become very awful. I’ve had a few trolls come along, they have started following me and there are a few comments about my appearance. I don’t take that on because for me it’s nowhere near as bad as what I’ve seen some of my colleagues face. I’m also 6 foot 1 so to a degree I’ve always been used to people commenting on my appearance so I just shrugged it off.
So it has been a mixed bag but I could see how that could be a barrier for someone that would struggle, you can fixate on that one comment. It’s also learning not to reply when you see something that’s just awful.
Do you think that being a woman will help you in your role as an MLA, should you be elected?
Yes, we women are 51% of the population but I’ve seen so many boards, so many working groups, so many committees where I am the only female the voice. We have to work twice or nearly 3 times harder to get the woman’s view heard and you see that in things now coming forward where menopause, period poverty, elected reps not having maternity leave. All of a sudden these policies are coming forward and it’s because women are working twice as hard to get these things brought to the attention of everybody else. The pandemic was the biggest example of this, childcare was not a priority. Nobody thought about it, nobody thought childcare was essential for people to work and it’s because there are not enough women’s voices around the table.
It does frustrate me, since being in council the last few years, we’ve had 6 female councillors leave for various reasons and only 2 of them were replaced with women.
Menopause is an example of why we need women’s voices. I think someone said to me the other day that menopause policies never came into place because women weren’t in work as long as they have been up to this date, it was not something that was tackled. We need 50% representation of women’s voices and we need to cover our full demographic whether that be LGBTQ or BME. We need these voices because of their lived experiences and I’m very passionate about getting as many women into politics as possible because we do undersell ourselves.
What advice would you give to a woman that wants to get into politics?
So first and foremost, reach out to someone who you align with. Reach out to them because 9 times out of 10, as a woman in politics, we may be from different parties but we all come together to help and support each other. Just like I did with Naomi, I reached out and she came down and told me “I don’t want polished politicians, I want people who have experience in their community.”
Don’t undersell yourself, I don’t care if you’re a cleaner or if you’re a GP, your experience is your experience, and we need that experience!
Join a party, get involved with your local community groups, find out what it is they’re lacking and what they need and just believe in yourself and take that leap.
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