Today our board member Emma Rainey meets Kathleen McGurk. Kathleen is a Sinn Fein candidate in East Derry. Kathleen is currently a Councillor on Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council. With a background in the construction industry Kathleen is passionate about rural sustainability.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, since my teenage years and having studied it for “A” Level, it cemented my interest in politics; however, at that age, I didn’t really know how to get on the path of activism and politics. I only formally got involved in politics after the death of Martin McGuinness in 2017 and it became a catalyst moment for me to join Sinn Féin as I had also just moved back home from Australia too. Martin was a massive figurehead in Irish republicanism and watching the outpouring of emotions to his death resonated with me and I recognised that it was something not so far removed from my life. So I became motivated to get involved but at the time, I had no interest in getting involved in elected politics, and if truth be told, I thought it would be something far out of reach, especially since I didn’t know the process of how someone became an elected representative. I knew I just wanted to get involved locally to help out in the community and Sinn Féin’s policies at the time really impressed me as they were standing on a platform promoting equality and parity of esteem, and those things really matter to me.
What has inspired you to run in the upcoming election?
I’m really passionate about my local community and making a difference, and my work as a Councillor has really cemented that as it’s given me the opportunity to see firsthand the problems facing our local constituents. If elected, I want to bring their voices further up the road to Stormont and tackle the systemic issues facing our local area. We have a fantastic team of MLAs in Stormont and I felt that it was a real honour to be asked to join that team. I had initially thought of holding off running for election to Stormont as I have small children and I probably would have waited for another 10 years before running but this upcoming election feels like one of those “once in a lifetime” elections. I believe it could be a real watershed moment as running in this particular election feels like being part of history. Sinn Féin is sitting on the cusp of becoming the largest elected party and to potentially be involved in seeing Michelle O’Neill be nominated as First Minister and for Irish nationalists to be in that position, I wanted to seize the opportunity to be involved. In my constituency, we are actually looking to return an extra seat, so if I was to get elected, my seat would be one of the seats that would be the catalyst for putting us into the top party position.
How will your previous positions in your career benefit your role if elected?
I worked in construction, another very male-dominated area, and one of the things that have taught me is the importance of having the confidence to stand up in a room full of men and to think that my voice is just as important as theirs. I’ve had several roles in construction, I actually did a degree in psychology but went out to help in the family business for a few months and I was there five years later. I went on to do health and safety which would have involved going around construction sites and engaging with workers (mainly men) to try to change practices. It wasn’t the most popular topic, as many men would have seen it as interfering in their day’s work but it has taught me how to engage with people effectively, deal with resistance, and how to get them onside. I’ve had to stand up and do toolbox talks and presentations in rooms filled with 200+ men, and if I was lucky, it would only be a few grumbling. What it’s shown me is that if I have the confidence to engage with them on unpopular topics like this then I can engage with them in anything else.
As mentioned before, it was a family business, so it has given me a real insight into what businesses are looking for as I can see things from a business owner’s point of view, especially in regards to stability as we emerge from Brexit and post-pandemic. With the rise of inflation and increasing costs, the building industry price rises that I’ve never seen since I joined nearly 15 years ago and my dad has been there for over 40 years, and he’s never seen rises like this. So I have knowledge of the issues facing small and family-run businesses, which are the backbone of rural communities.
Therefore, if elected, I’d be interested in joining the Infrastructure Committee, not just from the construction point of view as I sit on the Planning Committee in council, and planning policy is something I am very passionate about. It is something that needs to be overhauled in rural communities as at the moment, it is preventing families from being able to buy or rent a home because there aren’t enough homes being built and I can see firsthand the problems the planning policy is contributing to that. However, it isn’t just planning policy, there are issues with infrastructure, water connections, and getting utilities into sites. The area where I work and focus on my role as Councillor would tie in well with the remit of the Infrastructure Committee.
Is there a political issue you’re particularly passionate about and if there is, why?
I’m passionate about rural sustainability as a whole, so it isn’t just about being able to find a home to live in but being able to work in your community and being able to find a good job. Most people in my constituency will be getting into cars or vans at half six in the morning and driving to Belfast for their day’s work. So it’s about creating better opportunities for our own areas to improve the quality of life and to have a better work-life balance. Rural communities have been let down over the last number of years and whilst there have been moves to try to improve on this, a lot more needs to be done. Through planning policy at a council level, I’ve been trying to affect as much change as possible for local development plans; however, just the way in which those have been dictated to by the Department of Infrastructure, really needs to be tackled at a higher level, and I think there is no better person than me sitting who has seen it first hand, is from a rural community and with a construction background who knows the topic intimately.
This is particularly important as emerging from Brexit is going to have a massive impact on rural communities not because of all the issues we hear about in the headlines but because there were a lot of rural development programmes that were funded by the EU. That was the only way rural communities were getting grants and facilities because that money was not coming in from Stormont, it wasn’t coming from councils chauffeurs because they don’t have it, and it certainly wasn’t coming from Westminster. The only way we could get things done was through the EU rural development programme and that money has not been replaced yet. We’ve been promised that something would replace it but there’s been no indication of how. People talk about Brexit and solely focus on the Protocol when really there should be so many other issues that should be considered. It is already having an impact as we have ongoing projects for the next 10 years and the funding for those will now be very limited.
What has your experience been like since announcing your candidacy?
It’s been sort of business as usual but we’re now campaigning. I’ve already been a Councillor for a number of years so I’ve still been working on constituency matters but it’s just been a step up in campaigning activities. We have a great team of local people who’ve been amazing in helping out. The reception we’ve had has been very good too and the main concerns that are on everybody’s lips are the rising cost of living and just asking what we can do for them. It is hard to say to people that there isn’t really much we can do at the moment because we can’t bring through any new initiatives because the Executive isn’t there to do it. We’re really relying on the British government to bring in mitigations they can but they don’t have a great track record on doing what they should be doing and it’s very frustrating. It’s at the point where I am looking forward to the election being over to see if we can try to get back into Stormont so that mitigations can be made to help ordinary people.
How do you think being a woman will help you in your political career should you be elected?
I’ve had a wide range of experiences to draw from in my everyday career but being a woman does add a different dimension to what I can bring to my constituents because I have those experiences that are unique to women. I’m a mother of three young children and I have seen firsthand some of the issues facing young families – one being inaccessible childcare. I’m very lucky in that I have family around me who help out and I’ve also managed to get good childcare now so I am in a very privileged position. However, it is difficult for most people to access and I can appreciate that it remains a barrier for most women to get back to work and progress in their careers. Having that lived experience in which you can relate to someone on a one-to-one basis or you have friends going through the same thing, it’s things that women sit down and talk about.
What do you think the institutions can do to address these barriers?
I really do believe that childcare needs to be subsidised heavily, there are schemes out there like the 20% tax rebate for those going through registered childcare facilities, etc. However, it needs to be a systemic change that subsidises childcare much more heavily. It should allow people, and women specifically, to get back to work. It shouldn’t always fall onto the shoulders of women to bear the brunt of this but it sadly does. During the height of lockdown in the pandemic, I was working from home as a Councillor while my husband was out working because he’s a plumber and all the domestic duties then fell onto me to pick up. It never seems to matter how important your job is, the domestic roles always fall on women’s shoulders. This is why childcare is such an important issue and why the institutions should see childcare as a public service where it can remove those worries for families who are fretting about the moment they have a baby, “how am I going to go back to work, how am I going to afford childcare, how am I going to find somewhere to look after my baby?”. Finding solutions to these questions is really hard and it literally becomes the topic of conversation once you have a baby.
Shifting the mindset that caregiving is primarily a woman’s role will take several generations to change but I do believe it is changing slightly. Policies like shared parental leave have been a catalyst in seeing those attitudes change because the dad is now able to take off a certain amount of paternity period and help out with childcare which is an opportunity for them to bond with their child too which has probably shifted the idea that it’s just the woman who takes maternity leave so it’s just her job to take care of the baby. Policies like these can help slowly shift those ingrained norms and attitudes.
What advice would you give to women reading this who want to enter politics?
Just take a leap of faith and go for it. Join a political party that best matches your beliefs and political viewpoints. Get involved in local activism and look for causes that you’re passionate about. I don’t think people should get involved in politics with the mindset that they want to be elected politicians and to make a career out of it from the outset. It’s really important to be first grounded in your community and your local activism and if elected politics does come your way, that’s a good thing. You can then bring your voice forward to a higher level to affect change. There’s no substitute for the value of how life experiences before elected politics can contribute to your role as a politician as it can equip you with the ability to think out of the box to find solutions to everyday real problems beyond the institutional mould.
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