Even as a teenager I had been interested in politics, I even studied it. Then an interest was all I had. I had my own personal battles to deal with. In those days I depended on our politicians to rectify or at least properly address their root cause. In my twenties I spent years contacting political parties and politicians. I was my own little pressure group! Little did I know that my incessant pleas would fall on deaf ears, or that their reactions would lead to my conviction that there must be a better way? When life became really unpleasant for my family I vowed that if things ever improved, I would let no other family suffer. If I ever had the chance to make a difference I would seize it. The only chance I could imagine would involve joining and standing for a political party. Yet I had no party to identify with. Unless I was prepared to stand as an independent, it was unlikely that I could ever make a dent on our political landscape. As such I put my ideas on the backburner.
In the interim I watched our politicians squabble and bicker and dare I say sectarianise new generations. I became angry and wondered would there ever be a true shared society here. All the while new people from all over the world were coming to live here because of the ‘peace’ we apparently had. I’m sure they learned quickly, especially at key times of the year, that this peace was fragile. Their very presence here ignited another form of hatred, one that flourished in our fragmented society; ‘Racism’. I believed then (and still do), that if people from Northern Ireland cannot live with each other then it is unlikely that they will ever be able to live with anyone else. I acknowledge that the vast majority of people here want normality and indeed live in normality BUT these people are silent. I have yet to see their desire made clear at the ballot box. Over the years when each election result was announced, I would feel my hope for true progress diminishing. Thirty years since my father suffered untold racism and died at the hands of sectarianism, we were still voting green and orange and worse…. the far right had raised it’s ugly head.
I turned my back on it all, instead I concentrated on caring for my mum and raising the plight of the hidden victims in Northern Ireland. I wrote a book about my family’s experiences and it opened many doors. I woke up one morning in September to find myself on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph, featured in the News Letter, The Irish News and later The Irish Times. I was even interviewed live on BBC’s Evening Extra. Suddenly people were concerned and interested in my story. For that I was pleased but I must admit a little cynical. It seemed it took publishing a book to make people sit up and listen.
Each political party was talking about victims and how much they cared. The duplicity inherent in their words, (for I had seen first-hand how disinterested they were) meant that politics became more than something I watched from the side-lines. Gradually I was becoming involved and even consulted. Alongside other victims I spoke with MLA’s, I went to the Haass talks and perhaps naively felt that at last our input would be valued! In hindsight I expected too much from our politicians. When the Haass talks failed I felt physically sick. I asked myself time and time again would this country ever reach a consensus. At that moment as far as I was concerned the answer was a resounding no. I reached an all-time low.
It was around this time that I met Basil McCrea. He talked to me about his party and after that meeting I never looked back. I joined the party and became immersed in a group of wonderful people who all had the same ideals as me. My spirits were lifted and for the first time in a long time I felt a changed Northern Ireland could be a reality! When the party announced its stance on victims my heart broke, I could no longer look my mother and sister in the eye. Yet I mended quickly when I looked back on unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the past. To me the past could never be reconciled, nothing would bring our loved ones back.
At the same time NI21 members dropped like flies as the alarming lack of organisation came to the fore. But the devoted remained, our only agenda was change so we battled on. The candidates were eventually announced a month before the election. To my dismay I was told I would be standing in an area I knew little about! Tempted as I was to throw in the towel I thought no, this is more than the individual; – this is about change. If NI21 can make it, if we can get a few council seats maybe just maybe less families would be left like mine. If all else failed I could stand up and say ‘I tried’.
After a succession of obstacles, including having no marketing material, a last minute switch resulting in a humiliating appearance on live TV, I figured I’ve done it now. I’ve made my bed so I may lie in it. I walked the streets of Ormiston day after day, armed with my photocopied leaflets and two faithful companions. No posters or marketing material for me! Soon my lack of resources didn’t matter as the responses on the doors spurred us on. It really seemed that people wanted change. Yes we met a few who favoured the green and orange ways but let me be very clear on this, they really were the few. For the first time ever I felt that Northern Ireland was crying out for more, Northern Ireland wanted change and its desire was almost palpable. On my final day of canvassing the news broke that the party was to re-designate. Even before any further stories emerged I knew that it was game over. For this election anyway.
The human side to all of this is a tragedy. Forty six people put themselves forward, they stood for change in the most public of manner. How is their courage, their determination and for many their struggles acknowledged? With a blow big enough to knock all but one of us out of the running. We had been let down by our leadership and for my part I was devastated. What was it all for? NI21 never ceased declaring that we need to end political squabbling and work together. The irony was that the party couldn’t do itself what it berated others for!
For my part, I am sorry to the 11,000 plus who voted for NI21, but I also commend you. I couldn’t do it. I am ashamed to say that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for my own party. Do I want change ‘yes’ is NI21 the best vehicle to allow this? I am not convinced. In an ideal world NI21 would regroup, learn from its mistakes and move on. But when has Northern Ireland ever learned from its mistakes? If it had, we wouldn’t have needed an NI21 in the first place! I have learned a lot over the past month, I have met some fantastic people and will always be encouraged by the will for change that existed amongst the people of East Belfast and beyond. Will I continue with politics or will I drift back to the side-lines? I don’t know any more. To me if a party that fights for change creates division then how can a divided government create change? I think I will lick my wounds, hope for change and maybe one day (like what remains of NI21), I will rise again! For now at least I can say ‘I tried’. As for NI21 or indeed any new political party? I don’t know … watch this space! But I would urge caution to anyone who is drawn to the exterior façade of any party and ask them to remember that all that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s patent and can cause severe irritation and pain!