Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The maverick: SDLP's Justin Cartwright

He calls himself an ‘economic unionist’ and isn’t overly fussed on Irish unity. But is Justin Cartwright a breath of fresh air for the SDLP or a millstone around Alasdair McDonnell’s neck, asks Alex Kane

Justin Cartwright
Justin Cartwright

When asked by blogger Barton Creeth if he was a champion for Irish unity, a candidate for May's council elections replied: "No I'm not. I'm an economic unionist. Increasing numbers of nationalist voters are moving away from this idea of a united Ireland. There's a reason for that, because people aren't economically illiterate.

"They look at the economy of the Republic of Ireland and they see a foundering ship. So for us to tether our wee boat to that, both vessels would go down. And that's not in anybody's interest; it's certainly not in the interest of working people. I think there needs to be a move away from the constitutional focus. Parties need to fall in line with people's positions on that."

That's an answer that just about any unionist from any unionist party would be happy to trot out. Indeed, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt have made similar comments.

Surprisingly, it wasn't said by a unionist, but by Justin Cartwright, a member of the SDLP's South Belfast Association and one of their Balmoral candidates.

So surprising was it that Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly tweeted: "SDLP candidate Justin Cartwright has described himself as an economic unionist. That means not Irish nationalist."

The SDLP's Press office then stepped in (it's what known in the business as damage limitation): "All SDLP candidates have an obligation to educate themselves about, sign up to and promote party policy. Mr Cartwright is a young, bright and enthusiastic newly selected candidate who has a huge contribution to make to the party and south Belfast and he has been reminded of those obligations."

If that was intended as a stay-in-line-slap-on-the-wrist for their political newbie, then I'm not sure it has worked. In a subsequent radio interview, his response to Gerry Kelly was: "I'm Australian, so it would be pretty hard for me to be an Irish nationalist."

On his membership of the SDLP and view of their Irish unity policy, he said: "You sign up to a political party because you agree with most of what they stand for. I'm not opposed to Irish unity, but I'd have to see the detail. The only way to change [SDLP policy] is by a democratic decision at our conference. I'm not agitating for that; I just think that Northern Ireland is not working on issues like housing, education and jobs. People are sick of the horse-trading in Stormont – it's not having any real delivery."

Even the fact that he refers to Northern Ireland, rather than "the north" makes him different. So, how different is he? And is he too different for the SDLP?

He was born in Bendigo in 1984, a major regional city in Victoria, Australia. He has a sister, Natalie. His parents Geoff (a retired quality inspector at a component plant) and Michele (a retired IT/admin at Bendigo university) still live there. He was educated at the Girton Grammar School in Bendigo, before moving to Melbourne in 2002 to study applied physics/language at RMIT university. He graduated in 2005. In 2004, he also joined the Australian Labor Party (which both his parents were activists for) and campaigned for them in that year's election, which Labor lost.

He continued working and volunteering before accepting a job with the National Union of Workers, a large general trade union. "It was a privilege to be able to exercise my passions in a professional setting and to be able to regularly and directly change people's lives by helping them improve their working life."

He has also had a lifelong interest in languages and can "work my way" around seven of them. He began taking lessons in Irish in the basement of a local pub. One of the teachers was a man from Andersonstown and through him he met Leigh, from Sydenham in east Belfast, whom he married in 2010.

They moved to Belfast a few months later, "during the cold winter of 2010/11, which was a bit of a shock". Their son, Dan, was born in 2012.

He now works as the head of policy for a housing organisation in the charity sector and retains membership of a trade union. Given his upbringing and former political activity, it would have seemed natural for him to have gravitated to the Labour Party here, rather than to the SDLP.

He says that SDLP policy on many issues is more progressive than Labour's, but one also senses that his decision has a lot to do with the fact that Labour – although they have members and some basic structures in Northern Ireland – does not field candidates. In other words, if he wants to win a seat for a Left-of-centre party, then it has to be the SDLP.

Which brings him back to what seem to be his very considerable reservations about Irish unity. The SDLP is an Irish unity party. It always has been and always will be. The party will continue to promote that agenda and it will be a key part of any manifesto he has to endorse.

One senior member of the local South Belfast Association told me: "We don't mind letting him have his head on this one, because his chances of winning a seat in Balmoral are very poor this time."

That seems a pretty accurate summing up. The SDLP has just over one quota and sitting councillor Claire Hanna looks safe. So what he needs to do in May is raise his profile and deliver as good a result as he can for the party.

Maybe he has made that calculation and is promoting a softer version of nationalism in the hope of attracting some non-traditional SDLP votes, including first-time voters, as well as transfers from Alliance and the UUP.

Ironically, he says that Conall McDevitt, the SDLP's former MLA, was instrumental in persuading him to join the SDLP. Yet McDevitt was one of the party's strongest supporters of Irish unity. Also, the relationship between the McDevitt and Alasdair McDonnell wings of the party were never particularly good, so he needn't expect any favours from the leadership – particularly if they think his "economic unionist" comments (and some of his subsequent opinions) have provided electoral hostages to fortune. The SDLP is struggling for survival and doesn't need any distractions, or loose cannons.

What also makes Cartwright stand out from the pack is the fact that he is using the social media to raise his own campaign funds (it's known as crowd funding) and has also produced a mock-up of his own campaign literature.

He denies being a "new generation" nationalist, insisting only that "It's imperative that we get Northern Ireland working". He also says that the SDLP "can recover, as there is a demand for it".

He's brash, ambitious, articulate and does not hide his light under a bushel. He says that the reaction to his interview, including the "economic unionist" line has been "overwhelmingly positive".

But is he a maverick? Is he the sort of person who attracts attention for himself, because some of his key views appear to be at variance with his party?

Is he the sort of person the media will run to when they need an SDLP "story"? Is he the sort of person who would allow the SDLP's agenda to be sidelined by something he had said? Or, to put it bluntly, could he turn out to be more trouble than he's worth?

At this point, he is not a major problem for the SDLP, because they don't expect him to win. That said, it is worth noting that their Press office let it be known that a number of his views were "not representative of party policy". So it will be interesting to see what happens over the course of the election campaign.

If he continues to do what the party would regard as his "own thing" in terms of media coverage and profile-building, then they will cut him loose and let him fall. On the other hand, if he chooses to be a full team player, they will forgive early media embarrassments and indiscretions.

But one thing seems certain: if Justin Cartwright gets elected, he will be worth watching. He is refreshing and he is interesting. He is, in fact, the very sort of free-thinking radical that the SDLP needs to attract if it has any hope of recovering and growing.

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