Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald: 'In terms of strong female politicians, I look to Arlene Foster, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel... confident, capable women and positive role models

 

By Claire McNeilly

The Most Personal And Probing Interviews: Caoimhe Archibald East Londonderry Sinn Fein MLA on skydiving for a good cause... and mushroom pathology.

Q. Tell us about your personal life. Are you married?

A. I'm happily single at the minute.

Q. You're from Coleraine. Do you still live there?

A. I live in Portstewart, a couple of miles away. I grew up in Coleraine, lived there until I was 18 and then went to Queen's University and lived in Belfast for 10 years.

Q. You went to Loretto College - what primary school did you attend? Did you have a happy childhood?

A. I went to St John's Primary School in Coleraine. I had a happy childhood.

Q. Tell us about your immediate family.

A. My mum Bernadette (60), a former school teacher, volunteers part-time in our constituency offices and my dad Cairan (62) is a diesel mechanic. He's a former Sinn Fein councillor in Coleraine. I have two sisters - tax consultant Adelle (32) and Niamh (31), a Sinn Fein Press officer - and a brother Ruadhan (29), who's a bar supervisor. Ruadhan and his wife Bronagh (32), a residential care manager, have a nine-year-old son Adam, who's my godson.

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Caoimhe on holiday with her mum Bernadette and sisters Adelle and Niamh

Q. You have a degree in molecular biology from Queen's, as well as a PhD in molecular micrology, and then you obtained a post-graduate diploma in management and corporate governance from Ulster University. Quite a CV, don't you think?

A. I finished my PhD and was working in a nice, well-paid civil service job in Belfast, which I left to take up a post-doc in my field of research (molecular micrology) in Dublin in 2008.

Then the financial crash happened. When my two-year contract was up funding was very scarce. It took a while to get funding for the next project, so in between times I did the postgraduate diploma in management and corporate governance, something I've always been interested in.

Q. What made you go into politics?

A. I've always had a huge interest - Irish politics in particular. We were always encouraged to be very into current affairs. At home we always watched the news and discussed it - not just local news, but world news.

I come from a republican family. Mum and dad both grew up during the civil rights movement so we always had an awareness of political activism. I've been a Sinn Fein activist for well over 10 years. I was also involved in constituency work alongside my dad.

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Caoimhe with Niamh, Adelle, brother Ruadhan and godson Adam

I really loved the scientific work; it was very applied research. But unfortunately the funding opportunities disappeared. I did some temp work for a little while and then went back into the post-graduate diploma, which I really enjoyed.

I then went back for another three years and worked on a European-funded project in Dublin, which I loved. My field of research is mushroom pathology, horticulture pathology, so it was working with growers and composters to help them understand and manage diseases that would affect their crops.

That contract ended around the same time I was asked to stand in the 2015 Westminster election (having previously been a Sinn Fein candidate in the 2011 Assembly election).

It was obviously something I had a huge personal interest in, having been very involved in our party at the time.

My dad lost his seat in the 2014 council election so I thought 'why not, let's try and make a difference'.

I didn't get elected in 2015 but for the next year I worked on a voluntary basis in our constituency office, with lots of community engagement, and then I was successfully elected as an MLA in 2016, retaining my seat eight months later.

Q. It must be strange being an MLA, yet not being an MLA because Stormont is in a state of flux. A lot of new MLAs must want to get stuck into the job that they've been elected to do. How do you feel, as someone who has only been part of the Assembly for a short time?

A. I think all of us really would like to see the institutions re-established and we're committed to getting those back up and running.

But the institutions came down for a reason, particularly for my own party. We stood on a platform of rights and equality for going back into the institutions and that's something that we are committed to.

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Caoimhe Archibald

Q. There are online photographs of you with the late Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Were you close? Was he a big influence on you? I'm sure he's missed by a lot of people within and outside politics.

A. Martin was certainly an influence on all of us, and indeed myself. He was a great leader and is a big loss. All of the people who spoke about Martin following his death provided a fitting testament to the man he was, and to the influence that he had had in politics here. Personally, Martin was very encouraging to me, as he was very encouraging of women in politics in general.

I remember him telling me on the day that I was first elected to the Assembly that he was very proud of me, and that it was very important for him to see bright young women elected. He was a very friendly person, and he just had a nice way about him.

Q. And what about Michelle O'Neill as his successor? A good choice to lead Sinn Fein at Stormont in the years to come?

A. Yes. Absolutely. Michelle is a great leader and I consider her to be a friend. Michelle was very supportive of me as a new MLA, and a good source of advice.

Q. She's another example of a high-achieving female politician. How do you find being a woman in politics?

A. There is no getting away from the fact that women are under-represented in political life but I suppose my other career path in science would have been similar.

It's certainly something there's an awareness of and it's something I am committed to tackling.

It's very important that we keep highlighting the under-representations and take steps to make sure that it's addressed. We do that by having role models like Michelle and even myself and our other female MLAs in politics and in wider public life as well.

Q. Another high-profile female is of course the DUP leader and former First Minister Arlene Foster. What do you think of her as a politician?

A. In terms of strong female politicians I look to Arlene, most certainly, Theresa May, Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel.

We have all of these very confident, capable women and obviously they have to have those characteristics to be the leaders of their parties. I think that that's positive.

Some of their political views wouldn't be my political views but the fact that they are there as role models for younger women is positive.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. Do what makes you happy. That comes from my parents, both of whom are a big influence on me.

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Caoimhe with her dad Cairan at brother Ruadhan’s wedding

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.

A. Being elected, both times, were good days, and finally graduating from my PhD was another.

Q. And what about the worst day? What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. My mum had a brain haemorrhage in 2009. That was the worst day of my life. She was only 52 and she was very seriously ill. But she has had an amazing, full recovery and that's something that puts things into perspective. You really do not take your parents for granted after one of them nearly dies.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. I have a faith. I was brought up Catholic.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you?

A. I've lost two uncles. I was very close to them. Liam was sick for a long time before he passed away from stomach cancer when he was in his early 50s, in 2004.

My other uncle, Michael, was in his mid-50s when he died. Even though I knew they were sick, it was still a big shock. It was a big loss to their respective families because they died so young.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. Death is an inevitability. Losing loved ones probably frightens me more than death does.

Q. You're a keen runner and swimmer and a local GAA club member - is that how you relax outside politics?

A. I don't get to indulge so much these days because I get quite tired with all the travelling, but I love to run and swim and I don't get to do enough of either at the minute. I go to GAA matches when I can.

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Caoimhe and godson Adam at Barmouth

Q. You've completed three Dublin marathons (2012, 2013 and 2016), fundraising for mental health and hospice charities. This year you had a JustGiving page for your friend's two-year-old son Conor McNeill who has leukaemia. How's he doing?

A. Conor has had treatment and it's working well. Mental health awareness is very important. People need to be able to talk about those things and it's not something that should have a stigma attached to it.

Hospice, obviously, because unfortunately cancer touches everybody's lives - even little kids at two years of age.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. My mum or my dad.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I consider myself lucky to have friends of all cultures and backgrounds, some of their religions I know, some I don't. I don't see friends through a religious lens.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world, and why?

A. Phoenix Park in Dublin. I lived beside it for four years.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. Portstewart Strand; I'm on it nearly every day.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. I'm proud to have been elected as a Sinn Fein MLA.

Q. You got a death threat from the Real UFF in 2015. What happened, and was it something you took very seriously?

A. I got a sympathy card in the post a couple of days before the Westminster election in 2015. It didn't make me reconsider standing for election. I would not be intimidated. I was concerned for my family more than myself, but you do take your personal circumstances seriously.

Q. What's the wackiest thing you've ever done?

A. I did a sky-dive in March 2016 outside Garvagh for Down Syndrome Awareness. I was terrified because I'm afraid of heights.

Q. You're a strong advocate of the Irish language and a member of the Irish language group Conradh na Gaeilge. I take it you're fluent? Do you and party colleagues speak in Irish?

A. I'm an active learner. My goal is to be fluent and I intend to get there at some point. I sit in awe and try to understand when party members are speaking Irish.

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