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Claire Hanna: 'Women must fight harder for credibility and respect, there is still chauvinism at Stormont'

Claire McNeilly meets the MLAs

Our new series starts today with Claire Hanna of the SDLP on her hectic lifestyle, why she admires the UUP’s Steve Aiken... and Colum Eastwood’s beard.

Q. You're married to Belfast councillor Donal Lyons (34), who works in public policy. Was it love at first sight?

A. We got together a few months after meeting at a climate change conference in Wales. He was working for the Labour Party and I was an SDLP delegate... it was nerdiness in politics at first sight.

Q. What made you go into politics?

A. I've always been interested in politics. In my teens and early 20s I was casually involved, supporting my mum's campaigns.

I often spent Saturdays out and about in the car, putting leaflets through doors.

I became more independently involved in my mid-20s, working in campaigns and advocacy in the international development sector and I spent my working day lobbying politicians. Eventually I decided to cut out the middle man.

I believe firmly in democracy and that's how power changes hands and that's how you get things done. I wanted to try that.

Q. You've followed in the political footsteps of your mum Carmel (71) (former Employment and Learning Minister). Your dad Eamon (71) is an accountant and you have one brother Michael (43), a computer engineer, and two sisters, Deirdre (38), an accountant, and Siobhan (42), an LA-based company vice-president. What was life like growing up?

A. Mum's from Warrenpoint and Dad's from Belfast.

We moved from Galway, where Dad was working, to Belfast in 1984. We spent our summers and holidays in Galway and we still have the family house down there.

We relocated because Dad was appointed general secretary of the SDLP. I had a happy childhood; I remember it very positively, and obviously politics was a dimension of it.

Q. Briefly talk us through your career to date.

A. I left school at 18, went travelling and worked in a restaurant. When I was 20 I got a job at BBC Interactive, a new media start-up, doing admin and business support for three years. Then I touched lucky for a job with Comic Relief in 2003, managing the Red Nose campaign as a secondment - and then did it again in 2005.

A year later I joined Concern - which involved short postings in Bangladesh, Haiti and Zambia - and stayed there until I went into the Assembly in July 2015.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. Spend time with your family - they have to come before absolutely everything. Also, Mum and Dad spent years telling me to do my homework and I never listened. Now I know you need to.

You can wing it to a certain extent, but you should be prepared because it's an insult to people if you go and meet them without having bothered to learn a single thing about their issues.

Q. You have three daughters - Eimear (5), Aideen (3) and Niamh (five weeks). What's it like being a busy working mum? When are you going back?

A. I enjoy parenting. It's challenging and it's a juggling act. I am on lighter duties now that Niamh's here. Having gone into the Assembly 18 months ago and with three election campaigns in the middle of it, I have worked really long hours. It's been really nice to be home most evenings.

I was intending to be back now, albeit not with the foot on the gas to quite the same extent. I'm breastfeeding, so I would have Niamh with me wherever I go. I'm not the kind of person who ever fully switches off from work. But of course Stormont isn't happening at the moment, and the one silver lining of this deeply frustrating political impasse is that my maternity leave is slightly more generous than expected.

Q. You went to St Bride's Primary, Belfast and Rathmore Grammar, Finaghy, before doing an Open University degree and then a Masters in law and governance at Queen's University in Belfast. Were you popular at school?

A. I certainly wouldn't have been one of the cool kids, but I've always had a good circle of friends and I've happy memories of the craic at school. I got on with most people.

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

A. I do, but in my teens and 20s I had become quite hostile to it. The Catholic Church is far from perfect, but Pope Francis is an inspiring person and his focus on social justice resonates with me.

I wouldn't be a total Holy Joe, but it's a part of my life and I enjoy Sunday Mass.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. It's the kids and family. I did a 10K when I was 20 weeks pregnant and I'm looking forward to getting back to the park runs.

I find running really relaxing. I do my best thinking when I go for a run.

At the moment, though, I'm doing well if I get out for a walk.

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

A. My sister Deirdre. She's got three kids of her own (aged nine, six and nine months) as well as me, her fourth big kid. I'm in touch with her multiple times a day.

I'm rubbish at clothes and she guides me. She gives me good advice in general, because she approaches things as a normal person and not someone who's politically active.

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

A. Our wedding day (August 5, 2011) was perfect. We got married in Mary Immaculate Queen church in my home parish of Barna, Galway, followed by a reception in the Hotel Meyrick. There were 140 people there. It was the best day.

When else do you have all your friends and family around you?

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Family illnesses have been hard. My mum has had cancer - womb and uterine - as well as bladder cancer, which unfortunately has come back a few times.

Also, when my nephew Patrick was born in July 2010 everything seemed fine. But on the day they were discharging him he started having seizures and spent the next fortnight in intensive care in the neo-natal unit in the Royal.

For those first few days they didn't know what was wrong and the prognosis wasn't good. We thought he might die.

It turns out he'd had a stroke, either during birth or afterwards, and had suffered a major brain injury.

He was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a permanent brain injury, and for those first few months of his life they really didn't know what way it was going to unfold.

As it happens, he is a fantastic little boy. Yes, he has disabilities, but he is now in a mainstream school and he's great fun to be with.

My kids, particularly Eimear and him, are very close. But for those first couple of years every milestone reached was a blessing. It was an awful time.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you and does death frighten you?

A. Yes, death frightens me. It's that awful permanence of loss.

I've lost aunties and uncles and people I've been close to, but it hasn't broken into my immediate world.

I worry about when that day will eventually come.

Q. Politics is a volatile business. If it all ended at the next election, what would you do with yourself?

A. This is a vocation for me, but if it does collapse I've still got a family to support and a mortgage to pay.

I had an enjoyable and very rewarding career in international development and I would like to go back to the voluntary sector in some capacity. I recently looked at the job pages for the first time in a few years.

Q. In your opinion, what is the biggest problem facing Northern Ireland today?

A. In parallel, Brexit and the lack of a government to address it. It is incredible that this massive political and economic and social shock is coming and nobody here is steering the ship.

Q. People keep using the phrase "sectarian divide". Is there still a sectarian divide here?

A. Yes, there undoubtedly is. There are many people who are demonstrably rejecting it, but we all have sectarian baggage or sectarian clouding.

It is, however, the extent to which you let it control your views that's the issue here.

I don't think it's sectarian to be a unionist or a nationalist.

I think it's entirely rational to have a view on the border and on constitutional issues and some of the related cultural issues. But when you let that cloud overtake how you deal with people, that's when it becomes a problem.

QIf you had to pick a politician that you look up to from the so-called "other side", who would it be?

A. I really admire the Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken. He's a very positive and can-do person, and I don't think he has a sectarian instinct in him whatsoever. He's just determined to do the best job he can.

Q. These are exciting times for women politicians in Northern Ireland and there have never been so many involved. In your view, however, is there any misogyny or chauvinism on the Hill these days?

A. It is an exciting time and there are a lot more possibilities.

The most impressive politicians in Europe are women - German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland - and here, three of the party leaders are female.

Women in all the parties punch above their weight. Women have to fight harder to get where they are and to get respect and credibility... there is still misogyny and chauvinism at Stormont.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I've got friends from all arts and parts.

Q. You're widely tipped as a future leader of the SDLP. Is that something you aspire to?

A. Not particularly. I think we've got a very good leader at the moment in Colum Eastwood, who has many years in him. When the party leader is younger than you at the ripe old age of 36...

Q. But what about that beard? Surely it's losing the SDLP votes?

A. Never mind pacts or Brexit, Colum's beard is the most contentious issue within the party. It's got people talking. I think it has its own Twitter account - the white spot, that is, not the beard.

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

A. I love Belfast. It has become a brilliant, dynamic city. There are great pubs and restaurants.

Having said that, if you get a sunny day there are few places more beautiful than the north coast.

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

A. It has to be Galway. It was my family home in Barna, a village just a few miles outside the city centre. It's in the middle of nowhere, with a lovely view of the sea. I associate it with so many happy times when I was a young girl.

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