Belfast Telegraph

Home News Politics

Karen Mullan: 'I'm not from a republican family, I don't go to Mass and don't speak Irish... I got into politics after seeing what was happening on the Garvaghy Road'

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Karen Mullan, Foyle SF MLA, on 'irreplaceable' Martin McGuinness... and heartbreak of losing her closest friend to cancer.

Q. You're 40 and married to community worker Charles (51), with whom you have Conan (16) and Niamh (12). You've also got a stepdaughter Gemma (27), who's mum to four-month-old Clara. How did you meet your husband?

A. He was caretaker at a community centre when I started working there.

We chatted but nothing had developed until he walked me home one night after the Gasyard Feile.

I was 19, he was 30. I didn't realise the age gap was so big. I'm very much a daddy's girl so I thought he'd go mad, and of course he did. But shortly afterwards they loved him.

Q. What about your parents and siblings?

A. My mum Marion (60) is a retired cleaner and my father Hugo (67) was a factory worker. I have two brothers - Gavin (35), a builder, and factory worker Adrian (33) - and a sister Rachel (30), who is a community worker.

Q. What was your childhood like?

A. Very happy. Our family all live close by. My mummy only has two sisters and I was very close to my cousins in particular.

There were 10 of us all together. We all looked out for one and other.

I was very close to both my grandmothers. Rose Irvine died two years ago aged 96.

She was feeling unwell, went to bed, said her prayers and died in her sleep, just the way she wanted to go.

My other grandmother Dorothy Mullan, who died three months before granny Irvine, was 92.

My grandfathers died when I was younger.

My grandad John Irvine was from Belfast. He died suddenly in his 60s from a heart attack. He liked his fries and whiskey, his good life caught up with him.

He probably died the way he wanted to - quickly. My other granda, Tom Mullan, died the same way. He was 57.

Q. You were co-opted to replace Elisha McCallion as Foyle MLA. Why politics?

A. I've been a member of Sinn Fein since 2010 but I had been a political activist locally since the 1990s after watching events at Garvaghy Road (the Drumcree Orange parade dispute which has been ongoing since 1995 and reached its lowest point when the three Quinn children were burnt to death in 1998).

It was a bad time. My mother and father aren't republican. My husband's family are.

When I was approached after Martin McGuinness's death it was a great honour and privilege. It was about finishing the work that he started. I feel very passionate about that.

Opportunities normally don't come along twice so I decided to go for it.

Q. Did you know Martin well?

A. His mother and my granny were cousins and I grew up with Martin's daughters Grainne, who's a year older than me, and Finnoula, who's the same age. When I was 13 I went on holidays with the McGuinness family to Donegal. They're lovely. We didn't get away a lot so it was a great time and as teenage girls the craic was good.

Q. Was Martin a big influence on you?

A. I only live a couple of hundred yards away from his house. Martin and Gerry Adams have been big influences. Martin was very kind and supportive.

Q. Do you think Martin was perceived in public as having his finger more on the pulse than Gerry?

A. People might think that because Martin was in the Assembly but it's not true. It was definitely a joint leadership.

Q. Do you think anybody can replace Martin? Can Michelle O'Neill?

A. Michelle has her own path and she'll have her own leadership. I'm bowled over by her passion and her support. She's hard-working and dedicated. Everybody's different. I don't think anyone can replace Martin.

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

A. I believe in God but don't have a strong faith.

I don't go to Mass and I sent my children to a secular primary school.

They made their First Holy Communication and Confirmation because there is a strong faith within the family and they (the children) wanted to. It was an Irish speaking school, so they're fluent.

Q. Why that particular school (Gaelscoil Eadain Mhoir)?

A. I liked the ethos of the school. Small numbers, the education was excellent and it was child-centred. It was all about building a child's confidence.

My daughter has really bad dyslexia but she's flying. She came out of that school brimming with confidence and there's nothing that Niamh feels that she can't do. I put that down to the Gaelscoil.

Q. Do you speak Irish?

A. No, and neither does my husband. When the children were younger they spoke Irish with their cousins so we couldn't understand what they were saying.

Q. Why do you think a lot of Catholics are turning away from Mass?

A. It hasn't moved with the times. We don't have female priests.

Q. Who's your best Protestant friend?

A. I'm not religious so I don't define anybody by religion.

Q. You've never actually served as an MLA due to the Stormont impasse. Does that feel strange?

A. I've done the induction and training and now I want to get stuck in, hopefully in September.

Q. Does it annoy you when people still link Sinn Fein with the IRA?

A. We've moved on. I don't hear it too much. You're always going to get that with people here. Some people have their reasons and obviously people have been hurt and it's difficult. We recognise that.

Q. Is it a disadvantage being a woman on the Hill?

A. If you look at our party's four new MLAs, three are women and I'm the oldest. Our party is making tremendous strides but there's still a lot to be done here, in the Dail and in Britain. I hope that's changing.

In Derry I'm the only female MLA. We're lucky here - we have myself as an MLA, Elisha as MP and Martina Anderson as MEP.

Q. Do you think Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster - as leaders of Northern Ireland's biggest parties - are to be admired in the political sphere?

A. Yes, but I have to say I'm disappointed with Arlene.

I thought it was a great move by the DUP to appoint her as leader but she has fallen into that old rhetoric of her male colleagues in name-calling and using derogatory terms.

So, while it's great that parties other than Sinn Fein are pushing women forward, I'm not sure she's been a good leader in that sense.

Q. Are you talking specifically about the 'crocodile' comment?

A. Yes, and how she described Michelle at the time about the lipstick.

It let me down because I had a lot of respect for her.

People don't like to see that type of behaviour. As much as we have different politics, we have to be working for the one goal.

Q. You were a director of Waterside Neighbourhood Partnership which was found guilty of discriminating against a job applicant based on political opinion. The tribunal said your evidence lacked credibility. What was that about?

A. I stepped down in June. We were told to provide a statement on our involvement but when we were asked to give evidence they asked other questions - and then asked why it wasn't in the statement. I got bad advice.

If I had known I was expected to give a lot more information I would have provided what was required.

Q. You volunteer with Pink Ladies Cancer Support Group, which played a key role in the delivery of the North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin. Tell me about that.

A. I'm one of the founders and it's one of my big passions. When we formed 12 years ago there was a local girl who was at school with me who had breast cancer at 26.

We organised an information evening and 18 people who had experience of breast cancer turned up so we formed the Pink Ladies.

We then formed the Pink Panthers male support group six years ago. I was up at Stormont a number of times lobbying politicians on their behalf and now I'm on the other side.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No. Losing loved ones frightens me.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you?

A. I lost my very close friend Margaret Semple. She was 50.

She had breast cancer but ultimately died from leukaemia.

She was a brilliant woman and a fighter right up until the end.

She was my confidante and it was such a big loss. She left behind a daughter and two sons.

Grainne, the youngest, was only 20 and very close to her mother. It breaks my heart every time I see her. Grainne sings in the Pink Ladies choir.

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

A. It's not my job to fix people; it's to support them to be the best they can be.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I love walking in Brooke Park with my shih tzu Bella.

Q. If you were in trouble, who would you turn to?

A. My husband. He's a fixer. If he can't fix it he knows someone who can.

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

A. The birth of my children, then becoming an MLA.

Q. And the worst day?

A. My granny Mullan died on December 15 and six days later my father-in-law John Lamberton passed away. It was very traumatic. John was 76.

Within a short period the children lost two grannies, their granda, and our dog Holly died as well.

It was a lot of tragedy for them within four months. That Christmas was really difficult.

For my husband and his siblings it was like losing their mother and father over again because John had played both roles for all those years.

My husband's mother Mary was only 40 when she died from cancer.

John left his job to look after the children. My husband was 16 and he was the eldest. The youngest was five.

Q. You attended Nazareth House Primary School and St Cecilia's Secondary. What about further education?

A. I went to the local regional college and completed a medical secretary's diploma. Then, six years ago, I went to Ulster University in Jordanstown to study community development.

Q. You were a community worker at Hillcrest Trust before you gave it up to become an MLA. Give us a brief resume of your career.

A. My first job was maternity cover at the Transport and General Workers Union.

From 1996 I worked at Pilots Row Community Centre in the Bogside for seven years before going to the Bogside and Brandywell Health Forum as a financial administrator.

I was programme manager when I left after 10 years in 2013 to manage Hillcrest Trust in the Waterside.

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

A. I love Krakow in Poland and Derry.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. The Pink Ladies.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph