Too male, too stale and too pale. That’s the damning verdict on the Northern Ireland Assembly from its youngest member.
Megan Fearon (21) — who became an MLA in June — says Stormont is in drastic need of more young people and more women.
“We have one of the youngest populations in Europe yet that is not reflected in the Assembly,” the Sinn Fein MLA said in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
Ms Fearon, who replaced Conor Murphy MP in the Newry and Armagh constituency under the Assembly’s co-option policy, is one of only 21 women out of 108 MLAs.
Only four members of the legislature are under 30 — three in Sinn Fein (Ms Fearon, Chris Hazzard and Phil Flanagan) and one SDLP member, Colum Eastwood.
“We need to get to a place where the Assembly is actually representative of society,” said the politician who made her maiden speech only a few weeks ago.
“Only this, in my opinion, will address the growing problem of disillusionment from politics. At the minute it is simply too male, too stale and too pale. We need to be sending out a message that women and young people will be taken seriously. And an improved representation from the ethnic minorities.”
Ms Fearon insisted she meant no disrespect to her MLA colleagues as she emphasised the hard work and long hours they often put in. She also recognised the advancement of the peace process on the backs of politicians now in late middle-age.
But how did she become involved in the first place?
“I have had an awareness (of politics) for as long as I remember. I grew up in the most militarised area of western Europe. It was only in 2007 that the military presence in south Armagh was finally removed. And at the same time I admired the work that Sinn Fein was doing on the ground in my area and the fact they seemed genuine about involving young people. I found it a natural fit.”
She admitted, however, that she didn’t imagine herself in frontline politics at such a young age.
She said she loves watching GAA, rugby, and travelling, “even more so now, I really appreciate the time I have with my friends so I just love getting to catch up with them and having some craic”.
The MLA insists on her republican credentials and admits she felt ill on hearing the Queen was coming to Northern Ireland earlier this year — when the monarch made history by meeting Sinn Fein’s day-to-day boss at Stormont, Martin McGuinness.
“It was just because I am opposed to monarchies anywhere in the world,” she said.
“Working towards a united Ireland is definitely a goal but in the short-term I want to address the lack of infrastructure and investment in south Armagh.”
She also admits to finding the MLA workload “quite daunting” and refers to being on “a big learning curve” but adds: “I’m enjoying it.”
But isn’t Sinn Fein a bit too controlling ?
“I don’t agree with absolutely everything the party says. But I do not think it is too controlling, there is a happy medium,” she said.
The MLA, not long out of her teens, would support reducing the voting age to 16.
“There is a mass of issues affecting young people today — mental health and suicide, job creation, tackling emigration, welfare reform, gay rights, rural transport… you know the list goes on. We’ve a lot of work to do.”
So who exactly is Megan Fearon?
Occupation: MLA for Newry and Armagh
Born: Dromintee, south Armagh
Political background: A Sinn Fein activist for five years
Education: Dromintee Primary School; Sacred Heart Grammar School, Newry
Degree: Politics, philosophy and economics at Queen’s University
Favourite TV programmes: Desperate Housewives and Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Favourite sports: GAA and rugby
Assembly posts: Member of the committees which monitor Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, and Finance |Minister Sammy Wilson