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MLA Sinead Bradley: My husband was diagnosed with MS at 30, it really knocked us off our tracks

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Sinead Bradley, South Down SDLP MLA, on attending her father's funeral and getting elected on the same day.

Q. You're 45 and married to John, who's also in his 40s, and you have a seven-year-old son Peadar. Love at first sight?

A. Absolutely. We met at university across a crowded room; we were both on a pub crawl. We got married on December 16, 2000 in Carlingford and went to Fuerteventura on honeymoon. It was lovely.

Q. You grew up - and still live - in Burren. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Very happy. I'm one of eight children (I'm the sixth child and the youngest girl) and because we were a house full of children, others were always coming round, so there was always plenty of company, plenty happening.

Q. You went to Ballyholland Primary School and St Mary's High School in Newry and then Manchester Met. What did you study?

A. Business studies and IT. Then I went on to do my PCGE teaching for secondary school.

Q. Your late father, SDLP veteran PJ Bradley who died on March 1 this year, aged 76, was well known. Tell us about your mum and siblings.

A. Mum Leontia (75) was a homemaker and after she brought us all up she helped my dad set up an estate agency and worked along with him in the family business for many years.

I've three brothers and four sisters ranging in age from 40 to 53. There's Martin, Joanne, Deborah, Catherine, Stephanie, William and Miceal.

Q. Was it your father who inspired your move into politics?

A. I grew up politically aware but there's almost two chapters - the politics of my early years and being around my father and then there's the chapter where I left home, went away for a number of years, returned and rediscovered politics for myself.

Q. You were very close to your father. How did you cope with his passing?

A. The day he died was the worst day of my life. He was such a big part of my life. The trauma is having to create a new life that he's not part of. There's a lot of layers there. He's the closest person I've lost.

It would have been his 77th birthday just after he died.

The whole period was so short it felt surreal.

It was almost like I was in a bubble and the world was happening outside me and it was very, very difficult, probably one of the most difficult things we've ever experienced as a family.

It was a time when I really could see the benefit of being part of a large family; I had a group of siblings and my mother who were in the same space, feeling the same hurt and the same pain.

There was comfort in that - that there were other people who really understood what I was going through.

Q. It happened just as you were retaining your seat in the Assembly. Was that a double-edged sword?

A. I was elected on the day of his funeral and the election itself paled into insignificance on that day.

And it was a comfort then obviously knowing I had been returned; it was a great comfort to me to know that that had happened when, at the latter end of my campaign, I just had to bow out for the last few days.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you?

A. I lost my father's parents William (82) and Annie (who was in her late 70s) Bradley when I was 10 or 11.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. The actual act of dying doesn't. Death is assured to us all so it's very important that we live our life.

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

A. I do believe in God and I go to Mass. My aim is to always try and strengthen my faith, and life does throw you challenges.

Q. Your husband has MS; how difficult has that been for you both?

A. He was diagnosed in 2001/2002. He was only about 30 at the time; we didn't see it coming at all. It really knocked us both off our tracks.

He was a French teacher. Initially he didn't have classic MS symptoms at all, it was pain.

It took quite a while to drill down into it because he had his full physical mobility at that time and after the diagnosis we were wondering if it was correct... that element of denial happened but then as time carried on, physically he did become affected and the school environment wasn't friendly to him at all, with stairs etc, so it was tough.

He's on disease-modifying drugs. He's physically very limited but he has a great attitude to it and he's a very inspirational person. He lives with it well, considering what he has to live with. He has a wheelchair.

Q. Has the illness affected your relationship?

A. Not at all. It has been a strain. At times it has been difficult.

I think any degenerative illness is bound to have an effect. It can't come into your home and not affect you but John's just amazing in how he can get his head round it. Sometimes I think the cognitive problems are more cruel. He recognises them which is more frustrating; he's living with it. It is tough.

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

A. The day I had my baby boy. I'd always wanted a baby. Nothing compares to that day.

I was 38. He was a late present. I told him he should have been in secondary school by the time he arrived. He's my greatest achievement.

Q. You're both teachers. Are you strict parents?

A. We try not to be overly strict but we are quite assertive. And he knows how to challenge us.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I like gardening, reading, spending time with my family and getting outdoors.

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

A. Home. I love to experience new places but we're limited in terms of where we can travel to as a family so we don't travel extensively.

Any place only has its value to enjoy it if I have my family with me and that tends to be home.

Q. There has been much talk about the rise of women in politics. How do you rate Arlene and Michelle as leaders?

A. I always openly welcome women being profiled within their parties or any given career.

Obviously within their own parties they are ranked highly and sufficiently enough to have reached the level of leadership.

But my politics are extremely different to theirs and perhaps their personality types are a good reflection of the type of politics that they're choosing to sell.

Q. The SDLP has quite a few female MLAs. Hypothetically, if they had to pick a woman leader could you see that being you? If not, who?

A. There are lots of strong women in the SDLP; I'm always reassured by that. Any individual should always been chosen on merit. The SDLP has a great pool of women who can be chosen on merit.

There's none of them I'd be uncomfortable with stepping forward to leadership.

Q. Are you concerned about claims from other female MLAs that Stormont is a cold house for women?

A. I haven't found that. On a day-to-day level of working I've never felt victim to that.

Q. In a recent tweet you said: 'Meanwhile in Northern Ireland we burn tyres and junk in car parks.' Then, in another, you said: ''cultural supremacy', Arlene let's begin a conversation discussing 'common decency' #uglytruth'.' I take it you're not a big fan of bonfires?

A. I don't absolutely have a problem with bonfires but I do have a big problem with what is on them and how they can be bad for the environment.

I'm sure there are ways that we could manage a bonfire situation and it doesn't have to be an offensive act each time one's built.

Q. You've been a vociferous proponent of the Narrow Bridge cross-border bridge but planning permission runs out in October. Can you really see it becoming a reality?

A. It will become a reality. It's such an obvious project that has fallen foul of political will.

I wouldn't like to crystal ball gaze on this one but I believe that, particularly in the time of a Brexit situation, new relationships have to be established with the Southern government.

Now would be the perfect time to show a very visual commitment to retaining good open relationships, and I expressed that view directly to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his visit to Belfast.

Q. Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard recently accused you of misrepresenting his position on Brexit. What was that all about?

A. He was running for the Westminster election but the big issue of the day is Brexit and on the public record Chris Hazzard has never stated that he had been against Brexit.

I had asked him to make clear in the public domain what his position was. I think it was a very fair question, given the election that he was running in.

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

A. Be yourself.

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

A. My husband.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. My friends are my friends and I don't label them.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My parents. They were both very grounded and always seemed to have a stable, rounded way of dealing with life. They created a very safe place for us as children because life was so solid with them.

Q. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. I qualified as a teacher in 1996 and stayed in England, teaching in secondary schools. I returned home in 1997 and couldn't get a permanent contract so I did a bit of supply teaching.

Then I rediscovered politics. I was always involved in the SDLP but officially joined the party in the late 90s.

I was my father's campaign manager in the 1998 Assembly election and after he was returned as South Down MLA I took on an administration role in his constituency office until his retirement in 2011.

Then I went back to teaching part-time and worked part-time for the MLA Sean Rogers.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next?

A. I suppose I have to create a new chapter in my life anyway now that my dad is gone... that's still something I'm dealing with. It's only five months now.

Given that he died so quickly there just wasn't time for me to get my head round it.

Whatever I go on to do, it will always be about helping people in some way.

I'm come to an age where I realise that's where I get my satisfaction from.

I enjoy teaching; I wouldn't rule out a return to that.

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