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Margaret Ritchie: 'Breast cancer treatment is very draining but I have had such a lot of support from all my family as well as the wider community and that has been very precious to me ... I really want to publicly thank all those people'

The SDLP's Margaret Ritchie opens up about the shock of chemo, her frustration at the Stormont impasse and her fears over the impact of Brexit

By Lindy McDowell

Margaret Ritchie (60) was the first woman to lead a major political party in Northern Ireland when she was elected SDLP leader in 2010. Before that she'd been Minister for Social Development in the Stormont Assembly from 2007. She was MP for South Down from 2010 until 2017. In recent months she has revealed that she has been battling breast cancer for which she is still receiving treatment.

Here she talks about the "precious" support she's received from family, friends and members of the wider public - and her disappointment that her illness prevented her from travelling to see Pope Francis.

She also discusses Brexit and how it could impact on the local fishing industry. She decries what she describes as a "winner takes it all" attitude in the current political impasse. And speaking of ABBA song titles... how she relaxes with movies like Mamma Mia.

QWhere were you born and brought up?

AI was born in 1958 in the old Downe Hospital in Downpatrick. From childhood I was always interested in politics. My family weren't particularly political although there would have been an interest.

My dad's cousin was a councillor in Downpatrick for the SDLP. And I also think my interest in politics was sparked by the Civil Rights campaign. I was 11 at that time in 1969 and I remember it well. Even at school-age I always read the papers. I was always more interested in the news than Crossroads or Coronation Street.

My late parents, John and Rose, were both psychiatric nurses. I have one brother and he's also a nurse. My dad was a nurse in the Downshire Hospital and my mum was too until she got married. She had to give up work at that point because back then, in the 1950s, a married woman couldn't be employed in the job. Nowadays, of course, that seems so unfair. My upbringing was very much working class. We lived in social housing in the countryside. My parents eventually bought their house off the council and they renovated it. I still live there. I'm not married and I don't have children. I think I wouldn't know what to do with children if I'd had them!

At 18, I went to Queen's where I did a degree in geography and political science. For most of my adult life I've worked in politics. I was first elected as a councillor to Down Council in May 1985, then I went to work for Eddie (the late Eddie McGrady MP) in 1987. I was elected to the Assembly myself in 2003. I was Minister for Social Development in the Assembly. I was elected leader of the SDLP in 2010 and later that same year elected MP for South Down. Unfortunately I lost my seat in 2017.

QA few months after you lost your Westminster seat you were diagnosed with breast cancer. That must have been such a difficult time for you. How are you now?

AThat was a difficult time for me. After I lost my seat I had decided to do something, to use the skills that I'd gained over the years. But then, in February of this year, I was due for my three-year mammogram. So I went for that. I was called back and diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a mastectomy and I've since had chemo - six sessions of chemotherapy. And I'm now getting radiotherapy.

That's actually a bigger shock to your body and to you - to your family and to yourself. Because you've got to get your head around it and do so very quickly. I'm being very positive. My treatment will finish on September 17 and then I want to get on with my life. I've had such a lot of support from my family and from the wider community and that has been very precious to me.

The one thing I really want to do is publicly thank all those people. And also to say to women: "Seize every opportunity you have for screening." Because screening is so important. So take up those offers. The treatment I'm having now is draining.

The last couple of chemo made me extremely tired. All you want to do is lie down. And it impacts on your joints so it's important that you walk. But how do you walk when your joints won't let you? But you're told to rest as well, so it's a combination of all those things. I've lost my hair. When I began to lose my hair in the shower I made a conscious decision to go off to the hairdresser's and just get it shaved off. But I've noticed it is now slightly growing back.

QDid you go to see the Pope during his recent visit to Ireland?

AI wanted to but I wasn't able to. I have to stay away from crowds because there's the potential for infection because your immune system is quite low. I'd love to have been able to go but obviously I wasn't able. A lot of my neighbours and friends went and as well as the liturgical experience they also had a very good day out. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They had to walk quite a distance though. And I couldn't have walked.

QDUP leader Arlene Foster said she wasn't able to attend because she was on a family holiday. She also said that the invitation had been sent to her personally so it would have been inappropriate for someone else to represent the party. Do you think she should have gone or sent someone in her stead?

AWhen you get an invitation like that I think it's partly about the opportunity to show respect, so I think she would have been better to go.

I know she's said she couldn't go and the invitation was directed to her but the same invitation was directed to other leaders and when they couldn't go they appointed deputies to go in their place.

It would have been better for her to have been there or for somebody to have been there in her place. Ireland has moved on both north and south and I think it's part of leadership and about trying to reach a level of mutual understanding.

She didn't have to be there for the liturgical part. But I do think it would have been important for her to be there or to have been represented.

QAs a former MLA and Assembly minister what are your views on the current impasse at Stormont?

AI think it's totally unacceptable. People are not being properly represented. My SDLP colleagues and others who want to do a proper job as legislators are not being given the opportunity to do so and there are necessary decisions that require ministerial, strategic and policy direction that have not been taken.

As a result, our health, our education, the infrastructure of our economy, particularly at a time when Brexit is looming, are being placed in grave jeopardy. And that is a major disservice towards the people of Northern Ireland.

Agriculture, which is the bedrock of our economy, will be placed in grave danger if there is a no-deal Brexit. There's not much give and take.

I think politics - and it's the nature of our system under the Good Friday Agreement - should be about respect for difference, respect according to the three strata relationship within the north, between north and south and between Ireland and Britain.

It's about respect for political difference and, from an SDLP standpoint, it's about uniting the people of this island and it's about safeguarding those issues that provide a better way of life for people. And you know, respect is a two-way process.

I think the two big parties have to learn and earn that respect.

I think it's absolutely disgraceful that they haven't come to any form of agreement.

QYou talk about reconciliation and reaching out to the other side of the community. Back in 2010 you made headlines by wearing a poppy at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph in Downpatrick - the first leader of a nationalist party here to do so. Inevitably that was seen as controversial by some. Did you take much flak for it?

AThere would have been support and there would have been flak. At the end of the day it was my way of saying it's okay to do this.

You're not diminishing your nationalist identity, you're not destroying that. I wore it but I was still, and I am still, an Irish nationalist. I was born on the island of Ireland and I carry an Irish passport. That didn't diminish my identity. To enter into an agreement with your opposition does not diminish your identity. In fact, it's about building relationships, building partnerships, promoting mutual understanding. And we have to go back to that place.

QSo would you like to see more such gestures across the political spectrum?

AI'm not a great one for gimmicks in politics. I think the most important thing is to get back to the basics of the Good Friday Agreement. Building partnerships, building understanding, appreciating the other's viewpoint. We need a system of government with checks and balances. We need agreement to build that new Ireland. The problem is neither of the two extremes seems to appreciate political difference. It's about winner takes all. They have created a polarisation than underlines and underpins sectarianism. We're never going to achieve anything with that. We have to move away from that. We need to get back to focusing on reconciliation and building understanding.

QYou were in the Executive in the era of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness - an unlikely combination who, famously however, developed a good working relationship. Do you think it helped that both were big personalities and strong party leaders?

AI was a minister at that stage and I suppose that it was an experiment - but it did work. It worked because there was an attempt to make it work. Obviously there were hiccups, there were difficulties.

But it's better to get back to elements of the Good Friday Agreement based around the principle of reconciliation and partnership and working together. And yes, it always goes back to the question of leadership.

Sometimes you've got to take difficult decisions, to move outside your comfort zone.

You can see that lack of leadership now. We do need leadership now.

We have to ask, do we want reconciliation? Or do we want further sectarianism and division? Northern Ireland is a divided society but we have to work towards partnership.

QThe two big parties DUP and Sinn Fein are both led by women. Some of the abuse directed at them has been very personal and downright vile. As the first woman to lead a major political party here, do you think it's more difficult for female leaders?

AI think it's probably very difficult for any woman who's in any leadership role because it's still something slightly out of the ordinary, particularly in a place like Northern Ireland. So I think that, obviously, that is difficult. But I also think you have to try and live with that.

QAre you pessimistic about the possibility of progress here?

ANo, because once you start to feel pessimistic you start to believe that's going to happen. Sometimes bad things do happen. But I'm an optimist at heart.

QYou're not in favour of Brexit, yet in your local area, in your former constituency many in the fishing industry would back it...

AI think Brexit is wrong. I think we should be staying in the European Community. I do recall that we in the SDLP supported amendments to the European Union Referendum Bill in the House of Commons to say that devolved regions should be treated differently in terms of the regional vote. That was defeated.

But I think it is important that the Remain vote should be respected. We are better to stay in the Customs Market and within the European Union.

There are three fishing ports in Co Down, two in what was my constituency, Kilkeel and Ardglass.

I know I take a different view from many in the fishing industry who supported Brexit because they didn't like all the rules and regulations coming out of Brussels.

But I would imagine that the British government will still need rules and regulations anyway because that's the nature of it. You're talking about conserving stock.

But one of the major issues in fishing at the moment, apart from Brexit, is that we need to improve and develop our two harbours at Ardglass and Kilkeel.

And also to have a regulatory system in place to ensure that the Filipinos who come in to work as fishermen are properly safeguarded and that they can stay for a year and then leave.

At the moment they're not properly regulated nor are they recognised by the Home Office and that needs to be addressed.

QSince leaving Westminster you've set up the Margaret Ritchie Consultancy - do you enjoy the work as a lobbyist?

AI really enjoy the work. I'm not working full-time but I do what I can subject to my ability.

QAnd what do you do to relax?

A I like reading and walking. The walking has been a bit restricted because of the chemo but I hope to get back to it. And I do like the cinema. The last thing I went to see was Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, believe it or not. You need to do light things as well.

I really think you do need a bit of levity in life.

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