Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Carroll: 'Executive has helped drive austerity and needs held to account - we will do that in the Assembly'

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll speaks to Rebecca Black about bringing a socialist voice to Stormont and why he won't get shirty about wearing a tie.

Q. Did you expect to attract such a large vote? You won 8,299 first preference votes, up from the 1,691 you received in 2014 when you were elected to Belfast City Council.

A. Well, I have run in five elections in five years and each time the vote has increased. We are thrilled by the vote in West Belfast. We thought we could take a seat based on the Westminster vote last year, which was just under 7,000, but we increased even more. It's down to a lot of hard work on the ground, outreach and the campaign work we are doing. It also shows people have a thirst for a different type of politics.

We are always looking to expand, and since the election we are getting messages from people who want to join from all over the North. (It is hard) just trying to keep up with them all - there are so many messages coming in.

Q. Rumour has it you were back on the streets knocking doors again on Sunday after your election was confirmed on the Friday. Is that true?

A. Yes, we were knocking the doors again on Sunday. It was good - people were really positive and saying: "Glad to see you."

Q. So you think that people appreciated the move?

A. Yes. It's the same thing we have been doing since my election to council - staying on the ground, talking to people and picking up issues. We heard people's criticism that they don't see politicians until election time, so we try to go around the doors all the time. On Sunday we wanted to show people that the election may be over, but we are still on the doorsteps, and people definitely appreciated it.

Q. I saw the video on Facebook of you arriving back after the count on Friday to a massive hug from your dad. Is it fair to say that he is extremely proud of you?

A. Yeah, it was huge for him, for me, for the family and for the campaign and team. A few tears of joy were shed that night. I was a bit emotional after that hug. He was proud as punch, and I really appreciate all the support from my family. He has been involved with trade unions all his life. He used to work in Asda, and has taken part in a lot of campaigns over the years.

Q. What are your plans for Stormont?

A. Politically, we are planning to have two socialist voices in Stormont (Gerry along with his party colleague Eamonn McCann, who was elected for People Before Profit in the Foyle constituency).

What we will do is give an opposition, an alternative, to the current path that is being pushed through.

The main thread of that is the current Fresh Start Agreement, which will see 20,000 public sector jobs being done away with.

It will mean 20,000 fewer jobs for people to apply for in the future and more pressure on the people who remain in the public sector.

There is no political argument to implement it. We will be providing a critique to that.

There are also other issues we want to highlight, including fighting for the living wage within the Assembly.

Low-paid workers across the public sector should receive a living wage to give them a few extra pounds to help them live reasonably comfortably.

Another issue we want to highlight is the defence of the Housing Executive from being broken up and privatised.

Ultimately, for us it is about giving a voice to people, encouraging people to get involved with trade unions and community groups, and to help put pressure on the Assembly on a range of issues.

Q. Do you or the party have any specific Private Member's Bills that you would like to bring forward in the near future?

A. We have a few ideas, but we are trying to work out a schedule.

Q. How do you intend to designate yourself as an MLA - unionist, nationalist or other?

A. Other. But that doesn't mean we'll be afraid to challenge ministers from either tradition or anyone else. For us it is not about representing one community or the other, but standing up for working-class people no matter how they designate themselves. We will be pushing forward socialist politics (Mr Carroll designated as socialist, but will be officially designated as other).

Q. Where are you planning to open a constituency office?

A. We currently have an office on Northumberland Street, right on the peaceline, but we need something bigger now. We are looking around at what is available and ensuring it is accessible for everyone to come in and raise issues with us.

Q. Will you be wearing a suit and tie every day?

A. For us, that is an issue that has been really overplayed. It's a bit ridiculous that there seems to be a strict dress code. It should really be more about issues of politics.

The dress code does not specify a tie, so in practice it'll be up to the Speaker of the Assembly to say. Whether it's a tie or not, I'll wear one just to get in and put across our politics and the issues that people voted us in for. I have no issue with wearing a tie. I'd prefer to just wear a shirt, but I'll wear a tie if I have to.

Q. Will you be taking your full salary?

A. No, we'll be taking the average worker's wage, which is lower than the industrial wage that Sinn Fein members take. That is our party's policy North and South.

Q. What is the actual average worker's wage?

A. It's £21,000 or £22,000. For us it's a similar wage to people we represent. It is a point of principle.

Q. Where will the rest of your £48,000 salary go?

A. The funds go back into the party and to campaigns and support.

Q. When you were elected as a councillor in Belfast two years ago you said you would be a "thorn in the side". Do you think you were? What did you achieve?

A. We achieved quite a bit for one councillor. We put forward a range of motions, including the call for the implementation of the living wage for NHS workers in Belfast to bring them in line with workers in Cardiff and Edinburgh. I put that forward and it was agreed and will hopefully help a long-term strategy towards that.

I also got a motion passed calling for a transgender rights protocol, which Belfast City Council didn't have previously. I also got City Hall lit up for Transgender Rights Remembrance Day, which hadn't happened before.

There were also other issues we scrutinised the council on, such as the plan to outsource the Waterfront Hall.

I think we were a thorn in the side of council, for sure. We have always tried to see the position of a councillor to be used to try and mobilise people and get people power. We have done that with my council position over Palestine, over opposition to the war in Syria, marriage equality, against the homeless deaths and across a range of other issues.

We also criticised the councillors' pay increases and the money spent on the Lord Mayor's car. More money should be going into front line services, rather than the pockets of councillors.

The Executive needs to be held to account and our policies and principles will do that strongly on the Assembly floor. But for us it's also about what happens on the outside and how we can mobilise people.

Q. You weren't able to stop the management of council leisure centres being handed over to a new trust. Were you annoyed about that?

A. Yeah, the leisure centres decision came before I was on the council, but we campaigned against that.

People were really disappointed by that move. That is a matter for people who voted for that who shouldn't have.

On the issue of the Waterfront Hall, people were opposed to that and people were disappointed that it was implemented. We maintain that if you don't fight back, you have lost anyway.

Q. Will you now step down from your council position?

A. I have resigned as a councillor and we'll make a decision about co-opting someone to replace me in the next few weeks.

Q. How do you feel about working with Eamonn McCann? Did you know him well before the election?

A. Yes, I have known Eamonn for about nine years and learned about his political involvement from when I was at school and university in terms of the civil rights campaign. I knew him from books and TV, but I have more recently been involved in campaigns with him, such as the opposition to the water charges campaign, which was successful, and also campaigns against the war in Iraq. We have been on many protests and picket lines together.

Q. He is a big character. Do you think you'll work well together?

A. Definitely, we are of the same beliefs and principles. We'll make a good team. Eamonn has the history and experience of being involved in a lot of different campaigns. I have been involved in a few myself, and I think we'll provide a good working partnership for People Before Profit.

Q. Have you done much analysis of your vote? Who do you think your voters are?

A. A bit. We are currently working on a more detailed one. It appears that our vote has come from across West Belfast, from people of different political persuasions, from different areas.

It is spread out. I think that we had a very strong vote among young people - that was evident with the youth involvement in our campaign. If you go among young people in West Belfast, most will say they voted for People Before Profit.

It is people who are crying out for a political alternative. Stormont isn't representing them - they feel left behind and disconnected from the political process. Jeremy Corbyn is doing the same in Britain, and so is Bernie Sanders in the US.

Q. Does your vote represent a voice of frustration at Sinn Fein in West Belfast?

A. Poverty and deprivation in West Belfast is still really high. West Belfast has the highest proportion of people in poverty, 43% of children living in poverty, and the highest proportion of people on benefits, which are now going to be slashed over the next two years.

A lot of people out there are frustrated about that, and that some people are doing extremely well. We have around 15,000 millionaires in the North. People are seeing the fact that West Belfast is in poverty while other areas are doing well, so people are incredibly frustrated and angry that this is still the case.

You cannot just put your fingers in your ears and ignore it - it's everyday life for people. It has to change and the only way it can change is for people to reject the current path we are on and mobilise communities.

Q. What is your reaction to some people claiming that your vote is a dissident vote?

A. It is a bit insulting. We got 8,000 votes, and it was about standing up to austerity and inequality. It is insulting for people to be called dissidents if they don't vote SDLP or Sinn Fein. It is offensive to people in West Belfast, who are fed up with austerity - people coming from a republican tradition or a liberal or socialist one - to be labelled for trying to change things.

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