Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Carroll MLA, on activism, family loss and the joy of topping the poll

'After court I was given a Belfast map with the city centre blacked out and ordered not to go there... Mum joked that there'd be no buying Christmas presents in town this year'

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Gerry Carroll, Belfast West People Before Profit Alliance MLA, on activism, family loss and the joy of topping the poll.

Q. You're 30 and currently single. What are you looking for in a prospective partner?

A. Somebody with similar interests, who I get along with.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. Mum Geraldine (54) is a classroom assistant. She was a stay-at-home mother for 20 years, then she went back to education. My dad Gerry (58) is a semi-retired black taxi driver. I have three brothers and three sisters - Mary-Claire (32) is a dentist; Sarah (28), a teacher; Colum (26) works at Subway and calls himself a 'sandwich artist'; Grainne (25) is a receptionist; Ronan (22) works in a call centre; and Patrick (17) is doing his A-levels.

Q. You're from the Andersonstown/Finaghy area and you still live in west Belfast. What do you remember about growing up?

A. I was born in 1987, at the tail end of the Troubles, and I remember small things like a bombscare in the school and burnt-out buses. My childhood was happy. A big family is good practice because you're always arguing with somebody, so your debating skills are honed very quickly; I had to learn debating and arguing and also cooperation.

Q. In 2010 you were banned from Belfast city centre for a year for peaceful protesting against a hike in university fees, so you actually have a criminal record. What happened?

A. I was given a conditional discharge. We were sitting in protest outside City Hall. There were up to 4,000 people. The Brown Review was out at the time and there were plans to increase the tuition fees to £9,000, which happened across the water, but we were successful in keeping them around £3,000. The protest wasn't safely maintained so people spilled out onto the road and there was a potential for things to get dangerous or ugly. I had a megaphone and was chanting slogans about standing up for free education when I was dragged out by the cops. It was a tug-of-war (The front page of the Bel Tel the next day said 'Class Struggle' and there was a picture of me being pulled out by the legs and students grabbing onto me and holding me). It was quite aggressive.

Q. What else do you remember about it?

A. There were three or four police on my legs and a crowd of students holding on to me. Traffic was blocked but nobody was injured. They took me to a big white police van with around 10 small individual cells inside. There were already five or six protesters in there. It was December and freezing, one of the coldest places I've ever been. They took us to Musgrave Station with the sirens on. It was very dramatic. I was quite angry about it. It was a peaceful protest about people's right to education without being landed in thousands of pounds of debt, and we were treated disgracefully. I was released after a few hours of being held in a cell and then questioned.

Two weeks after I appeared in court, I received a map of Belfast city centre with a big blacked out square - from City Hall to Royal Avenue and the surrounding area - and was told I wasn't allowed to go into that part of town. It was a massive infringement on my civil rights. My mother joked at the time that 'Our Gerry won't be able to buy Christmas presents in the city centre'.

Q. You're on the record as saying you don't buy from big corporations like Coca-Cola. Where do you buy your clothes? What other companies do you boycott?

A. I buy my clothes mostly online. I don't go to Starbucks for political reasons, but I've heard the coffee isn't that great anyway. It's impossible to boycott capitalism but there's a number of companies I wouldn't eat in and buy from - McDonalds, Starbucks and, more recently, Ashers because of the cake issue.

Q. What would it take to get more people to follow your lead?

A. A lot of multi-national companies are doing terrible things but there are limited places where you can buy your clothes and eat. The problem with capitalism is that it has grown so big and ultimately you can't boycott the whole thing. But it's about spending your pound as ethically as you can. There needs to be more ethically made clothes, coffee and food.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A. I don't. I'm not religious but I respect people who are. I was raised to go to Mass and say my prayers but when I left school I decided it wasn't for me.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you and does death frighten you?

A. I've lost my granda Gerry and three uncles in the last seven years. Uncle Jim (Carroll), in his mid-50s, died of stomach cancer in 2010; Dessie (Connolly) died of throat cancer two years ago when he was in his late 50s; and last year Mickey (Brady), also in his late 50s, died of lung cancer. It was horrible. Jim was the first person I saw who was dying and I watched him withering away. It was very long. It was horrible to watch but it was terrible for their families too. They all had children and died very young. My granda was in his mid-80s. He had a combination of pneumonia and ill-health when he died six years ago. Death does frighten me, but I don't tend to think about it.

Q. Which local politician do you most admire?

A. Naomi Long. She's been through a really tough couple of years when she was targeted and vilified and had to live in a back room in her house. She's very articulate. I have disagreements with her, but I admire her for what she's come through.

Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. We are the only ones who have said pay should be cut if MLAs aren't doing their jobs to legislate. People Before Profit have a policy of the average worker's wage so we don't take full salary anyway but I can understand how people - particularly those working in the health service or education who haven't had a pay rise in eight years - could be frustrated when MLAs are taking home £49,000 a year.

Q. How much do you take, and what happens to the rest of the money?

A. I take home £21,000. The remainder goes to the party and to political campaigns.

Q. You went to St John The Baptist Primary, then St Mary's Christian Brothers Grammar and after that you studied politics at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. After I finished my university degree I was unemployed for two years. Then I did a qualification in youth work and I was a youth worker from 2010 to 2013. After that I stood for the council elections.

Q. You served as a Belfast City councillor from May 2014 until you became a MLA in May 2016. How did you get involved in politics?

A. From the age of 17 I was involved in anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. I attended a 300,000 people-strong march in Edinburgh in 2005 for an end to world poverty and world hunger and from that I got the bug for politics. Since then it's been a combination of different campaigns and different protests. For me, People Before Profit was the best party because they are about mobilising people for themselves. Being involved in campaigns made me want to bring that into City Hall.

Q. You're the PBP's first elected representative in Northern Ireland. Does it get a bit lonely being the only socialist at Stormont?

A. Not really. There's a necessity to say what we're saying. When Eamonn (McCann) was there, there was two of us but if I'm not there then nobody is going to say what I'm saying. We come at it from a unique perspective. It's not one community vis-a-vis another community. It's about socialist politics, it's about class politics. It transcends old divisions.

Q. Do you miss Eamonn? (the former Foyle PBP MLA who was elected in 2016 but lost his seat 10 months later.)

A. I still see him. He'll be a big loss to the Assembly generally and also for the party but he's still active. He hasn't gone away.

Q. You say you don't see yourself as a nationalist or a unionist but a socialist. Do you think the current stalemate is sectarian?

A. It's not solely sectarian, although sectarianism plays a big part in politics here and in society. People still live in separate communities for the most part so sectarianism is still a major problem, but the current impasse isn't directly sectarian. It's being presented in the media as a DUP-Sinn Fein stand-off but the demands being put forward by Sinn Fein are supported by a range of different organisations. The Irish Language Act is also supported by the Alliance Party, SDLP, Green Party and People Before Profit; it's the same for marriage equality.

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

A. Hard work always pays off.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I re-started an Irish class on Monday evenings. I enjoy going to the gym, cycling, playing football, reading and socialising with friends.

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

A. My mother or father. It depends on what the problem is. My parents were my biggest inspiration growing up.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. I don't really care what religion people are or what background they're from.

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

A. Without a doubt, the day we topped the poll in the Assembly elections in May 2016. The craic afterwards in Casement Social Club will be stuck in my mind forever. It was a great day.

Q. And what about the worst day? What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Watching my uncle Jim die was quite difficult. I was in my early 20s when he passed away on November 5, 2006.

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

A. I like Berlin and Manchester.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. Ballycastle. My granny had a bungalow there and my sister now has a caravan overlooking Rathlin Island.

Q. To date what is your greatest achievement?

A. Topping the poll in West Belfast. Especially after being told politics here will never change. When we broke through it was an historic achievement.

Q Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you?

A. I've recently taken up the guitar. I'm teaching myself online and my brother Patrick is helping. I've always been interested in music. I tried the tin whistle and recorder in school.

Q. If the Assembly collapses what's next for you?

A. Community campaigns and youth work.

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