Belfast Telegraph

SDLP MLA Colin McGrath: 'When I was 10 my sister died. She was 16 and was gone within two days'

The most personal and probing interviews: Colin McGrath, South Down SDLP MLA, tells of joy and tragedy in childhood and of his journey into politics

Colin at home
Colin at home
Colin aged around four on holidays with his dad in France
Colin on his mum Rosemary's lap along with brothers Stephen and Philip and sister Alison
Colin as chair of Down District Council with mentor Eddie McGrady
Colin volunteering for the local youth centre at the Christmas disco
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

Q. You were born in Downpatrick, but who is in your family?

A. My mother Rosemary and father Brian. I had two brothers, Philip and Stephen, and a sister Alison. I had a very challenging upbringing.

When I was 10 my sister died of leukaemia. She was 16 years old at the time. She took ill on a Friday and was dead on the Monday. It was a cold that progressively got worse and was then diagnosed as a very severe form of leukaemia. She was taken to hospital and put on life support, but 48 hours later they had to switch that off. It was a very traumatic time.

About three months later my brother Philip, who was then 19, had a very serious car accident that left him in a wheelchair.

That made a huge change in my life because although I was the youngest we all very quickly had to learn about making amendments to the house. There were particular places we could and couldn't go because of access for disabled people. It was a challenge for us a family, but we faced those challenges.

Philip, unfortunately, passed away in January of this year.

Q. That was clearly a difficult time that changed your approach to life, but can you tell me about the single most positive thing to happen to you thus far?

A. I can remember the night I decided to go to the youth centre in Downpatrick. I had some friends who were going and they asked me to come along. I wasn't sure.

I had to ask my parents if I was allowed, but I did go and from that moment I felt I was part of another community. I was welcomed in, I made new friends.

To date the people who are in my closest group of friends are people I met there. My closest friend, for whom I was best man and godfather to his child, I met at the youth centre.

It gave me the opportunity to travel all over Europe, Ireland and the UK. It became so much a part of my life and it was all down to the decision I made that first night about whether I should or shouldn't go.

Q. What was Downpatrick like for the young Colin McGrath?

A. Downpatrick was a good place to grow up. I don't think it is big enough to talk about suburbs, but we lived about a mile away from the town centre. I was able to walk out my front door and be in the town, and I was able to walk out the back door and be in fields, so I had a country upbringing, but in the town. It meant we had plenty of places to go and explore and play in.

As a teenager I expanded my world to Downpatrick town centre, and that was when I joined the youth centre. It was the same youth centre that I joined as a 12-year-old that I became deputy director of when I qualified 10 years later.

Q. What took you into politics?

A. My background is in youth work - that was my career and that involves helping people in the community. I have always had that sense of activism. When you mesh all that together, politics is a fairly natural step.

Q. Why the SDLP?

A. To me the SDLP is the true party for social justice. Politics has to be about helping people and making people's lives better. It is about intervening and doing what you can to improve lives. That social justice is in the DNA of the SDLP.

Q. You are the education spokesman for the party. Why do you think some pupils leave school with few or no academic qualifications while others excel no matter what social background they come from?

A. There could be a fundamental issue with the 'one size fits all' approach to education. An education system should be responsive to the educational needs of young people.

Categorising pupils and telling them "this is the curriculum you must follow" isn't always the best approach. We need to make the education system more reflective of the needs of the pupils, so if you are going to excel at languages, science and maths, then that is what you should be studying. But if you are going to excel at woodwork, plumbing and English, then those are the subjects you should be studying.

The curriculum that you follow should be responsive to the needs that you have. That might mean a wholesale review of how we deliver education, but if it meets the needs of the young people then we would be getting it right.

Q. What are your views on the transfer tests that children still sit despite the 11-plus being abolished nearly 10 years ago?

A. I think the majority of society agrees that it's not the best way of delivering education. What we have are schools that parents want their children to go to, but I would like to see us reviewing it so that every school is a school that parents want to send their children to.

To have that level playing field is important, but also it's this thing we have of taking 10 and 11-year-old children and branding them as failures and then saying that this is an appropriate way to educate our children when it absolutely isn't.

Q. Do you approve of grammar school education or do you favour the comprehensive system some politicians advocate?

A. It is not whether a school is a grammar or not, it is whether it has open access to everyone and whether there is selection. The issue is whether or not you support selection, and the SDLP has categorically said it does not on the basis that it brands a large portion of children as failures and puts an inordinate amount of pressure on them.

Q. You attended a grammar school yourself. How did you get on?

A. I got on fine - the school also happened to be the closest school to my front door but there was huge pressure on me. I was the fourth child in our house out of four and all three in front of me had passed the 11-plus.

I remember the pressure that I was under to pass that exam.

That wasn't necessarily from parents telling me "you must, you must, you must", but can you imagine being the fourth in a house and not passing it when everyone else had? These are the pressures we need to reflect on and ask is that good for a 10-year-old.

Q. Your degree was in community work which took you on placements to various parts of Northern Ireland but also Durban in South Africa. Why did you go there and what was that like?

A. It was a really crucial element of the degree. The idea was because I was doing my degree in Northern Ireland in the mid-1990s that there were huge community-based problems and massive community relations issues based on being a Catholic or a Protestant.

The idea was to go and see and experience youth and community work in another part of the world where the issue wasn't about religion. It was an amazing experience to be able to work in an organisation outside of Northern Ireland where the issue in this instance was to do with the colour of people's skin.

What was interesting was the similarities between how young people behaved when it was a matter of colour of skin versus what your religious background was and how young people tried to work out what your views were.

This was at a very early stage of change in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had only been President a matter of months, so there were still some very raw approaches, which was a real eye-opener for a 21-year-old.

Q. If you had 10 minutes on a park bench with anyone living or dead, who would that be and what would you say to them?

A. I would love 10 minutes on a park bench with the young John Hume to understand the courage that it took to step up and make the decisions he made in those early days. There is a bravery and a courage that I think is missing from politics nowadays. I know people who knew him well in those days and I feel I am at a deficit because I was born after that time.

Q. Outside of politics, what are you passionate about?

A. I am very passionate about youth services because I saw all the opportunities it gave me in life and I had, through the capacity of my work, provided those opportunities to other young people and had seen them flourish and had seen them take the right path when a different path was on offer. I still volunteer at the youth centre, it was what I did, it is what I do and it is something I think everyone should have the opportunity to be part of.

Q. What angers you?

A. I get angry when I don't see social justice. I get angry when someone does not get what they are entitled to because they didn't know how to fill out a form. I get angry when I see that people have to wait in pain for months and months and months for medical interventions, and yet if we lived in another part of the world they would get that within weeks. We should be doing everything possible to make sure as many people as possible get the best out of life and not just something for the few.

Q. Who is your best Protestant friend?

A. My best friend. It has never been an issue because we never asked each other what our background was when we were becoming friends. I was best man at his wedding and I am godfather to his son.

Q. You are 41 and not yet married - any reason for that or are you just very fussy?

A. Well everybody who knows me would say I was very fussy, but to be honest I am single because I am just not in a relationship.

What has happened is in my youth work I worked four evenings a week until 10.30pm. I was also a councillor on Down District Council for the past 11 years, that generally took up one or two evenings a week.

I blinked and became 40. I give that as a fair warning to anyone who is in their middle 20s - you do just blink and become 40.

Q. On your Twitter blurb you say you are always dreaming of your next trip away. Are you trying to escape Northern Ireland?

A. I love travel, I have to say that, and I brought that passion to my work within youth work by applying for European funding to allow young people to travel to various parts of Europe.

I've loved giving them the travel bug as well. I take every opportunity there is, through my work, through my involvement in council or the Assembly.

I enjoy a bit of heat. When you are away you mentally switch off from work. If you take a couple of days off but sit at home, the phone rings or you get a text or an email - the distraction is there.

I love travelling to cities and to different cultures, I do have a bit of a travel bug.

Q. Where was the best/most exotic place you have been to?

A. South Africa was quite a big adventure for a 21-year-old especially in the Nineties when people weren't really going there. I have been to China - I got to see a really different culture and approach to things. That was a really good experience.

Q. All of your tweets are political - there are not many there about you off the political field. Do you like being a bit of a closed book?

A. I took the decision that Twitter is more political and Facebook would be more personal. I find generally Twitter is more about organisations, groups, journalists, politicians and not so much run-of-the mill ordinary people.

I tend to discuss more local politics on Facebook, but then you will also see the obligatory picture of my dinner - it's there somewhere.

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