Belfast Telegraph

SDLP poster girl and pal of Clintons quits politics for sake of her family

By Gillian Halliday

She was once the SDLP's poster girl, and the schoolgirl whose inspiring plea for peace was read out in Belfast by a US president.

But now Co Armagh woman Sharon Haughey-Grimley has announced that she is stepping down from politics.

Ms Haughey-Grimley, who is friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton, is giving up her role as councillor on Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough to spend more time with her family.

"I've been very blessed to have had the support of local people and that made my decision very difficult to make, but when it came down to it, I had to make the right choice for my family," she said.

"I've put 100% of myself into it and obviously the children have come along so it's a busy household and they need their mummy at home as much as possible."

The move brings to an end an impressive 14-year career with the party, which began when she was asked to join the SDLP by the then party leader John Hume.

She was first elected in 2005 as a member of Armagh City and District Council, and was later Lord Mayor in 2012-13.

She came to the attention of the Clintons in 1995 as a 14-year-old schoolgirl when Mr Clinton, then US president, read out a letter she had sent to him about wanting peace in Northern Ireland.

Ms Haughey-Grimley later gave a speech at the Gathering of Peace event in honour of the Clintons' 1998 visit to Armagh, and after graduating from the Ulster University, she travelled to America to work with Hillary Clinton in the US Senate in 2003.

Over the years Ms Haughey-Grimley, who will remain a party activist when she completes her full council term next May, has emerged as one of the SDLP's most high-profile figures in local politics.

When Ms Haughey-Grimley last week spoke to Mrs Clinton at Trinity College Dublin, where the former presidential candidate received an honorary doctorate, the former US Secretary of State lamented her decision - but said she understood that she was doing it for her family.

The mother-of-three lives in Granemore, a townland in the Cusher ward she represents as its only nationalist councillor.

Now she is saying goodbye to council life so that she can devote more time to her three sons, Conor (4), Seamus (2) and Ryan (7 months) and husband Gerard, after juggling a full-time job outside politics and family life for more than a decade.

She continued: "It's not easy for women in politics but it is very important that women do play their part. I would like to see as many women of all ages get involved and make their points heard."

Her praise of female politicians extends to the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, whom she applauded for her historic attendance at the Ulster GAA final in Co Monaghan last weekend.

"I was delighted to see Arlene in Clones, the fact that she even stood for the (Irish) anthem was a very positive move and that should be acknowledged as that.

"I also think it was very positive that grassroots GAA members welcomed her in the way they did, clapping and greeting her."

And perhaps there is no one better placed to gauge the fans' opinions than the Co Armagh woman herself, who works full-time for Ulster GAA in a community outreach role.

Meanwhile, she also acknowledged the shifting political landscape across the island of Ireland on social issues, with the Republic voting emphatically in favour of abortion reform last month - something she intensely opposes.

"I'm very passionately pro-life and I think it's important political leaders do protect the rights of the unborn," she said.

"Personally I believe we need investment to help those women who find themselves in crisis pregnancy, and help them carry their baby to full term.

"To find some beauty in that as well, as it's such a precious gift."

Her position on the issue directly conflicts with that of her leader, Colum Eastwood, who firmly backed the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Republic.

She did, however, welcome the SDLP's recent decision to reaffirm its pro-life stance as its official policy at a conference last month, although members can now vote on the matter as an issue of conscience.

"I would have preferred that we had asked that any member that wasn't able to vote in support of the policy reaffirmation to have abstained from voting against it, or speaking against it. But we're a democratic party, and you've got to respect the will of our members."

Differences aside, Ms Haughey-Grimley is full of praise for Mr Eastwood.

"Colum, like myself, has come through the youth structures, back 20 years ago. He's very passionate, a very good speaker. He's had his challenges, especially the last Westminster elections, but I don't think that was down to him.

"I think there was a change in the political landscape he's found himself in. He has set the party in a good direction and I hope he continues in that."

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