Mairia Cahill: 'Respect is not just a buzzword for use at election time, it's about positive politics... people deserve nothing less'
Mairia Cahill, the SDLP's latest councillor, will face her first meeting of Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council tomorrow night. Here she explains what the ratepayers of Killultagh ward can expect from their new representative
Last March, during the snow storm, I was hemmed into my house, marvelling at nature and its ability to throw up undulating six-foot drifts overnight, beautiful and glistening in the morning sun. Travel outside was impossible for a day or so.
My daughter, like other children, of course loved it, a few days off school to frolic in the mini-ice mountains and sleigh down the drifts was a treat, but not so for those sick or elderly in the community.
A tweet caught my eye from someone appealing for help for a sick pensioner who needed to be dug out. Within an hour, another appeared thanking Lagan Valley SDLP MLA Pat Catney for arriving with a shovel and clearing the path.
I mention this because it illustrates perfectly for me what politics is about. Pat didn't have to leave his house to do it, he wasn't looking for thanks for it, but he is an old school politician who understands that if you can provide help to someone who needs it, get it done. It's a lesson I'm taking with me into council.
Since a teenager I have been involved in community work. I was part of a young people's working group in Belfast City Council in 1998 that was tasked with imagining what Belfast would be like in the year 2025 - almost impossible then in the early days of Good Friday Agreement negotiations - and I launched the completed vision with the-then Lord Mayor David Alderdice in the splendid surroundings of City Hall. I still have a signed book of treasured old Belfast photos that he gave me.
This was probably one of my first experiences of working with people from different political backgrounds and traditions and I discovered, like everyone else on that panel at the time, that positive difference could be made - despite our differences - by working towards a common goal.
I prefer to think of people as people first, political allegiances secondary, and that has shaped my ability to engage with some whose politics I find challenging, but who share a common goal in trying to make something in the area in which they live more positive for those coming behind them.
I wrote in this newspaper a few years ago, after visiting the Shankill area: "When you are confident, you do not need to feel triumphant and when you are made to feel comfortable, you do not need to feel inferior." I am comfortable in my own politics: it took me a long time to be so, which is common to many, and people know my background and journey.
A member of both the SDLP and the Irish Labour Party, I am someone who strongly believes in equality and social justice. I am vocally pro-choice and will continue to articulate this position, but I also understand that it is not a black-and-white issue for people and will continue with engagement both inside the SDLP and outside it.
The recent conscience vote within the SDLP has opened up the party to many who share my position and it is a mark of maturity that even with an issue as emotive as this, people have continued that engagement in a respectful manner and will continue to work together to effect positive change on a range of issues.
My journey over the last number of years has taken me into Free Presbyterian centres to speak with young men in impoverished areas at risk from becoming involved with paramilitaries, to meeting senior loyalists to discuss peace-building, to churches in counties Tyrone and Fermanagh, where hospitality was second-to-none, to watching Orange marches in the north west and bonfire fun days on the Shankill Road.
Respect is not just a buzzword for election time, but serious and lasting engagement is learning and trying to see things from all perspectives. That is what I will continue to do on council and why it is so important to me that people in the Killultagh district of Lisburn and Castlereagh feel comfortable with coming to me with any issue for help if they need it - no matter what their background or tradition.
I appreciate the good wishes of people who contacted me after the announcement of my co-option as an SDLP councillor, particularly from those living in the area, but also from my DUP and UUP soon-to-be council colleagues.
Community empowerment is top of my list. I have seen in action over the last 30 years how, when people take pride in the area in which they live and feel ownership of change, then change happens.
In many ways we've lost some of that from politics here, and disaffection, due to the collapse of Stormont, is always a worry. But councils have a hugely important role to play in engaging voters to positively influence their own future and I am excited to be a part of that.
The SDLP in Lisburn and Castlereagh has been working on numerous issues, such as the lack of school places and the need for new classrooms for already under-pressure teachers.
The recent closures of stores in Bow Street illustrate the difficulties that small retailers will face in the coming months and the need for an effective strategy.
The reopening of the Knockmore rail-link would not only connect Dublin to Derry by rail in three-and-a-half hours, but would enhance transport routes for those wishing to travel to Belfast from Crumlin, Glenavy and Ballinderry.
And, though it has become a cliche for councillors, it will be welcome to most that I have already reported numerous potholes and intend to follow up until the very shocking state that some of the more rural roads in the area are in improves.
I am privileged to be one of the very few people in Ireland who has held a political position north and south and will draw on my experience from the Seanad as a Labour Senator to continue to represent people to the best of my ability.
As a single mother, I understand the pressures of working while raising small children and the challenges faced by families.
It will also come as no surprise to people that I will continue to highlight the scourge of sexual abuse and domestic violence and I will continue to call out those who have shirked their responsibility to victims.
I have spent the last number of years in a very high-pressured public situation, which has presented its own challenges.
Like everyone else, I am not perfect and, at times, frustration can be hard to navigate through when faced with denial by perpetrators of very personal traumatic circumstances. Because of this, I recognise many victims' grievances with red tape wrapped around so-called "historical" hurt and the inability of perpetrators to provide answers, or acknowledgement. I will continue to listen and to help where I can.
I am looking forward to my first council meeting this week and to getting stuck in. I can't say I'll be as good at shovelling snow as Pat Catney, but I intend to draw from his experience in real and meaningful engagement, help and support for the community of Lisburn and Castlereagh.
Positive politics: people deserve nothing less.