As mentioned yesterday, I’ve been working around the main political parties in East Belfast to find out how each of them views their local area, their party’s future and the level of public engagement with the political institutions that have a lot of influence over the shape of our society.
The SDLP don’t have an elected representative in East Belfast. They have a couple of councillors across in Castlereagh borough (Castlereagh South and West wards) but no one elected to Belfast City Council or representing East Belfast as an MLA at NI Assembly.
So I got in touch with the youthful Séamas de Faoite, seventeen year old prospective candidate for the SDLP in the Pottinger Ward of East Belfast. His youth belies his seriousness about politics and his enthusiasm about his future contribution. The interview was recorded back on 19 October 2009.
I started by asking about his impressions of the opportunities and challenges that face East Belfast?
(Séamas) There are a huge amount of challenges at the offset that face the east of the city, not least so in terms of regeneration. But the opportunities that are there for us to attract investment, to up-skill the workforce and to make East Belfast an industrial and scientific hub that it once was. Once again I think now, in the east of the city, there is that potential ...
I would certainly think that there is a failure of the larger parties to deliver on the investment opportunities that are there and for the sitting MP and some of the other people involved to actually advocate more for the bread and butter needs of the people in East Belfast rather than playing sectarian football on every single issue.
Talking about how Titanic Quarter might integrate with the rest of East Belfast ...
(Séamas) Titanic Quarter obviously has a lot of problems facing it at the moment because of the economic situation that we’re in. ...
So on the offset we have to make sure that if Titanic Quarter is going to work that it’s actually going to succeed in being built and actually filling the units that are going to be there. Not so much my fear but I can see possibly what could happen is that if units aren’t bought up in Titanic Quarter that the government is going to have to step in and intervene.
If Titanic Quarter succeeds, obviously there has to be integration with the rest of East Belfast and especially down in the area that’s going to be linked to it - Short Strand, areas like that. The Titanic Quarter cannot just be Titanic Quarter boxed off away from everyone else. It has to be part of East Belfast as a whole and that’s all part of integration and breaking down the barriers that we’ve had over the past throughout the city. So perhaps Titanic Quarter will give us a stepping stone in the east to try and do that.
Commenting on whether or not there is any evidence of integration between the predominantly nationalist Short Strand area and the rest of East Belfast, Séamas pointed back to the end of August and the violence that erupted at the interface after a rally celebrating the closure of the Mountpottinger Police Station.
(Séamas) ... it’s disheartening especially after you see the events what happened over the bank holiday Monday where we had dissidents on both sides of the divide come out and bring us back to that basic level we were at in the 1970s and the 1980s. I don’t want to see us moving back to that position.
We do things better when we work together. Northern Ireland wastes £1.7 billion every year on duplication of services, we have to seriously ask do we really need that duplication of services. One of the best ways of tackling that is through integration and through saying to people: we are all human beings, we all have the same needs, our wants may be different but we all need the same basic services provided by the government and the best thing to do is to provide them to each person on the basis of them being a human being and not of them being nationalist or unionist or catholic or protestant.
There is considerable voter apathy during the recent European elections and a general lack of public engagement with politics. What did Séamas think?
(Séamas) The generation of leaders that we have in Northern Ireland at the moment have been there for the past twenty or fifteen years. They are basically, it’s like the Muppet Show on repeat at the moment. So I think people are turning off as a result of that. They are seeing the same old arguments played out by the same old characters and they don’t like it.
If we actually had some real, relevant debate and not just about sectarian issues or issues to do with Northern Ireland’s future, but about the economy, about education and not turning it into a sectarian football, and all of these different sorts of things, I think people would actually be less apathetic.
Maybe I’ve missed the story, but I’d never heard the suggestion of moving the Assembly down to Titanic Quarter before.
(Séamas) I think the Assembly is very distant from ordinary people and despite the fact that Stormont Live and all of the other different initiatives to try and get more engaged with ordinary people, it’s very distant. And then when you have initiatives like the Assembly Roadshow which are supposed to get people engaged and they come to East Belfast and only Dawn Purvis shows up for the panel, it kind of says to people, well the Assembly couldn’t really care less about you.
I think certainly if as part of the Titanic Quarter in the future the proposals that the Assembly might be moved where it’s closer to the people, where it’s closer to the ordinary lives of the people of Northern Ireland and certainly in Belfast, I think bringing the Assembly closer to ordinary people needs to happen because it seems so distant.
Doesn’t seem credible to me. I’m sure why the people living in high rise apartments in TQ will be any more “ordinary” than those living within a half mile radius of Stormont?
Asked about his view of the SDLP as it goes forward, Séamas talked about party member apathy and the need for succession planning.
(Séamas) We have huge challenges ahead like any smaller party that was once the top dog ... certainly I think the SDLP has an opportunity to rebuild itself over the next six months and moving into the Westminster elections and the council elections in 2011 ...
In South Belfast we have over 600 paper members, but we don’t have activists and that is certainly something that we’re going to need to look at. And a big issue is succession strategy and getting new and younger people involved in the party and getting them encouraged to run for council, at council level to start of with and building up from there.
Some would explain the last Assembly election results as voters turning away from moderate centrist parties and back to the Sinn Fein and the DUP. I asked Séamas what he though the SDLP could do about that.
(Séamas) I suppose the best thing to say to people is sectarian views don’t put money in your pocket. They don’t hold jobs in Northern Ireland. They don’t help us maintain the NHS in Northern Ireland or to try and improve the NHS. They don’t help us put funds in schools. They don’t help us up-skill workers who have lost their jobs in industry. Sectarian values, not so much values, but sectarian views and polarisation. It doesn’t help. When we work together, we deliver more and that’s been proven time and time again, not just in Northern Ireland but across the world in areas where there has been conflict.
Séamas detailed how he saw the saw SDLP appealing to a wider electoral base.
(Séamas) ... I come from a centre left background, and that would be where my political opinions would be, but certainly I think the SDLP should be appealing to a wider support base of people who not necessarily would agree with us on the question about whether Ireland should be united or not, but certainly people who would agree with us on what the Executive’s economic priorities should be and what we should be doing to try to get us out of this economic crisis.
He felt that the housing crisis in East Belfast was a doorstep issue with voters.
(Séamas) The SDLP holds the position at ministerial level of the Department of Social Development. So we have been looking for the money to build more social houses. And in my own opinion, East Belfast seems to be one of the areas that really needs to benefit from that sort of money. So if people come out and vote for us and support the fact that we’re trying to deliver on a social housing agenda which benefits everybody and especially in East Belfast where there is such a demand, that is something where they are going to get a positive response from coming out and voting for the SDLP.
I finished by asking how Séamas had got started on his journey into politics.
(Séamas) I wouldn’t say it’s the start of my journey. I’ve been involved for the past four years, but not in Northern Ireland. Certainly I see it as that this part of the world and certainly Northern Ireland we have this terrible ability to bring everything down to baseline sectarian politics and I don’t particularly agree with that. I don’t like it. I think really we should be working towards delivering on the things that are mutually beneficial to everybody and I think that is what the Assembly should be for.
So I set out on a journey in politics because I want to make a difference, and I know it sounds like every other young politician has ever started out says that. But when you actually see what differences can be made, and what can be done. Some of my inspirational heroes, people like Teddy Kennedy and the Clintons and the things that they have done in bringing about health care reform and trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland. In all of these different things where they have actually mattered, they have delivered on something. That is an inspiration I think to young people who want to get involved in politics, that if you become involved you can actually get something done.
Mulling over the interview, while Séamas speaks eloquently, he has much to do to extend his knowledge of the local area and build up a repertoire of specific examples to drop in to illustrate his answers. Maybe that’s a harsh conclusion about a seventeen year old - but he is currently the SDLP’s loudest voice in the heart of East Belfast.
I’ll reflect more across the six party representatives and their converging and diverging viewpoints towards the end of the process.