Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Words on Wednesday...with Carmel Hanna MLA
Answering my questions this week is SDLP MLA for South Belfast Carmel Hanna. My thanks to Ms Hanna for kindly agreeing to be interviewed. So then without further ado, let's begin.
You are an SDLP MLA for South Belfast. Talk us through a typical day in your life.
There’s no such thing as a typical day. As an Assembly member, Mondays and Tuesdays are the busy days at Stormont for all members with plenary sessions, SDLP Assembly group meetings, lobbying, debates and questions to ministers on a rotational basis. Every second Wednesday there is a meeting of the Assembly Standards & Privileges Committee, which I chair. Thursday is taken up most of the day with the work of the Assembly Health Committee. As with any democracy, Health absorbs about 45% of the Executive’s budget and with a myriad of interest groups - there is infinite demand for medical services and only a limited budget available. Friday is devoted to constituency work and I make myself available to any constituent who wants to see me, or talk to academic researchers and the like.
I’m also a Belfast City Councillor, though not for much longer, and I sit on three committees there. I worked as a nurse in Africa years ago and I am the founding chair of the Assembly All Party Group on International Development (APGID). We work closely with the aid agencies and, I’m glad to say that we receive support from all the Assembly parties. Northern Ireland is a very small place and we could not have overcome our problems without outside assistance. It’s time to give something back to the rest of the world and the aim of the APGID is to mainstream international development in government programmes. Apart from all that, there are residents’ groups and party meetings to attend to and I’m out of the house two to three nights a week.
On Saturdays I’m either at party meetings canvassing or doing what I call PBWA-‘Politics by Walking About’, out on the Lisburn Road and Finaghy or elsewhere, doing normal things like shopping and talking to anybody who wants to talk to me. My SDLP branch, Balmoral, is the largest in the party, but it’s hard work keeping an organisation together and a major part of my work is ensuring a smooth succession. The fact that we’re a good branch means there are three or four very able people who can step into my shoes. Frankly, I wear too many hats - MLA, Councillor, two Chairs, Executive member, etc. and the SDLP must bring forward the next generation.
I understand that you worked as a staff nurse in the casualty department at the Mater Hospital in Belfast during the Troubles and that it left a big impression on you. That must have been a distressing time. Tell us a bit about your experiences.
I worked in Mater casualty in North Belfast for three years in the early seventies, the worst period of the troubles. The Mater is on the Crumlin Road and North Belfast was the epicentre of the troubles - a quarter of everybody killed in the troubles died within an area of a few square miles. Frankly, it was horrendous and it has left me with the conviction that violence never solves anything. I am almost, but not quite, a pacifist, but I can’t think of many occasions where violence is justified. Looking back on my work as a nurse, I was probably under stress a lot of the time. About 1971, around internment time, I went to a meeting to hear John Hume who said something like ‘If we don’t get this violence stopped soon, it’ll go on for 25 years’. People thought he was crazy, but John was right.
You were active in the Civil Rights campaign and this year is the 40th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement. How significant was the civil rights campaign in bringing change to the North?
I joined the Civil Rights Movement as a young nurse. I remember joining the Linenhall Street march in October 1968 (my staff nurse uniform under my coat - I would have been disciplined if Matron had caught me) and marches throughout 1969 and 1970 until the CRM was swamped by the escalating violence. Key demands of the CRM, such as fair allocation of public housing and the local government vote, were actually won peacefully quite early on. CR politicised a generation-the aims were wholly peaceful. Unfortunately a campaign for change and reform was mistaken by the unionist government as a challenge to the state itself. People who are now prominent Sinn Fein members had nothing to do with CR because they wanted to overthrow the state and didn’t want to reform it.
You have been the SDLP's Spokesperson on Health and Public Safety since 2003. You share your South Belfast constituency with the UUP's Michael McGimpsey, who now serves as Northern Ireland's Health Minister. How well do you think Mr McGimpsey has performed in his role?
I think Michael McGimpsey is a good Health minister. I worked with him when I was Minister for Employment and Learning and I get on quite well with him. I find him helpful and courteous with a very challenging brief and I think he is coping well.
What are some of the political issues that you are focusing on at this point in time in your constituency?
South Belfast is the most diverse and vibrant constituency in the North. Its MP is my colleague, Alasdair McDonnell, and I want to ensure that the SDLP keeps the seat. Large parts of the constituency are affluent, but there are pockets of deprivation such as the Markets, Village and Taughmonagh and there is quite a high transient population and a very significant representation of ethnic minorities.
Housing and planning are the main constituency issues. Many young families are unable to get on the home ownership ladder because of soaring prices, there is an acute shortage of social housing and this is distorting the demographic profile. Because the constituency is reasonably well integrated, people want to live in mixed areas, but the homes just aren’t available.
If you could change three things about Irish society, north or south, what would you change and why?
I would want all of us (myself included) to be less selfish and greedy and more outward-looking. I was one of nine children of a factory worker in Warrenpoint and the vast majority of people were at most a couple of generations away from the peasantry. There was no real class structure. In the South, burgeoning wealth has created class division and a lot of vulgar and conspicuous consumption, which I hate. Alcohol abuse is ruining the country and we must change people’s hearts, minds and behaviour in relation to dependency. In the North, many people can be parochial in their views and aren’t aware that the rest of the world have far worse problems than we ever had. I want better and equal access to health and education, people to put a value on their own dignity and, with that access to take the opportunities open to them. I feel that the North’s health and education system is more equitable than the South, but that young people in the South get a broader based education. Finally, some of us treat our wonderful environment very badly and I want that changed radically. Underpinning all this is the necessity to build a competitive economy.
What are your thoughts on Ian Paisley stepping down as NI's First Minister?
Politically, good riddance. He was a negative and malign influence for 40 years. I hope he has a long and quiet retirement. I’m sure he is a good husband, father and grandfather and I credit him for that. His intransigence and sheer bigotry helped prolong our troubles for decades. Observing him at close quarters it seems to me he has an overweening ego.
The big news story in the Republic has been Bertie Ahern stepping down as Taoiseach. What is your opinion of Mr Ahern and his role in the peace process?
Bertie was fully engaged and committed, especially at the time of the Good Friday Agreement when his beloved mother died. I don’t think he was any particular friend of the SDLP. He deserves the praise he is getting for his part in the process. I think both he and Blair were far too indulgent of the Provos and DUP after the Agreement on issues like decommissioning and policing. He is also friendly, modest and unassuming, an Everyman example for any politician in terms of making contact with people.
What is your opinion of Brian Cowen and do you see him having a positive relationship with the North's parties?
I don’t know him well but in meetings I’ve found him to be very astute.
What are your thoughts on a united Ireland?
I want it, and in many respects the groundwork is there but to quote John Hume, "the island of Ireland is united, it’s the people of Ireland who are divided"…"it’s a matter of those who believe in Irish unity persuading those who aren’t in favour of it."
I’ve lived for long periods in Dublin, Wicklow and Galway and I’m comfortable anywhere in Ireland. I think democratic Ireland generally has done a poor job of selling the benefits of a united Ireland to unionists. The driving force for partition was basically economic but that argument has been undermined by the Republic’s prosperity in recent decades. The thirty year violence was a setback for the cause of a united Ireland - the Provos and the DUP were constantly picking at the sore. The stereotype of the hard-working, blunt, honest northern Protestant has a lot of validity and those qualities married to Southern creativity would be a great combination.
I see that like myself you have much admiration for the United Irishmen and you are a founding and current member of the United Irishmen Commemoration Society. Would you agree that many of the noble Irish republican ideals of the United Irishmen have in many ways been lost by later generations on this island?
I was a founder member of the United Irishmen Commemoration Society and my husband and John Gray, Librarian of the Linenhall Library (a successor of Thomas Russell, ‘The Man from God Knows Where’) were the first two chairmen. Starting on 14 October 1991, the exact bicentenary of the founding of the United Irishmen in Crown Entry, Belfast, we organised commemorative events in the Elmwood Hall - a play/pageant by Jonathan Bardon, music, lectures etc. To our amazement, about 700 people turned up and they were by no means all northern Catholics. The United Irishmen were the first Irish democrats and had a great generosity of spirit.
I always remember a moment after one of the 1998 lectures by a former Presbyterian Moderator, a distinguished historian, who was asked a kind of revisionist question "well, wasn’t it a disaster, didn’t it all end in tears, tens of thousands dead etc?". He paused for a long time and then said very quietly "Yes, but you have to remember that the government was an oligarchy, Dublin Castle was defending privilege, they weren’t defending democracy. It would have been better if the United Irishmen had succeeded." That remark gave me a glimpse into the kind of Ireland we could have had and can still have. I think physical force Irish nationalism has tried to hi-jack, the good name of Irish republicanism and it’s up to democratic Ireland to reclaim the true meaning of republicanism.
What does the SDLP need to do in your mind to recover the ground it has lost to Sinn Féin in recent times?
Get organised! The SDLP has undervalued organisation. Some people got elected for thirty years because the SDLP was opposed to violence, supported civil rights and was wholly democratic. Once the Provos stopped killing people, the SDLP had problems in key areas. Sinn Fein brought the military discipline of the IRA across to politics. Look, there are 101 district electoral areas (ward groupings) in the North and even yet the SDLP has councillors in 70 of them, so we can build an organisation, but we have to be serious about it. Every elected representative needs an organisation behind them. Sinn Fein has broken no delph at Stormont, and there are opportunities for the SDLP if we organise ourselves to take them.
Where should Ireland be twenty years from now?
An inclusive, peaceful, tolerant society, aware of its place in the world and its responsibilities to the rest of humanity. A society where social exclusion is at a minimum, where people have values and ethics - the Christian ones are what I stand by, but I also believe in a pluralist society - and a high standard of education/training, and where family life is supported. A social democratic society where it’s recognised that everyone needs a helping hand at some time to get through life.
In Connemara they have a saying: ‘Faoi scáth a chéile a mhaireann muid’ - we all live in each other’s shadow, we’re all interdependent. For all our faults, Ireland still has a very strong sense of community.
What does the future hold in store for you?
I’m probably in my last term as an elected representative and happy that we have some great young people coming through in South Belfast. Time for the younger generation! Then, keeping healthy, spending more time with my family and friends, particularly in the West.
Finally I'd like to play a small round of word association. I'm sure you know what it entails. Basically just outline what word comes into your head when you hear the following:
Ian Paisley - Enormous vanity. Destructive. A wrecker.
Bertie Ahern - Charmer, street-wise. Electoral magician.
Gerry Adams - Vain. From the Irish side, second only to Paisley in responsibility for the prolonged conflict.
Mark Durkan - Very bright, but needs to show a ruthless streak.
Brian Cowen - Likeable. Shrewd.
DUP - Unprincipled. Power mad.
Sinn Féin - Formidable machine. Chancers.
SDLP - Good people, too often disorganised.
Irish Unity - Attainable. Big persuasion job needed.
Carmel Hanna - Down to earth, commonsensical. Wish I was younger and had been better prepared when I went into politics and that I had a fraction of the articulateness and fluency of my branch chair, Conall McDevitt.
Thank you for your time, Ms Hanna. All the best for the future.
Next week, Alliance Party MLA for North Down, Dr Stephen Farry, takes my questions. Stay tuned to United Irelander for future interviews.
Previous interviews can be found here.
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