Women in Politics - Maeve McLaughlin

Sinn Fein Councillor Maeve McLaughlin
Sinn Fein Councillor Maeve McLaughlin
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Growing up in the Bogside during the 1970s and ‘80s it was difficult to escape the constant sights and sounds of the ‘Troubles’.

As part of an ongoing series of features on local female councillors, reporter Rory Mooney talks to the Sinn Fein council leader, Maeve McLaughlin, about how growing up in the city during the Troubles shaped her political beliefs, her time on Derry City Council, and her hopes for the future.

Growing up in the Bogside during the 1970s and ‘80s it was difficult to escape the constant sights and sounds of the ‘Troubles’.

The presence of British troops on the streets of Derry was the driving force that politicised the people of the area, including Northlands Sinn Fein councillor, Maeve McLaughlin. Maeve was born and reared in the Bogside, where she witnessed from an early age the impact that the British army were having on the communities she came from. The killing of her cousin when she was nine and the aftermath of Bloody Sunday would have a profound impact on shaping Maeve’s political beliefs. She explains: “I had a cousin shot dead when I was nine, witnessing some of my friends going to prison and the complete injustice in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday and the fact that communities had to stand up and defend themselves, it was just a natural progression that what was taking place around me, shaped my republican beliefs and activism.” With republicans and the British government locked in secret negotiations, with the hope of ending the conflict, Maeve had the opportunity to go to university, where she obtained a BA Honours degree in sociology, history and politics from the University of Galway. For many students, university is a time of more than just studying, but a chance to meet new people, and broaden horizons. Maeve met people who would not have known much or necessarily have cared what was happening in the North at the time, which also added to the sense of being a republican. “What university life did was that it gave me the articulation of my views,” Maeve said.

“I went to university as a republican and I came out the other side as a republican but now I was able to express my views more clearly.

“Another thing I learned was the differing views people had on the North of Ireland. “I was there around the time of the ceasefire and you could almost sense more and more people in the university and around Galway city wanting to engage with republicans, asking “what’s it like?” and “what are the human rights issues?”, whereas before people didn’t want to discuss it or made judgements on it which weren’t always based on fact. University was a real learning curve, not just for me but for others as well who had a particular view of what a republican was.” Maeve from an early age and right through university was connected to the republican movement in some way, however, she did not envisage herself as an elected representative until she came back to Derry, when in 2001 she was given the nod to run for council. “Initially I wasn’t planning on being elected,” Maeve laughs.

“But it’s something that you never take for granted - that’s the way I look at it.

“You can never be complacent. “We are empowered by the people to speak on their behalf.

“One of the most frustrating things about it is the limited powers you have especially in local government to actually affect change.”  Being elected by the people is a proud moment, being elected by your party peers to become group leader on council is equally a proud moment for Maeve. “It’s no easy task at times,” Maeve laughs. “But I can’t complain because we’re (Sinn Fein councillors) all striving for the same objectives, which are tied into our overall objectives in creating a united Ireland.” A number of years ago Sinn Fein changed its constitution to ensure that half of the party’s Ard Chomhairle was made up of women.”

Maeve believes that this is a vital step in ensuring women are being heard at leadership level. “We have a structure which is fairly equal.

“We had to change the constitution so that 50 percent of the Ard Chomhairle is made up of women. “In my own experiences in Sinn Fein I have been supported and encouraged as a woman activist. I think sometimes when you go out of that structure, in terms of council or local government in general and especially in corporate structures you can see how there is a lot of barriers in the way of women’s participation in decision making and politics.

“I think as a party we have a done a good job in relation to women’s needs.” Despite having a busy schedule as Sinn Fein group leader on council, Maeve is also the manager of the Glen Development Initiative (GDI). Being a leading member of the Glen community Maeve believes that this only feeds her sense of republicanism through community politics. “We are grounded in our communities and republicanism is about from the ground-up as opposed to being imposed on people. All politics is local, and it’s a natural course for myself and republicans to be grounded in and work for their communities.” At a local level, Derry is leading the way with women in positions of power, which Maeve sees as an encouraging time for women.  “I’m honoured to be the Sinn Fein party leader on the council, we have a female town clerk, we have a female heading up the chamber of commerce, there’s a woman heading up Ilex, these are key positions in the city as well, so we’re definitely getting there in terms of addressing gender issues.”

Next week Rory talks to UUP Councillor Mary Hamilton