Bringing grassroots issues centre stage: Karen settling in to MLA seat
Karen Mullan had something of a political baptism of fire back in June when nominated and selected by Sinn Fein to become the new MLA for Foyle.
Fulfilling the seat left vacant by Elisha McCallion following her victory in the June Westminster Election, Karen - now also Sinn Fein’s Education spokesperson- had little time to prepare for her new political role.
But almost two months later, Derry’s only female MLA is finding her stride and is looking forward to hitting the ground running when Stormont eventually resumes.
“I’ve been a community development worker for the past 20 odd years. I’ve always been an activist and a member of the party and now I’ve moved into this role. It was a bit daunting, I didn’t see this coming and I was nervous for the first couple of weeks, but I am starting to get into it; getting a bit more confident and accepting the confidence others have placed in me.
“I am the only female MLA for Derry but with people like Elisha McCallion, Martina Anderson and other elected representatives and the party in general being very progressive, I know I have that support around me.”
Indeed, the current stalemate doesn’t mean there has not a hefty ‘in tray’ to get through.
“The talks have stopped for the summer but we are still working away. We want the institutions to be up and running as soon as possible. As a new MLA I want to get started and get stuck into the work. Our own party is committed to getting back, but until we achieve equal rights across the board - we are very passionate about that - we will not be going back in.”
Karen grew up in the Bishop Street area and still lives nearby. A former pupil of Nazareth House P.S. and St. Cecilia’s College, she later studied for a Medical Secretary Diploma at the North West Regional College. “I didn’t return to do my degree until I was 34. I did a Community Development Degree at Jordanstown. I had all this experience, but I didn’t have the qualification before that. I really enjoyed that because I got to meet a lot of people from all over the North doing different types of community development work. The course aside, you learn from one another as well.”
Karen started her working career covering maternity at the Transport and General Workers’ Union office, before taking on her first community role at Pilot’s Row Community Centre, working in the office as part of a team. “You find in most community settings everybody mucks in together, whether community worker, receptionist and care taker and you have to work together to put on the different activities that you do,” she said. “I was very lucky. I worked under Gus Hastings (who is now an SDLP councillor). He was very good in the sense of giving me more roles and responsibilities, so I gained great experience.”
She then moved on to the Bogside & Brandywell Health Forum in another administrative role, later becoming one of the health development workers and then moving up into the role of Programme Manager. The experience gained there helped me secure the role of manager at Hillcrest House. “I was there for nearly five years and I really enjoyed it. It was a different area and I got to work with all the different communities in the Waterside and built up relationships. We worked very, very, well together.
“Top of the Hill and Irish Street is an interface and there was a girl who had just come into post in Irish Street and over a number of years we worked closely together and organised a lot more activities..”
That cross-community work is widely credited with having helped diffuse tensions in the interface area and as testament to this, following her selection for the Assembly, congratulations were offered from people working within unionist as well as nationalist, areas of the city.
Karen said that building those contacts and her past experience working at grass roots level, has given her good grounding for the road ahead.
“I was always occupied in a lobbying role when involved at Stormont, but now the shoe is on the other foot!
“For me it’s keeping that grounding and taking those issues up and making sure that people are heard. “What I have been saying to people is, ‘we are here, we are their voice and they need to know.’ That’s our job. No matter how small or irrelevant someone might think something is, our job is to change people’s lives for the better and it’s the small issues that can be life-changing for some.”
Karen said poverty was a major issue locally as was the attempt to secure more jkobs. The Magee expansion and education generally is up there which she claimed was “a priority for us as a party.”
She went on: “I would be very passionate about that. We’ve challenged recently proposed cuts in the school uniform grant. For us its about continuing to invest and not cutting, particularly in services that impact on those most in need. We don’t want to see any further cuts which result in pushing children into poverty.”
Brexit, she says, was another major issue. “For us in Derry, sitting on the border, it is going to affect us badly. Our best option is for a unified island. The island is too small to be split and it just doesn’t make sense in terms of health care, education, our economy, jobs, attracting investment and tourism. It affects everything and Donegal is going to be badly affected as well.”
Karen said that she is very proud to be selected by her party to represent Derry, and praised the support she has received from husband Charles, family, friends and the local community. And it looks like the next generation are already following in their mother’s footsteps.
“My two children Conan (16) and Niamh( 12) are immensely proud, even at a young age they have always been active. Conan decided to join Sinn Fein Youth and Niamh said I’m keeping the seat for when she’s ready!”