Interview with new MLA Ciara Ferguson - ‘It’s critical to provide affordable housing for our young families’

Two months ago Strabane-native Ciara Ferguson was selected to replace veteran republican Martina Anderson as Foyle MLA, writes Kevin Mullan.

Her co-option - alongside Pádraig Delargy who took over from Karen Mullan at the same time - followed an internal review conducted by Sinn Féin in advance of next year’s Assembly elections.

Since taking up the role the 50-year-old has spoken regularly in the Assembly on housing, tenants’ rights, rising energy prices, welfare mitigations and the recent surge in drink-spiking reports in Derry, among other issues.

The ‘Journal’ caught up with her to find out more about one of Stormont’s newest political representatives .

Ciara Ferguson

“I started off as a graduate of Magee. I did the housing degree back in 1994 and during that time my first job was working in the Housing Executive for six months. I then worked with a local housing association for six months - out and about in the estates, working with residents, working with teams on housing maintenance, cycle maintenance and rent arrears.

“In between I’ve always worked in pubs and clubs as well from the age of 15. I started off in the Fir Trees and up until 2000 I worked part-time in pubs and clubs. I was also a sub teacher for a while both in Donegal and Strabane while I continued my studies at Magee up until 1998. Then I moved into the field of community development in 2000.”

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Though a newcomer to front-line politics Ms. Ferguson will be well-known to many through her community development work in the city’s northern suburbs.

“I’ve been working in the Outer North [a neighbourhood renewal area covering the wider Shantallow, Galliagh and Skeoge district] area since 2000 and developed my skills there. I was manager of the Greater Shantallow Area Partnership (GSAP) from 2007 and chair of Outer North from 2010 up until a few months back.

“Key for me is working in the heart of neighbourhoods and communities with local residents and local community organisations but also bringing together collectively statutory and political representatives. I’ve worked quite closely with all to develop the area,” she says.

Two decades working in one of Derry’s most vibrant communities but one that suffers its fair share of deprivation has sharpened her focus on the needs of the city, she says.

The mother-of-three who has been married for 27 years said: “I suppose for me the biggest issue is those most in need and the working poor. It is about delivering services for them and that ranges from health services, family support services, food banks and so forth. We’ve provided all of that and developed in response to the need. It is a voluntary board of directors I’ve been working with. People who have lived and worked in the area.”

Housing is a key focus, says Ms. Ferguson, who sits on the Stormont Communities Committee. Reducing waiting lists and tackling housing stress are central planks in her brief.

“Housing is a big priority. I am delighted to be working closely with our minister Deirdre Hargey. I now sit on the Communities Committee and have had my first couple of meetings. It is something I want to get my teeth into. We know what the waiting lists are like, particularly on the cityside.

“A home is what people need to give them a good quality life, to be settled and have a safe space to live in, to rear a young family. It’s critical more social and affordable housing is provided for young families.”

Derry’s chronically high unemployment rate is a persistent problem but Ms. Ferguson believes this can be turned around.

“The city has loads of potential. There is a will and there are willing partners. We have been fortunate enough since 2009 when we had the One Plan and now we have the Strategic Growth Plan in that the city has gotten smaller. People are starting to work far more closely together. It is about continual collaboration and positive working, collectively. Collective is the term. It is about bringing all the partners together. It is not going to be easy but this city has got huge potential.

“We are on the cusp of great change. There are fantastic things happening. We have the City Deal. We should be pulling all together, all our resources - whether it is InvestNI, the council, ourselves, whatever we can do collectively here in the city to drive forward positive good news stories and bring new jobs into the city. That’s critical for our youth and our young people.

“We have great companies that are here at the moment and the graduate entry programmes have been fantastic. We need to be building upon them. We’ve got the Springtown campus [of North West Regional College] that has just reopened again. There are going to be fantastic programmes for our young people around construction and all those other areas so there is fantastic stuff going on and it is about building on the assets that we have. For me it is looking positive and we need to be building upon that.”

Ms. Ferguson believes the expansion of the city to the north is an exciting prospect. However, the development of the Skeoge and H2 lands is more than about housing alone. “It is about creating sustainable communities. Housing is critical to that but it is also about working with a range of partners to ensure that with any home there are the associated ancillary facilities - whether that is play facilities, community facilities, youth facilities. That is what creates a community.

“We need to build good quality homes which we have out in Skeoge and in H2 but also look at the connectivity for that community and at what else is available for that community to ensure it is sustainable, so our young people have somewhere to play, so that we have local shops. It is about looking at the overall picture of a sustainable community and not looking at it in terms of only housing. We are working quite closely with the Department of Education in terms of youth facilities.

“We have been fortunate enough with the housing associations and community organisations to have a new community hub out there. They have just opened a new café. It’s about bringing the residents together collectively and building relationships. That supports people’s overall mental health and well-being as well because they are actually meeting in a safe space to socialise. It is reducing isolation and that has a positive impact on mental health.”

Earlier this year when it was revealed Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan would be stepping down some eyebrows were raised. But Ms. Ferguson, who paid tribute to Ms. Anderson in her Maiden Speech a few months ago, said her predecessors have been very supportive.

“We have a fantastic team. I have obviously worked closely with Karen and Martina and they are there to lift up the phone to if I need any advice or guidance which is great.

“Our team has been out canvassing and there has been real positivity at the doors. That’s what we love the best - getting out and knocking at the door and finding out the issues that are affecting people’s day-to-day lives and what there is we can do to support them. I love that aspect of the work.

“Stormont is great with regards to policy which is critical to us in terms of reviewing it and scrutinising it and it is a lot of work in the committees but also what is equally important is being out knocking on doors and speaking to our local residents and finding out how we can support them,”