From Barna to Westminster

for Claire Hanna MP

‘Definitely, I am a Galway girl, very much so, I’m from Barna’, Claire Hanna MP replies when asked where exactly she is from. Claire was on one of her regular visits from her home in Belfast to her birthplace in Barna, Co. Galway, when we sat down last week to discuss her journey from rural county Galway to the House of Commons in Westminster.

For almost four decades, the family have maintained very close links with Galway, and Claire describes the house in Barna as their ‘spiritual home’.

Her parents, Eamon and Carmel, have a wide network of friends here, and the family have kept a home in Barna since they left for Belfast in the mid 1980’s.

General Secretary of the SDLP

For those familiar with Barna and Belfast in the 1980s, it seems a strange move to bring four children under ten years of age to live in that divided, and deeply troubled, society. Eamon and Carmel had been lifelong supporters and admirers of SDLP leader John Hume, and when the position of General Secretary of the SDLP became available, Eamon took on the role. ‘It was a calling, a vocation in the depths of the troubles’ according to Claire, who describes how her parents decided to do whatever they could to help, at what was a very difficult time in Northern Ireland. Both her parents are from Northern Ireland, her father from Belfast and her mother from Warrenpoint. Her mother, Carmel, was elected to Belfast City Council in 1987 for the SDLP, and subsequently as an MLA for South Belfast from 1998 to 2010. Prior to this, she worked as a staff nurse in the casualty department in the Mater Hospital, Crumlin Road at the height of the Troubles. What she saw there convinced her that political change must be made by peaceful means. Claire’s political trajectory has been similar to her mothers. She was elected to Belfast City Council in 2011, and as an MLA to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2015.

House of Commons

After spending eight years as an elected representative in Northern Ireland, Claire was selected as the SDLP candidate for South Belfast for the 2019 Westminster election. Expected to poll well, and challenge outgoing DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, Claire turned a 2,000 vote deficit from the 2017 election into a 15,000 vote majority in 2019. She was joined by her party leader Colum Eastwood MP, elected for the constituency of Foyle, in the House of Commons. It was a very successful election for the SDLP, winning two seats with huge majorities, from a position of having no MP’s in Westminster following the 2017 general election.

In the footsteps of giants

Ten MP’s have been elected to the House of Commons for the SDLP since 1970, and the list of illustrious names includes such political heavyweights as John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Gerry Fitt. An emotional reunion with the late Seamus Mallon took place when Claire, and Colm Eastwood, travelled to Markethill to meet with the former deputy leader of the SDLP, shortly after their 2019 election victory. She describes herself as being ‘almost awed’ in the presence of the former deputy First Minister, who passed away a few weeks later. Seamus told them that he had been very unwell, and barely able to attend the polling station to vote, and ’thought he was dreaming, and cried’ when he learned of their victories. ‘He was always available to the SDLP to offer advice, but never wanted to be a back seat driver’, according to Claire.

Good Friday Agreement

Having lived in Belfast for most of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the seventeen year old Claire was filled with hope and optimism when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA ) was signed in 1998. Now, almost twenty five years later, she does not believe the promise of that time has lived up to its potential. ‘Alas, I feel the GFA has not been properly worked: the core ethos of partnership, compromise and the structures are sound, but we have power division in many cases’. There are still ‘high degrees of sectarianism’, and the ‘polarisation caused by Brexit is forcing binary choices on people and the potential of the GFA has not been realised’. She is scathing of Brexit and its architects. ’The DUP are in a terrible tailspin over Brexit, and have made a series of catastrophic errors which have damaged the community, and they have no plan for how to get out of it. They have shackled themselves to the far right of the Tory party’. She is frustrated that ‘the turbulent time we are now in is due to DUP mistakes’. ’Sinn Féin or the DUP could have given us a soft Brexit, but, of course, neither of them did’, Claire adds.

Practical politics

|n a political world which seems increasingly dominated by grandstanding and playing to the gallery, it is refreshing to meet a politician whose concerns are about improving people’s lives in the here and now. This is another disadvantage of the political landscape becoming so dominated by the Brexit debate. This finger wagging is not her kind of politics. For Claire, politics is not about trying to fool people, and oneupmanship, it is about her children’s future, the health system, the education system and trying to make things better for all in society. She is passionate, but also reluctant to engage in political point scoring. Frustrated at how daily political discourse has become so negative, she would ‘lose my seat and gracefully retire before I’d play some of the political games you have now’.

New Ireland

So what is her, and the SDLP’s, vision for a new Ireland? Again, she warms to her practical politics theme. She believes in good government and also in anti-sectarianism. Northern Ireland has ‘not enjoyed good governance in a century, and certainly not in recent years’. She is happy that the analysis outlined by Hume and Mallon over many years, against which Unionism and Republicanism railed, has now become the norm. The simplistic slogans of ‘Brits out’ and ’No road to Dublin’ may win some electoral advantage, but the new Ireland will not just be about changing the name over the door, ‘what is this new Ireland for?’ is the question she poses. She is happy to provide the answer, ‘it is about making society better now, not waiting for constitutional change’. You cannot put issues on the long finger, and hope the new Ireland will sort out everything for you. When a new Ireland emerges, it is going to take time, and not be a single event. It may take decades, and as Hume pointed out, ultimately the new Ireland is ‘about uniting people, not territory’. She still feels the communities ’need to reconcile with each other, and ‘Brexit gave us lessons on how you don’t do constitutional change’. ’There are increasing numbers who don’t identify as nationalist or unionist, and they will help decide the future. The process will take time, and we ’need to do better than just reversing partition’. There is the potential danger of having a large trapped minority, ‘people at sea, and upset with no affinity with the Irish state’.

The DUP opposed the GFA and now want to cloak themselves in the language of the agreement. On the other side, some who proclaim the new Ireland wants to include everybody are then shouting ‘Up the Ra’ a few days later.

She is not optimistic, but hopeful, that the new Prime Minister will ‘see the logic of having good relationships with your neighbour’, and maybe British-Irish relations will improve once the Tory leadership election is out of the way.

Claire remembers her father in shock and tears, kneeling in front of the television, at the time of the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1987. A few years earlier, he had taken his wife and family from the security, and beauty, of county Galway to try to make a difference in his native Belfast. When Claire now remembers childhood summers, it is always Barna that comes to mind. The work undertaken by her parents almost forty years ago continues today, with their daughter, Claire Hanna MP, Galway girl, native of Barna.

 

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