A fresh start

Junior Minister Megan Fearon discusses the functions and challenges of her role within the Executive with David Whelan.

Megan Fearon’s political career has been on a steep incline since she was selected to replace Conor Murphy as an MLA in Newry and Armagh at the age of 20, making her the youngest political representative in Ireland at that time. It was a major step change for a young woman who admits having ambitions to work in politics and for the party but who never envisaged herself in public office.

Fast forward four and a half years and Fearon says that her new role as Junior Minister came as no less of a surprise, but adds that it is one she is glad to have accepted. “Martin [McGuinness] asked to see me one day and without knowing what it was about I was given one of the biggest shocks I have ever faced. I had actually been gearing up to bring forward some Private Members’ legislation in the next mandate so it came as a surprise. Initially I was hesitant about accepting the role because I knew the magnitude of the task but Martin gave me time to think about it and had great confidence in me stepping up to the challenge. I’m delighted that I accepted.”

Following her recent success in polling the highest of the three Sinn Féin MLAs elected in Newry and Armagh, Fearon is confident that she can balance the workload of her role in the Executive and that of representing her constituency. However, she is quick to acknowledge that she has strong support. “We have a strong constituency team made up of our three MLAs, our MP Mickey Brady and our councillors. I think when people see you working within the Executive it does resonate on the ground, but it is harder to get more time in your own area. That’s where our team-mentality, which was probably most-evidenced during the Assembly elections, has been really effective.”

Her role, she explains requires a “bit of everything” and ensures that no two days are the same. As well as working closely with the deputy First Minister on background policy, herself and fellow Junior Minister, Alastair Ross, have very much been the ambassadors for the Executive Office’s work during to new mandate. “I think it’s important to get out and meet the people whose lives we want to better and not be stuck behind a desk. We have been actively engaging with communities and finding out how best to take their issues forward.” Fearon lists among her job highlights to date engagements with Syrian refugees in Derry, work with Women’s Aid in Fermanagh and work on racial equality. However, she speaks most proudly about the Together: Building a United Community (TBUC) strategy, a programme she believes is actively transforming communities and making a difference to people’s lives.

Further work includes closer engagements with the Executive’s ministers. Currently the Junior Ministers are focussed on work with Justice Minister Claire Sugden to develop an approach to hate crime, as part of the Community Safety Partnership.

When asked what are the major challenges facing her in her new role, Fearon concedes that political disagreement with their Executive partners can be limiting, but argues a new “mature approach to politics” has meant more effective government. “I think within this mandate we have been effective in putting our differences aside to work towards a common goal. That’s what people voted for and we have a responsibility to deliver and to be seen doing that.

Megan Fearon pictured with Dr Evelyn Collins, Chief Executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

Megan Fearon pictured with Dr Evelyn Collins, Chief Executive of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.

“We need to better educate our young people on how important physical activity is to remedy any ill, especially mental health.”

“Obviously we are in to a period of opposition now and a whole new era of politics because the entire structures of government have changed. We have acknowledged that we have a real responsibility to deliver. I think in the last Executive there was the feeling that some people had one foot in and one foot out of the door. It made things more difficult, but now I get the sense that there is a real drive and ambition to actually make the changes that we have wanted to make all along.”

In terms of better cross-party relationships, Fearon believes that her visibly good working relationship with Ross has been well received. “We have a good working relationship and I think we both have common goals to build a better future. It has helped that we are both young and of a different generation than most politicians. I believe that it has driven us to be more responsive to the needs of the new generation and shaping a different future. Our work in joint events and joint meetings has been acknowledged within the various sectors, as has our engagements on our own initiatives and ideas that we want to take forward. Overall it’s been indicative of the new way the Executive is working, which has brought about a lot of positivity around the Executive table in the past few months.”

 

Junior Ministers Megan Fearon and Alastair Ross pictured launching the Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week.

Junior Ministers Megan Fearon and Alastair Ross pictured launching the Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week.

However, Fearon also emphasises that youth is not a requisite in terms of energy. “The reason I say that is because I work with Martin McGuinness,” she laughs. “I have never met someone who is more passionate, hard-working and driven than him. He has done it for the past 40 years and he is a real example, whom I learn from every day. I don’t think even the advantage of youth will elevate anyone to match his energy levels.

“By the same token if the Assembly has taught me anything in my time it is that maturity and age are not linked, a view gathered from incidents both inside and outside of the chamber. I think a healthy Assembly requires a mix, not just of experience, but also of diversity. We need young, old, women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities to be represented. I don’t think we have that just yet but currently we have one of the youngest Executive’s in Europe and I think that’s a good start towards our goal of shaping a better and more peaceful future.”

Sporting a broken finger from a weight training incident, and not from her recent return to club football in her native South Armagh, Fearon points out that an issue she is keen to engage with is that using physical activity to improve wellbeing. Adding that she hopes to work closely with Health Minister Michelle O’Neill in her plans to champion mental health and improve services. “I have had my own mental health issues and I know how important is to look after yourself and those around you. Now more than ever, there is so much pressure on our young people and especially women in terms of body image, exams etc. Technology has brought with it great opportunity but it has also proven to be dangerous. Personally being involved in my local GAA club has helped my wellbeing and I think it’s important that young people are active and feel a part of something. We need to better educate our young people on how important physical activity is to remedy any ill, especially mental health.”

Other ambitions include encouraging more women into public life and “taking a gendered approach to looking at the past”. Fearon explains: “Previously I was involved in the UN resolution 1325, which focused on women, peace and security. Given the responsibility for victims of the Executive Office, I think we have a great opportunity to properly involve women in our peace process. I don’t think that we have done that as much as we should have in the last number of years. Dealing with the past is imperative for us as a government, a lot of the problems I have witnessed in the Assembly since 2012 are a consequence of the fact that we haven’t dealt with the past in an appropriate manner yet and it should be a focus for all of us going forward.”

Quizzed on what advice she would offer to her future successor and where she sees her future role in politics, she responds: “You would only ever be asked to do this role if you were passionate about making a difference. Politics is about its about public service and not self-service, unfortunately I don’t think enough people subscribe to that view. I would encourage anyone who is offered the opportunity to take it because it offers the opportunity to shape change, make a difference and see the actual impact that these programmes are having on people’s lives and their communities.
“As for the future, I think I will just take each day as it comes and strive to make a difference as best I can. I’m still only 25 so I have plenty of time to define my career. I’ll certainly always be involved in the party and it will always be a passion of mine to try and make a difference, that’s what it’s been about from the very start.”

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