The former justice minister from May 2016 until the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2017 is an Independent in the East Londonderry constituency and has twice successfully contested the seat she was originally co-opted to in 2014.
Outline your background/career to date
My working life began as a waitress in a local hotel at 16 years-old to supplement my teenage life. I am recently married and met my future husband while working as a waitress. He was a chef then, but is now a college lecturer teaching computer software. Fortunately, he still makes wonderful food for me. At university, alongside studying politics, I began working in a local pharmacy and trained as a pharmacy technician. I worked there to pay the bills but I stayed in this role for over eight years and gained an impressive knowledge of drugs and healthcare. I’ve also worked for a town centre planning consultancy and managed a group of Irish students in Washington DC on a leadership programme before taking up a role in politics. At one stage I had three jobs and was completing my Masters in Irish Politics, but I enjoyed it. I began working for an MLA in 2008. I sat on Coleraine Borough Council for just over a year before becoming MLA for East Londonderry in 2014. I was Northern Ireland’s Minister of Justice in 2016–2017.
What inspired you to get into politics?
I was always interested in politics, particularly Northern Ireland politics. Our history is extraordinary and obviously very familiar to me having grown up towards the end of the Troubles and during the peace process. There is no one or nowhere like the people and place of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is my home and I only want the best for all within. I see opportunities for that in politics.
Who do you admire in politics or public life/political role models?
Although he is no longer with us, my political inspiration is David McClarty MLA. He gave me my first job in politics as an inexperienced 20-something year-old and he trusted me to take his seat when he sadly passed away in April 2014. David taught me that politics is about people and providing the best public services possible so they can get on with living happy lives. My job, particularly now, can be deeply frustrating and fraught. David, however, reminds me that satisfaction from this job comes from helping others. As long as this remains at the heart of what I do, then I will always feel privileged to be a politician.
I remain Independent because I cannot find a political home that shares my values. I am a unionist because I believe all people of Northern Ireland are best served within the UK, even after Brexit.
What was your driving force for being an independent and not aligning to a particular party?
David McClarty successfully stood as an Independent in 2011. I was co-opted by David to the NI Assembly after he died. I felt it was important to remain Independent, at least until the next election, because that’s what people voted for when they voted for David. I remain Independent because I cannot find a political home that shares my values. I am a unionist because I believe all people of Northern Ireland are best served within the UK, even after Brexit. Beyond unionism, because there is more to life than the constitutional question, I want a society that is equal, respects and cherishes difference, protects the most vulnerable and upholds social justice. Unfortunately, no political party fulfils this, so I will stay Independent for now.
What are your key priorities for your constituency/what are the key issues facing your constituency?
I represent a constituency with an ageing population, so advocating on behalf of older people remains a priority. As one of the younger MLAs, I am interested in children and young people issues and planning for the future needs to include the next generation. I hope to pursue legislation that considers trauma when developing any future policy. We are post-conflict, yet we have not addressed the trauma of the Troubles. We should not be surprised that we have significant mental health and suicide issues, but we should do something about it.
I am also keen to promote good governance. In 1998, we were given the opportunity through devolution to determine what’s best for the people of Northern Ireland. This is 100 per cent as long as we govern. Given the difficulties of the past 20 years and more recent problems, we need to prioritise good governance otherwise services and people get left behind. Sadly, I think we are now seeing this happen. Regardless of political ideology, politics means nothing if we can’t govern and lead all our people to a better place.
What are your interests outside work?
I struggle to find time outside work. As an Independent, I am my party’s leader, spokesperson for every issue, press officer, manager, administrator… When I do find time, I like to spend it with my husband and family. We have a very old house in Castlerock which needs a lot of care and attention, particularly the gardens, so we spend time at home fixing, weeding and painting usually alongside eating and drinking.