Former Downing Street advisor and Westminster commentator Matthew O’Toole was co-opted into the South Belfast Assembly seat to replace the Westminster-bound Claire Hanna. The Downpatrick-raised MLA is a nephew of former SDLP leader Mark Durkan and has pointed to Brexit frustrations as his main reason for joining party politics.
Outline your background / career to date
My background is slightly unconventional for a local politician. I was born in Belfast and grew up in Downpatrick. But until I entered the Assembly, virtually all of my career had been in London, where I started as a journalist, then in my late twenties became a Whitehall press officer. My Civil Service career took me to the Treasury and ultimately to Number 10 Downing Street, where I led on Brexit communications before and after the 2016 referendum. It was ultimately my profound frustration at the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland that led me to leave the Civil Service in 2017 and starting to write and talk about the issues at stake. In addition to which, for the last few years, until I joined the Assembly, I’ve had a role at a communications consultancy in the City of London.
What inspired you to get into politics?
I had never really planned to be in party politics. It was the jolt of Brexit, which I happened to be in the middle of, that prompted me to first leave a career in the Civil Service and then develop a profile writing and commentating on Brexit and its effects on Northern Ireland, and relationships on these islands more broadly. And in a sense that was the thing that inspired me to accept the chance to put my name forward to join the Assembly, an abiding belief in a pluralist vision of our future.
“It was ultimately my profound frustration at the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland that led me to leave the Civil Service in 2017 and starting to write and talk about the issues at stake.”
Who do you admire in politics or public life / political role models?
John Hume remains not only the outstanding political figure in modern Ireland, but the moral and intellectual one too. One of Hume’s closest advisors, Mark Durkan, is my uncle, and Mark’s integrity and breadth of intellect and insight are inspiring. Going back in history, a mini political hero is the remarkable Al Smith, former Governor of New York, who completely overhauled his state’s government, opposed prohibition and helped inspire Roosevelt’s New Deal.
What drew you to the SDLP?
First of all, I’m a social democrat. My politics are firmly in the tradition of the European centre-left. And my view of the constitution, and how we remove the border in Ireland, is grounded in a belief in the need for true reconciliation inside Northern Ireland, and across both islands.
What are your key priorities for your constituency / what are the key issues facing your constituency?
Like everywhere else, South Belfast is facing huge public health and economic challenges from Covid-19. We want to recover quickly, especially given our high volume of hospitality and independent retail, but we also want to ‘build back better’ to use what is becoming cliché but is still essential. That means accelerating the move towards a more liveable city, whether that means more bike lanes, quieter streets or greater investment in public transport (including the extension of Glider to the south of the city). We also have acute housing challenges in the constituency, ranging from social housing pressure to growing unaffordability.
What are your interests outside work?
It’s hard to remember a pre-Covid age when ‘outside work’ had more potential meaning. I read a lot, and though I don’t write as much anymore, I enjoy doing occasional book reviews for The Irish Times. I enjoy watching football, and hope when the world returns to normal, I can go to the theatre again.