A native of Newcastle, Willie has been a Down District councillor for the area since 2001 and was elected to the Assembly for South Down in 2003. He takes a keen interest in tourism and the environment, and is Sinn Féin’s Fisheries Spokesperson. Willie is Deputy Chair of the Assembly’s Standards and Privileges Committee, and also sits on the Agriculture and Regional Development Committees.
How did you get started in politics and what was your previous career?
I have been interested in politics for most of my life. Probably the most profound influence on me politically was the 1981 hunger strike. The fact that 10 young men would starve themselves to death rather than comprise their republicanism or allow themselves be branded criminals had a massive impact on me as a teenager.
In a wider context, the 1984 miners’ strike was also a huge influence that helped shaped my beliefs. The parallels with the Six Counties were all too obvious and the miners’ determination to stand-up for their jobs and beliefs was admirable.
During my formal involvement with Sinn Fein, from the mid-1990s onwards, I have become increasingly interested in community development and I believe passionately in the need to empower the most marginalised sections of our society.
In 2001 I was selected to run as a candidate on behalf of Sinn Féin and I accepted the nomination in order to try and make a difference to people who had been left marginalised.
Until my election as an Assembly Member in 2003, I worked for the National Trust in an environmental capacity, constructing paths to improve access into the high Mournes and repairing stone walls.
What is unique about South Down?
South Down is an area of outstanding natural beauty that has massive untapped potential. It has a diverse and really beautiful environment that is the equal of anywhere in Ireland. The Mourne Mountain range boasts a number of spectacular peaks including of course, Slieve Donard, the highest summit in the North of Ireland.
It also has a number of fantastic forest parks and nature reserves that are complemented by a coastline that stretches from Strangford Lough in the north, to Carlingford Lough in the south.
Apart from its scenic beauty, it is also an area that has a rich vein of history, dating from Celtic and Christian times, and we have a shared heritage that includes the burial place of St Patrick and his disciple St Donard. As well as ancient history, places like Ballynahinch are linked to more recent seminal events such as the 1798 Rebellion.
Please outline your three main priorities within the Standards and Privileges Committee.
Building the public’s confidence in politics and politicians. The public want and rightly expect transparency and accountability of their politicians, and they do not wish to see elected representatives abuse their position. We need to be fully accountable and the Standards and Privileges Committee provides the necessary mechanism to achieve this.
The main job of work for the committee has been the redrafting of the code of conduct, which has been robustly reviewed as a result of the public’s understandable outcry at politicians employing family members and perceived abuse of office costs allowances.
Another major aspect of our work is investigating Members who breach the code of conduct. There have been a number of complaints around, for example, homophobic comments, which last year caused great hurt to many within our community. Under the old code of conduct there were too many loopholes, and the new code will close the majority of these and hopefully make politicians a good deal more mindful of how their statements impact on others.
Who do you admire most in politics?
There are a number of politicians whom I admire including the retired veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, who dedicated his entire life to socialist principles when there were more glamorous and easier options open to him.
Nelson Mandela for his tremendous resolve, and tolerance, particularly his work to reconcile the nation of South Africa. Following his incarceration, he could have emerged a bitter person, but instead he prepared himself for the difficult journey that lay ahead and despite the difficulties faced during his fledgling leadership, he was able to show forgiveness and inclusiveness that inspired many others.
Obviously, I also admire the leadership of Sinn Féin, especially Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who along with others have dedicated a large part of their lives to the republican struggle and current peace process.
One person who perhaps does not get the full recognition he deserves for his contribution to the Irish peace process is Albert Reynolds. Without the risks he took as Taoiseach, and his input into the peace process, it would have taken much longer to achieve the Good Friday Agreement.
I also admire Barack Obama for his vision and eloquence as well as for the efforts he is making to rebuild barriers and undoing the damage caused by the Bush Administration
How do you relax outside work?
I love to cook and welcome any opportunity to get the pots and pans out. I especially enjoy cooking for my family and friends and love using fresh local produce that is not processed. I also enjoy baking bread; one of my pet hates is processed food and my cooking sits well with my other hobby which is gardening. There is nothing better than growing your own produce such as potatoes, carrots strawberries, lettuce, onions, peas and using them to prepare a meal.
My pride and joy is my herb garden, the perfume of cooking, and sage and basil are my favoured herbs. I also enjoy walking with my family and my dog Fin in the Mournes and taking the opportunity to do ordinary things such as bringing my daughter Tara to the library and play park.
One thing I committed myself to after being elected was that it would not change me as a person so I still go for the odd pint of Guinness in my local, Mackin’s Bar, at the harbour in Newcastle. It’s a wonderful establishment that predates the Irish famine and often it has great traditional music as well as being a good barometer of public opinion.