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NI election wasn’t easy for a ‘girl getting above herself’, but good things never are

I knew that running for election as an independent candidate in the Northern Ireland elections last week would be challenging and increasingly demanding.

But I don’t think I understood how it would feel to hear people talk candidly on their own doorsteps about the difficulties they face in their lives and how they see the future of Northern Ireland. Long after my sore feet have healed and I’ve paid off my campaign debts, it is these conversations that I will remember.

There can be no question that the political landscape in Northern Ireland is changing at pace and has changed utterly, buoyed by an emerging middle ground, and compounded by large-scale distaste for the political leaders who continue to hold this place back. Trends over the past five years have indicated that unionism would maintain its downward trend whilst the Alliance ‘surge’ would continue.

This was always going to be a historic election, and I didn’t want to forgo an opportunity to be a part of it, which is why I chose to run as an independent candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

An invariably tougher path, and for that reason, the one less travelled, running as an independent brings with it as much strain and difficulty as it does ideological freedom. But ever the stubborn advocate for progressive, inclusive change in the North, few who knew me were surprised that I would opt to go it alone despite the odds.

In the entire history of Stormont, there has only every been three independents elected to the Assembly. In the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone specifically, only two independent candidates had ever even run, neither of whom were women and both with decades of party political affiliations.

Such were the challenges I was prepared to face. As with many candidates, I faced backlash for putting myself forward. My posters were ripped down and I began receiving online abuse for being a ‘girl getting above herself’, as one online message worded. It is incumbent on all of us to push back against the increasing trends of abuse and violence against political representatives.

Barriers for Independent candidates

By design, there are numerous in-built barriers to the participation of Independents. Party political candidates receive the electoral register a month ahead of independent candidates, and typically have an inherently more substantial base of supporters willing to volunteer their time to the campaign.

Finances are another barrier, with the costs of posters, leaflets and transport all a significant financial hurdle for anyone to overcome as an independent. To tackle these challenges, anything that could be done in-house, was. I acted as my own election agent and campaign manager.

My American husband – a musician by day – became lead designer, photographer, website builder, videographer, audio engineer, and editor. Incorporated into the website was a donations feature, through which the generosity of supporters was able to lessen the financial blow, and without which my campaign would not have been possible.

But despite even these measures, further compromises were necessary; Instead of four-page folded leaflets, we did double-sided flyers. And instead of 500 or even thousands of posters, we could only afford 100. Undeniably, the financial limitations of running as an independent manifest as limitations in reach as well.

In an ever-broadening tech and connectivity-centric society, it should be of no surprise that rural candidates in particular face additional challenges. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is the largest constituency by land mass in Northern Ireland, and in contrast, the least populated.

To cover significant ground, one needs the reach afforded by a large team. As an independent, my team was my family and friends, and while I knocked doors six days a week for six straight weeks, I simply could not compete with the literal busloads of volunteers which some party candidates had on hand.

Desire for an alternative

Exhilarating, it was an incredible experience which I will forever carry with me. There is something so humbling about knocking on the door of a perfect stranger, and that individual confiding in you how they feel, what matters most to them and what they hope for in the future.

These are people in their homes, opening a door into their lives – no small display of trust under any circumstance, let alone an environment with as politically and socially hostile a history as Northern Ireland. The people that I met were not rigid in their political beliefs but crying out for an alternative to the green and orange politics that has dominated this place for so long.

Ranging from laughter to dismay, the conversations I shared with my neighbors and the hundreds of families spread across Fermanagh and varied South Tyrone were as as the demographics themselves. But one of the few constants was the shocking regularity with which families suffered as a direct result of the actions, or inactions, of their political representatives.

People queued on hospital waiting lists year upon year, people burdened by steadily rising costs, people feeling completely abandoned and same isolated in rural areas – all examples of a critically broken system of governance. It is so painfully clear that politics, in the current form, is not delivering for the vast majority of people.

Failure on that scale inherently leaves large sections of the electorate completely disenfranchised, evidenced by the lower voter turnout in the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland. By running as an Independent, it was my hope that I could I wanted to provide a viable alternative for those so disillusioned by party politics that they no longer want to vote at all.

Whilst I may not have had the outcome I’d hoped for most, knowing that my efforts encourage people into the polling station – sometimes the first time in their lives – was worth even the most challenging moments, and fulfilled one of the principal goals I set for myself before entering public life.

Putting forward a positive message about the value of using your vote was a huge pull for me. I wanted to – above all else – play a positive role in what was slated to be a highly divisive election.

Politics is a challenging space, and can be incredibly unkind, evidenced by the losses of some high-profile and highly effective politicians including Green Party leader Claire Bailey and SDLP Deputy Leader Nichola Mallon.

Participating

Running in the election gave me a whole new perspective on what candidates go through in the run-up to polling day, and how difficult it is for anyone to enter the race without the backing of a party machine. The final days before the election polling day became 16-hour marathons of canvassing, leafletting, and relocating posters from all over the constituency to various polling stations.

The day of the vote was a whistle-stop tour of dozens of more polling stations, culminating in a sleepless fever-pitch of climbing out of bed and straight into the car at dawn, and zipping to the count center for what can, and did, become days of number crunching.

The count center itself is a dizzying buzz of sleep-deprived candidates and their teams hovering over the shoulders of counters, hurriedly scanning each ballot in line of sight in the hope of sneaking a pre-emptive glance at the fate of the election. The atmosphere is heavy with nervous excitement and an overwhelming sense of solidarity.

As a political nerd myself, and someone who is inescapably competitive by nature, the count center was terribly exciting. In that space, we aren’t political opponents, but people, all hoping to have done what we could make it through.

It might not have been easy, but then as the saying goes, good things rarely are. To anyone thinking about a future in politics, I say; just do it.

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