Incoming Slieve Gullion Councillor represents SDLP’s ‘new blood’
When SDLP Slieve Gullion Councillor Geraldine Donnelly announced her retirement earlier this month she said the time was right to “step back and allow the next generation of SDLP representatives to take the lead.” The outgoing councillor seems to have paved the way for exactly that, with 33 year old Crossmaglen native Pete Byrne co-opted into the local council role. A relative newcomer to politics, having been an activist for the SDLP for just over 18 months, there is a real sense upon speaking to Pete ahead of Thursday’s SDLP selection convention, that this injection of young new blood could well be just what the party needs in order to reach out to the younger generation in south Armagh.
His selection reflects a series of sweeping changes within the SDLP party which have been most evident with the election of its new leader Colum Eastwood who, at the same age as Pete, is the youngest party leader in the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly election.
Speaking exclusively to The Examiner before his selection is formally announced at Thursday’s event, the incoming Slieve Gullion councillor pledges to tackle the disengagement and apathy towards politics among his generation and says he will not get involved in the “mud slinging, point scoring” politics which is rife in the Northern Ireland political arena.
“Politics in Northern Ireland is very divisive and it has disengaged younger generations,” says Pete.
“Mud slinging politics is counterproductive. I’ve never done it and I don’t intend to. Bickering and point scoring publically is not my approach. Sinn Fein have an electorate that want them there, the SDLP have an electorate that want us here, so there has to be space for the two of us to work together for the benefit of the the people of this area.
“I’ll be focussing on what the SDLP can give to people and how to represent the people here, working with everyone for the good of the area.
“As a political representative, the best way to show your local community what you are going to do is to represent your people fairly. Respect who the electorate want in local politics and move forward, pushing what you believe in and representing the people who vote for us right across the board. There are too many sound bites in local council and in Northern Ireland politics in general, a lot of saying the right thing and doing the opposite.
“The language coming from the top level of government here is so divisive and that trickles down to all levels and disengages people. My generation is disengaged because of this but hopefully with fresh people coming in across the parties the bickering can stop and we can work together for the benefit of people.”
Pete reveals his interest in politics began at an early age, watching it on TV and reading about it since he was 11 or 12, and that the SDLP was always the party which represented his views.
“I wanted to get into politics for the betterment of this area. I’m in business here, I manage the local soccer team, I tutor students in the town, I volunteer teaching maths in St Joseph’s High School, so I love seeing people getting on, improving and progressing, and in the same way I really hope I can make a difference for local issues.
“I’m not here to make any enemies but I think there’s a space here for somebody in this town to step in and be loud and unashamedly SDLP and I think that’s going to be positive for the people in the area.”
Explaining why he took the step into local council, he says, “You can look at your local council and think it doesn’t represent your generation and then do nothing about it so I just thought it was about time I did something about it instead of talking about it!
“The party always represented my politics and canvassing with Geraldine Donnelly and again with Justin McNulty in the run up to the Westminster elections really ignited the flame in me. I realised it was something I wanted to be involved in so with Geraldine stepping down and the party renewing itself, I feel it’s a good opportunity for me and that I’ve come in at the right time.
“I have the highest respect for anybody going into public life and that’s across all parties. I’m not a divisive person at all. I just felt that more people needed to be given a voice in the area. I heard from so many people while out canvassing who want the SDLP to continue in Crossmaglen – other people who don’t agree with Sinn Fein need a voice too.”
The fact that the new SDLP councillor is in a civil partnership with his husband of three years also represents a shift for a party which has met with criticism in the past for the differing approach shown towards gay marriage by some SDLP members across Northern Ireland’s councils.
Countering such criticisms, Pete admits that, as a member of the LGBT community, he understands those criticisms but says he believes in the message and the vision of the SDLP and that, as a representative of the LGBT community, he will continue to make the case for marriage equality and equal rights with both his party colleagues and the wider community.
“It’s offensive for the issue to be weaponised and used by parties for political point-scoring,” he says.
“If you can’t see that your local council represents the local community then there’s something wrong – it means one section of the community is being over represented.
“Where’s the representation for anyone in a civil partnership, or in the LGBT community? It’s not there.
“You have other parties saying they’ll fight for those issues but if you have a diverse council it filters down into the community and it can only be beneficial to the community.
“The LGBT section have never had anyone on a local level to push their issues. I don’t like pigeon-holing as such but by me living my normal life in a civil partnership couple, working in the town, managing a football team, running local business – it helps to break down stigmas, and can give other people the courage to do same, to use you as a role model. What anyone does has an effect and I won’t be quiet about this part of my life.
“I am a part of this community and I’ve realised that not shying away from this issue is very important to help create an open and accepting environment in our local communities.”
Having had to overcome stigma in his life, Pete says he also recognises a stigma in the area over nationalism and the idea that there is only one form of nationalism. He believes that being visible, showing that he is not a threat to anyone’s ideals and working with people whose policies he might oppose will help the electorate realise that there is another form of nationalism available to them.
“I genuinely believe in a shared future,” he says.
“Of course we can wear different political hats but we can come together to work unitedly on local issues and that’s how good local communities thrive.
“We need to work for the people, better their area, their facilities, put the best foot forward, promote local economy and local business and all shout together on these issues.”
“I also truly believe in a united Ireland. I would rather we made decisions in this country and am against any powers being handed back to Britain. If there are difficult decisions to be made then let’s do what is right, what we genuinely believe. If everyone stopped playing party politics we would have fresh ideas and policies that would better the country.”
He cites the development of the First Responder’s team in Crossmaglen as a perfect example of an initiative which garnered the support of both the SDLP and Sinn Fein but was neither of the parties’ initiative.
“As well as being a much needed lifeline in this rural area, the project was a breath of fresh air in that it was non-political. If there were more things in this area that could be supported in this way, with such a united front, then we can genuinely start talking about a shared future – we can’t start talking about that if we are not even sharing the nationalist ideal and then how do we possibly hope to share across a religious divide.”
Passionate about his beliefs and confident that he could convey his vision positively to local people, Peter is adamant that he has not “dodged the electorate” via co-option.
“Co-option is something which gets criticised but I have no problem standing up in 2019 at the next local election on the same exact principles I stand for now.
“I look forward to the day that I can stand on the work that I plan to do at local council level in the next few years. I will stand on the same principles and work ethic which I do now and hopefully I will be elected by the people of this area I plan to serve.”