An interview with Claire Hanna


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Claire Hanna is International Secretary of the SDLP and chairs the Balmoral South Belfast Branch. She works for the development agency Concern Worldwide.

You come from a political family. When did you start to get involved in politics yourself?

Yes, my father was a Civil Rights activist and General Secretary of the SDLP in the 1980s and my mother, Carmel Hanna, was an SDLP Belfast City Councillor from 1997, and an SDLP MLA for South Belfast from 1998 until she had to retire in January 2010 due to ill health.

I think that interest in politics probably often is intergenerational. My maternal grandfather was a member of the Irish Labour Party when it organised around the Newry and Warrenpoint area pre-1970 and a great-uncle fought against Franco in Spain. My Dad’s grandmother was an election agent for Eamon De Valera in the 1918 General Election in West Belfast when he lost to Joe Devlin, but we don’t talk too much about that!  There is definitely a culture of activism and public service in the family and I have early memories of us all at the kitchen table addressing envelopes (long live mail merge!) and spending Saturdays out leafleting, particularly from when Mum first stood for election. I’ve always been fairly interested in the issues but I suppose I started to get involved independently in my early twenties.

Why the SDLP?

SDLP has always been the party most committed to peace here, along with the Alliance Party,  and now that is more or less achieved it is still far and away the most credible and most willing to deal with the rest of the issues we face. When SDLP was founded in 1970 it was explicitly left-of-centre, totally opposed to violence for political purposes and it deliberately did not incorporate trigger-words like ‘Irish’, ‘Nationalist’ and ‘Republican’ in its name. For decades, the SDLP was the only party in the North which actually had annual conferences which debated policy. In those policy terms, the SDLP is the most progressive and outward looking, and it is solidly social democratic economically. In terms of a united Ireland, with the principle of consent paramount, I think the SDLP is the only party in the North that can deliver that. Crucially for now, SDLP is strong on creating a shared future unlike other parties – the recent Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy published by the DUP/Sinn Féin parties is a disgrace and I think the Alliance have really let themselves down by going along with it for a ministerial position. Basically, these parties want a balkanised state, ‘separate but equal’ (as unworkable and hypocritical a policy as it was in the Deep South) with resources divided up between the hard men on either side, and all funded by the generosity of the UK Exchequer.

Of course, no party is perfect – ideological purity is a luxury I don’t think politics can really afford – but (as my Mum used to put it) it’s like choosing a partner…you won’t get one that is perfect in every way, you pick the closest to your values and outlook and work hard to improve it! The SDLP could of course have a better culture of organisation. In the past we concentrated too much on the big picture rather than on the work of building up organisation, member by member, branch by branch. I think some people franchised out the SDLP name in the 1970s, they didn’t maintain an organisation that allowed other opinions to come through, and so the ‘brand’ is not worth as much now in some areas.

You work for the charity Concern. How do you manage to balance your political activity and the day job?

In a manner of speaking my job is political, the causes of poverty we advocate on certainly are – like the impact of the global economy and climate change on the poorest people – it’s just looking at the wider context. I’m lucky to have flexi time and I work the equivalent of 9 days a fortnight (five weeks unpaid leave per year), so I can take days here and there for political activity. Most canvassing and meetings are of course in the evening and at weekends, and I fit the desk based political stuff in around that, plenty of emailing and writing in the wee small hours.

Your responsibilities within the SDLP focus on Europe and other international issues. We in Northern Ireland can be a little parochial at times. What has been your experience of advocating for a wider agenda?

That’s another big draw for me to the SDLP:  internationalism. I’m reading the late Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ at the moment, a history of Europe since 1945.It’s massive, and I’m only part way through but one of the lessons I’ve drawn from it is how shallow the roots of, and understanding of, democracy are throughout Europe. Judt was I believe a former Marxist and some people feel he went conservative, but his book appears to me to be written from a very social democratic stance.

One of the things that frustrates me most about politics here is the Little Ulster mentality (on both sides!) but I know from my day job that in fact people are interested in international issues – they’re willing to put their hands in their pockets for international development, or to campaign, and people want to know what is going on beyond this island. Especially given the support we received from around the world over the last forty years, I think we’re obliged to give something back or at least play a constructive role in the world. That isn’t really reflected by the political parties – of the main four, the SDLP is the only pro-European party with the others being variously on a scale from sourly suspicious (UUP) to a begging bowl, take-all- you-can-get mentality and oppose every referendum on Europe (Sinn Féin) to completely bonkers antagonistic, it’s all a Papist plot (DUP). Given the support we’ve always received from Europe (structural funds, Special Support Programme-Delors) it’s a bit embarrassing that we send back three anti-European MEPs.

You were the SDLP’s general election candidate in Strangford this year and have now gone through the essential political apprenticeship of contesting an unwinnable seat. How was it for you?

Overall a good experience. I ran at short notice, nomination to election in under two months. Learnt a lot about the mechanics of a campaign – there’s no project management course like it! I didn’t know the territory particularly well and it’s not exactly an SDLP stronghold – what organisation that existed in the constituency was rightly focused on getting SDLP MPs elected in two neighbouring constituencies. I took a methodical approach with a small team, family and friends, and covered a respectable amount of ground in a predominantly rural constituency. I was also very fortunate to get support from people who weren’t SDLP members, something I really appreciated. Seeing myself on a lamppost was profoundly disturbing, and getting weird emails and the odd bit of  abuse were certainly character forming…I enjoy canvassing though, so once I’d got through the planning, admin and emails of the day it was good fun getting round the doors.

What are your plans for future elections?

I’m hoping to run for Belfast City Council, my home constituency of Balmoral in the Council elections in May 2011. I’m chair of the Balmoral Branch, the largest branch in the SDLP, and we have an excellent team of elected representatives and activists. We’ll run three candidates and hopefully return our two existing councillors and myself. We’re round the doors regularly with a good record of constituency work and campaigning and if May’s election is anything to go by the electorate respond well to that.

What do you think will be the key issues in the May 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly and council elections?

I think both the DUP and Sinn Féin will co-operate together in their mutual antagonism, the “sham fight”, a well-established political tradition now. The DUP will try to scare the unionist electorate, and weaken UUP and TUV, by painting apocalyptic visions of Sinn Féin becoming the biggest party and the end of civilisation as we know it, completely ignoring the reality that the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are co-equal. Sinn Féin will refuse to take any serious policy stances and try to convince everyone that we’ll have a United Ireland by 2016 if they become the biggest party. The reality is that these two parties have delivered political gridlock on every major issue and they’re completely unnerved by the UK spending cuts, hoping that the cuts won’t have bitten deeply enough for them to get the blame by May – I really won’t be surprised if they engineer another ‘crisis’ or standoff before then. I think the SDLP has to be calm and rational and a bit more forceful and a bit more radical. For example, I’d like to see a salary cap for the very highly paid in the public sector.

I hope the council elections in particular will be about issues we can have an impact on. In Balmoral we’re very much campaigning on our record and a vision for Belfast City Council. In an atmosphere of cuts and austerity, we’ll highlight the services Belfast City Council provides, while ensuring value for rates. The Council  is a big employer and service provider, so taking a slash and burn approach will be counterproductive; particularly when central services are under pressure and more people are out of work those services need to be maintained. In Balmoral especially I think community relations, Planning and environmental issues will be high on the agenda.

For the Assembly – I think people can see that where the SDLP has a minister, in the Department of Social Development, we’re working hard and achieving things so we’ll be emphasising the need to return more MLAs and get at least another minister in the Executive. Alex Attwood has been excellent as a Minister. Realistically, it comes down to organisation too – cliché though it is, the election has to be fought on the doorstep, and in a lot of key areas we don’t have enough feet on the ground. Overall, I fear the turnout will be down again as there’s a lot of disenchantment and disillusion out there.

You are both young and female, in a line of work that’s dominated by older men. What are the disadvantages of this – and are there any advantages?

I’m lucky in that I was brought up to be confident and interested in the world around me, and that I was encouraged to get involved in things. Many of the attributes considered important in politics are actively discouraged in girls so we can’t be surprised when many don’t show a lot of interest in politics – much of it is about the roles society still steers women towards. The SDLP has a lot of strong female role models – my Mum for a start, our Leader, Margaret Ritchie, people like SDLP General Secretary, Gerry Cosgrove. They’re all great examples, and not just for women but for anyone in activism, public or political life. I’m cautious about people saying that women have a ‘different style’ in politics, but either way the evidence clearly shows that where there are more women, there is more spending on services like health and education, and policies more favourable to women. What I do know is that the majority of SDLP members and activists are women and, in my experience, they’re the ones that get the most work done.

For many years there has been an acknowledgement that more women need to get involved in politics, but it seems that the numbers just aren’t increasing. What do you think needs to be done to change this?

I wasn’t always, but I’m now convinced of the need for quotas. It would be all very well for me to sit back in a political context that’s worked OK for me to date , but I know I’ve had advantages that others haven’t – I’m not talking even so much about a political family, but a vibrant local branch organisation too, and a flexible employer. As a society we’ve accepted the need for legislative action to tackle imbalances (I’m thinking particularly of 50:50 recruitment to the PSNI here) but the lack of representation of women is just as stark. It can’t be all about quotas – that would let a flawed political culture off the hook – but the selection process is certainly a massive barrier for many women. I wish I had the perfect formula (most countries with quotas also have some form of list system) and agree that legislation on this should have a ‘sunset clause’ – when the imbalance is tackled the rules can be relaxed.

One of the big arguments made is that politics has to be about merit – I really don’t think that the 108 MLAs we have can really be said to be the 108 most deserving of the roles. Sometimes it feels like those who go furthest are just the ones with the highest boredom threshold, who were able to sit through a decade of meetings and wear down the competition. It’s true too that the hours can be punishing – there’s no way I could keep up this level of activity (meetings, canvassing) if I had kids and the fact is that women still do the majority of domestic and caring duties. Gender imbalance isn’t just in electoral politics, we see it in most professions, and all the barriers there are in play here too.

You attended the UK Labour Party conference last week and witnessed the announcement of the new Labour leader, Ed Miliband. What’s your opinion of him? How do you see the Party developing under his leadership?

I’m pleased he won. I have to say I grew to despise Blair and New Labour and it became harder and harder to defend Labour.  Ed Miliband was less associated with the toxicity of the Blair / Brown era, and I think he was the clearest in articulating the values and policies Labour need to get back to, he seems to understand the things that alienated people from Labour over the past decade. Ed Balls came out of it very well too I think, he was the only one to consistently land serious blows on the Tories and has a strong economic judgement that has clearly rattled Cameron.

From the delegates I was speaking to (including several who didn’t vote for him) I got the impression that it was being seen as something of a watershed moment – a break with some of the more disastrous policies of the Blair premiership (like Iraq, and being too comfortable with extreme wealth) and a return to more traditional Labour beliefs. I don’t think it’s right to call it a lurch to the left, some of the New Labour achievement like the Minimum Wage was valid, but I think this is being seen as an opportunity to set out a vision of a fairer society.

The Labour Party in the Irish Republic is doing very well in the opinion polls and in its opposition to the Irish Government’s approach to the economic crisis. Can Labour maintain this momentum?

I really hope so, I think it would be a great thing for Irish politics to break the civil war orthodoxy of two right of centre parties. I’m an admirer of Eamon Gilmore, one of the most inspiring politicians of our time – buckets of integrity and a solid alternative narrative. The SDLP has good relationships with all the main parties in the South but as our sister party I’ve worked mostly alongside Labour – there is a massive swathe of talent coming through there, councillors and candidates with lots of energy, ideas and strong work ethics. I’m really optimistic for Labour.

The big challenge will be getting enough candidates in place and building organisations in areas there haven’t traditionally had Labour representatives but the party seem to be taking that task seriously. The other challenge is to keep the momentum building until the general election. I get the impression that people in the south are beginning to stop just being angry with Fianna Fáil and are looking for alternatives, not just condemnation – and this will set Labour apart from its competition to both the left and the right. They were the only party to vote against the bank bailout and that has been vindicated. I agree that we should put Anglo Irish Bank to sleep – they’ve been the arrogant wreckers of the Irish banking system for decades. I also believe people want to see some top people being made to take personal responsibility for the disasters they inflicted, and that means jail and sequestration of assets. Say what you like about the US, bastion of capitalism, but they had Bernie Madoff in jail in no time.

In short, it’s catastrophic and a failure of governance on many levels. At the same time, provided the IMF can be kept out, at least there’s been a national debate, which will become more intensive, and there will be a shared determination to clear out the mess and to make sure that the conditions which caused it will never take root again. In the North, by contrast, we live in an Alice in Wonderland economy, overwhelmingly dependent on UK Treasury subvention and with an absolute reluctance from DUP and Sinn Féin to take responsibility for hard decisions. The economic catastrophe in the Irish Republic has major implications for any prospect of Irish unity, and this hasn’t been thought through yet. Put crudely, the North needs a £9 billion a year subsidy from the UK Exchequer. That’s certainly not going to be coming from Dublin with a €20 billion deficit and a bank bailout commitment of €50 billion.

The SDLP has a close relationship with both the UK and Irish Labour Parties. How might these be progressed in future, taking into account, first, the possibility that the UK Labour Party might allow its Northern Ireland members to stand for elections, and second, that some of your members seem to be closer to Fianna Fáil than to Irish Labour?

The SDLP is a broad church, that’s in the DNA of how the party came about – from the Labour and civil rights movements and some from what would have been known as the Nationalist Party. Any potential to merge or anything like with anyone was discussed at length in 2008 and the party clearly rejected the idea. In my experience, even those who would have favoured for example Fianna Fáil in the past have been taken aback by the exposure of the levels of political cronyism and ineptitude, they just admired that party’s ideology-free political success (that idea is fairly demolished now). Bertie Ahern had absolutely no regard for the SDLP, and in that he and Blair were alike. There’s literally only a handful of people (some not even members) who activity reject the Labour links, it just so happens that they were given the opportunity to hype it up in newspaper columns.

I think the links between the three parties (and of course across Europe within the Party of European Socialists) are very valuable and I think most party members agree when they think about it.  Policy wise, the SDLP is in fact to the left of UK Labour (see votes on Iraq, 10p tax, 42 day detention etc.). I must say, our relationship with Labour in the form of Secretary of State Shaun Woodward has been far from fraternal! Personally, I’m relaxed about British Labour contesting elections in the North. For a start I don’t think the leadership are close to allowing it, but if they do it’s no easy thing to put an election machine on the ground and previous efforts to overlay “mainland” politics on the North have been a failure – Conservative link up anyone? Frustrating though it can be, politics here has quirks and idiosyncrasies that can’t be ignored.

I do have some sympathy for the argument against communal politics but it is not inherently sectarian to be either nationalist or unionist, there are fair and logical arguments for both positions.

What do you do in your spare time? That is if you have any!

Politics does take up a lot of my time in one form or another. I’m finishing a degree with the Open University, so that occupies most of the evenings or weekends I’m not out at something. My partner is political too, fortunately, so he is understanding of evenings and weekends at meetings and being glued to the computer and all that. Beyond that, I spend as much time as I can with my family (ever increasing band of nieces and nephews) and I really enjoy cooking. I used to be a great reader but to be honest, beyond things I have to read for work and politics I’m lucky to get through half a dozen books in a year. Like a good DVD box set, an episode or two is a great way to unwind at the end of the night. I’m involved with a number of groups including Transition Town Belfast and the Workers Beer Company, a trade union social enterprise that runs bars at a lot of the festivals – work at a few music events a year, combines a love of camping and live music with fundraising for campaigns.

If you could be remembered for achieving one thing only in your life, what would it be?

If I ever completely clear my desk and inbox and get to bed before 1am I’ll be really happy.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

7 Responses

  1. krupskaya

    October 14, 2010 8:42 am

    “The reality is that these two parties have delivered political gridlock on every major issue and they’re completely unnerved by the UK spending cuts, hoping that the cuts won’t have bitten deeply enough for them to get the blame by May – I really won’t be surprised if they engineer another ‘crisis’ or standoff before then. I think the SDLP has to be calm and rational and a bit more forceful and a bit more radical. For example, I’d like to see a salary cap for the very highly paid in the public sector.”

    Wow, a salary cap for highly paid civil servants- that will rock the Tory-led Coalition to its heels and deal with the ecoomic crisis. Both DUP and SF have already proposed it.

    The only ‘radical’ thing in the SDLPs ‘New Priorities in Difficult Times’ is the embrace of radical privatisation measures.

    “Frustrating though it can be, politics here has quirks and idiosyncrasies that can’t be ignored.”

    Yep you’ll get the odd idiosyncracy when you’re a colony.

  2. Stalin's Cake Baker

    October 15, 2010 1:44 pm

    Integrity enough to know that, despite the mistakes of his youth, he had got mixed up with a bunch of neo-Stalinists, so he got out.

  3. Garibaldy

    October 16, 2010 3:17 pm


    That has to be one of the sillier attempts to explain away what happened. Let’s start with his youth. I’m not sure being in a party for nearly 20 years counts as being in it for just your youth.

    Secondly, I’ll have to try and guess what you mean by “neo-Stalinist” as it’s not really a term with any meaning, but let’s assume you mean people who thought the USSR had made tremendous strides forward in many areas, and had played a key role in the liberation of many countries and peoples from imperialism. The party he joined thought that in 1975, and continued to think it in 1992. I can think of no greater insult to his intelligence than suggesting it just dawned on him one day in 1992.

    Thirdly, he was party to the punishment of others for calling for social democracy against party rules in 1990. So was he lacking integriy then, punishing people for what he himself had come to believe?

    Or what about this from 1992 when along with the other TDs, he promised that they were not abandoning an activist sort of socialism, nor moving to the right, nor heading towards the Labour Party.

    In it he lists addressing unemployment as the first job he was elected to do. Now he happily talks about increasing it by throwing public sector workers out of work, and cutting the pay of others. In fact, he even talks about the need to tackle social welfare cuts.

    Integrity. Surely.

  4. WorldbyStorm

    October 18, 2010 8:14 pm

    “For decades, the SDLP was the only party in the North which actually had annual conferences which debated policy. ”

    Interesting interview, but is the above quote accurate? I have Clár’s from SF in the 1980s and after and OSF/SFWP/WP from earlier that are chock full of policy motions. And both parties organised and continue to organise on an all-island basis, including, yes, the North.