I was always told on Election Day, “You don’t tell people who you voted for!” When I was growing up I was always fairly aware of the world of politics that seemed to be going on around me. I suppose it was mostly because I spent a great deal of my time listening to, and relistening to John McBlain’s Spittin’ Tapes. To me, figures such as John Hume, Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams were characters of comedy as opposed to political powerhouses. But if nothing else it gave me grounding in whom some of the players in the Northern Ireland political scene were. I knew that DUP stood for the Democratic Unionist Party, and that Sinn Fein was a republican party…though what these titles meant precisely was beyond me! However where I was a bit confused was when it came to the SDLP.
To me the acronym of SDLP always stood for South Down Labour Party. I was under the impression that the area of South Down was the birthplace and home for the SDLP! I have since learned that this is not entirely the case but remain convinced that South Down has and will remain a home away from home for the Social Democratic and Labour Party.
My first experience of meeting the sitting Member of Parliament for my home constituency, Margaret Ritchie was actually only little over a year ago. Over the last number of years I had become interested in the whole area of politics which was founded in my continued interest in the life of Robert F Kennedy (https://dominicoreilly25.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/the-legacy-of-bobby-kennedy-and-why-it-matters-now/). I believe society can be made better, not just once in a lifetime, but constantly. It occurred to me that the SDLP was the party that ran most close to the values I adhered to; not necessarily in perfect harmony but close enough!
I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Sinn Fein; they didn’t even take up their seats in Westminster and their track record on abortion was something I could not bring myself to put a cross beside. The unionist parties may have run close to my views on life but I did not and still do not feel that they would work for the common good of those who identify as Irish and would want to see a united Ireland some day. So could I join or let alone vote for the SDLP? Well I don’t believe in being complacent when it comes to politics. I contacted Margaret’s office and emailed a few questions through to her about the party. I expected to get the answers emailed back to me and instead got a message saying that we should meet instead. Immediately my interest was grabbed; here was a politician that was inviting me to actually meet up with them to discuss my interest and questions.
My initial visit to the office in Downpatrick was one in which I was greeted immensely warmly by Margaret’s staff. The atmosphere was warm and congenial. As I sat down to chat with my Member of Parliament she actually asked me a few questions about how my Dad was getting on as she had known him for a few years through his work for various charities etc. We chatted for a good hour or two over a cup of tea (absolutely vital to any political discussion) and I walked away feeling that I had been listened to and the contributions I had to offer were worthwhile. This was and remains immensely important to me as a voter.
We are living in a time when we could accomplish great social change and yet we have become so apathetic to the whole thing that we allow it to wash over us. Our young people do not care for politics now. They do not see politics as being something which affects them in any way whenever really politics affects them in every way. We need our politicians to stand up and prove to us that we can count on them, that they will speak truth to power. I believe in the SDLP, and I am in awe of the great work the party has done over the years. Where is the zeal for being a force for great change? We need to be willing to stand up, stand firm and be counted. We need to dissent from the status quo in a healthy and reasoned way.
As my hero Robert F Kennedy once said:
‘The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic towards common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of (American) society. It will belong to those who see that wisdom can only emerge from the clash of contending views, the passionate expression of deep and hostile beliefs. Plato said: “A life without criticism is not worth living.”’
I’m proud to tell people that I vote for the SDLP. I know there will be many from my part of the community that will disagree with me, and that is where healthy discussion comes in, because exercising your democratic right which others have fought and died for does not extend to simply the polling booth on voting day. We need to be having the conversations with each other on a local level and bringing these issues to our politicians. That is what the SDLP has done for me; to know that your voice is counted and more importantly that it is worthwhile is vital to all of us. Is the party perfect? Absolutely not and never will be. I could criticise and say I would love to see a great deal more passion etc from our politicians, but frankly all I’d be saying is I want to see more Robert F Kennedy in 1968 style politicians.
This year the General Election will take place the day after my birthday and so when I step into the polling station it will be with a sense of looking ahead to the future. What sort of society do I want to have played a role in shaping for those who come after me? Do I want to see a lasting peace process where the rights of all are respected and upheld from the moment of conception to the point of natural death? Yes. Do I want to see a land where the identity of the Irish people is respected and upheld through culture, the arts and leisure? Yes. Do I want to see an Ireland where we cherish those not just in the cities but in the rural communities? Yes. Do I want to see my politicians really doing their bit to end poverty and human trafficking? Yes. Working to protect the environment? Yes. Ensuring those in need have adequate housing? Yes! Justice for those who rightly cry out for it? Yes! The best education for the children who will grow up in this society and a good, true and beautiful society for those who will grow old in it? Yes absolutely. These are not just silly pipe dreams, but real attainable goals.
So on the 7th May I will proudly walk into the polling station, submit my necessary documents and then exercise my democratic right as a free Irish man by putting an X beside the name of Margaret Ritchie. In doing so I believe I will have played my part in returning the best voice for all of South Down to Westminster. Margaret has served the people of South Down for many years, working in the background with the late great Eddie McGrady and now as our Member of Parliament, and for these reasons I am immensely grateful to her and am proud to support her and proud to support the SDLP.