Northern Ireland news

First woman from a unionist background to stand for the SDLP

Heather Wilson said he was always in favour of the SDLP partnership with Fianna Fail.

AS a SDLP candidate in May's local government elections, Heather Wilson will become the first woman from a unionist background to stand for the party.

In a political landscape that is often defined along green and orange lines, Ms Wilson joined the SDLP three years ago because she said they "fitted better with my view of a fairer society" in a way none of the traditional unionist parties did.

Ivan Cooper, one of the founding members of the SDLP, came from a working class Protestant family in Killaloo, Co Derry.

Ms Wilson comes from a similarly working class background, a former pupil of the Girls Model School she was raised in Ballysillan in north Belfast.

"I've always been political and interested in how politics could better people's lives", she said.

In 2016 Ms Wilson started working for assembly member Nichola Mallon in her north Belfast constituency office, she now serves as a press officer for the party.

"When you see the work people like Nichola are doing, the way she helps people from all backgrounds and social classes, I suppose that inspired me", she said.

"I hope to take all the experience I learned during that time and put it to good use at council level.

"With no assembly, politics at a local government level is more important than ever.

"I believe in a just and fair society and I think that the SDLP are one of the parties to deliver that, I've always had left leanings and working in a constituency office in north Belfast really opened my eyes to the challenges people face", Ms Wilson added.

The 27-year-old said she did think about how standing for the SDLP would be received among the community in Ballysillan before agreeing to go forward as a candidate.

"I think we're a far more tolerant society than we are given credit for, but I'll not say it didn't cross my mind, not so much for me but for my family, but they have been supportive and they understand".

The Castle ward takes in the more affluent Fortwilliam and Cave Hill to the more working class Whitewell and Duncairn. It is also one of the more religiously mixed areas of Belfast.

"There are a range of problems the area faces, it's a very diverse constituency and one that has many challenges, so far I've had a very good response, I'm a new face but that's not always a bad thing".

This week west Belfast councillor Tim Attwood said he would not be seeking re-election as he was not an advocate of the recent SDLP and Fianna Fáil partnership.

However, Ms Wilson is in favour of the union with Micheál Martin's party.

"I've been in support of it from the beginning, extraordinary times do not call for ordinary measures, we need a different response to special circumstances and I think it will help restore the party going forward", she said.

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