Monday 18 February 2019

Meet the new faces of politics - Candidates from diverse backgrounds stepping up for their communities

The big read: The upcoming local elections will see candidates from diverse backgrounds stepping up for their communities. Laura Larkin spoke to them about their aspirations

Dramatic shift: Hazel Chu is running in the Pembroke ward in the Dublin council elections. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Dramatic shift: Hazel Chu is running in the Pembroke ward in the Dublin council elections. Photo: Steve Humphreys
A gateway to discussion: Limerick councillor Elena Secas. Photo: Liam Burke Press 22
New Ireland: Ellie Kisyombe, a candidate for Dublin North Inner City. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Candidate: Jagan Muttumula. Photo: Tony Gavin
Abul Kalam Azad Talukder who is standing in Limerick
Politics in the family: Tjitske De Vries
Micheál Kelliher, who is deaf, is standing in the Cabra ward in Dublin. Photo: Tony Gavin

With Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - a gay man with Indian heritage - at the political helm in Ireland, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking this country is politically diverse.

But from the inside it looks very different. Male, pale and stale has long been the derisory label attached to our body politic, but the lack of diversity runs much deeper than that.

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At present, one in six people who live in Ireland were born elsewhere. But to look at our Dáil, Seanad and local councils, you wouldn't know it. Of the 949 councillors elected in 2014, just three hailed from a migrant background.

In addition to a lack of ethnic diversity, the representation of people with disability is also poor.

A gateway to discussion: Limerick councillor Elena Secas. Photo: Liam Burke Press 22
A gateway to discussion: Limerick councillor Elena Secas. Photo: Liam Burke Press 22

But 2019 promises at least some change to the status quo. A number of local election candidates hoping to secure council seats when the country goes to the polls in May could be part of a shake-up.

Irish-born Hazel Chu, whose parents hail from China, is a Green Party hopeful for Pembroke in Dublin. She says her mother was initially unsure about her political hopes. Chu's mother immigrated to Ireland in the 1970s in search of work.

"My mother was very sceptical. There was a time when she kind of said 'people like us don't run'. For her, she was always the outsider, coming into a country. She didn't fully integrate," says Chu.

"I think she didn't think the country was ready to have a Chinese person running [for election].

"What particularly scared her was just when I decided to run, the presidential debates happened and long before that we had Trump and Brexit, and she knew that the world was a very divisive place.

"Whereas my pushback was, I think this is a great way to show how we are and how Ireland has progressed. I think we need to understand that the make-up and fabric of Ireland has shifted dramatically," she says.

New Ireland: Ellie Kisyombe, a candidate for Dublin North Inner City. Photo: Caroline Quinn
New Ireland: Ellie Kisyombe, a candidate for Dublin North Inner City. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Chu is in the unusual position of having already run a very successful local election campaign: she took the reins of her fiancé Patrick Costello's campaign when he topped the poll in 2014. Both are now running for election this time around and thanks, in part, to some redrawing of the Dublin constituencies, he will contest a seat in Kimmage-Rathmines, while she will run in Pembroke.

In addition to running two campaigns, the couple also recently became parents to baby Alex, meaning the pair have to split their canvassing time with parental duties - so if one is pounding the pavement of an evening, the other is at home with their daughter. Hazel has been involved in the Green Party from around the time the party was almost wiped out in the 2011 elections, but until she became a parent, she had never committed to running despite various requests.

"It's sounds like a cliché but when you have a child, you then think 'wow, their generation is fecked if we don't do anything', and the only way you can do anything about it is if you commit into it," she says.

Having green voices influencing the city development plan and building sustainable communities was what swung it for her in the end, she says.

"That's when I started thinking about my daughter, Alex."

Also in the running at local authority level in Dublin is Malawian-born Ellie Kisyombe, whose candidacy has already attracted national headlines. Ellie is already known as co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation Our Table which she set-up with her friend Michelle Darmody, to encourage people to come together over food while also helping people gain work experience and earn a wage.

Abul Kalam Azad Talukder who is standing in Limerick
Abul Kalam Azad Talukder who is standing in Limerick

Asylum seeker

She will be the first woman living in Direct Provision to contest an election, and part of her platform is ending that system, in which she has remained for almost a decade.

"Through people like me, I think people are starting to see the other side of the picture; being an asylum seeker, and who you really want to become - not coming into the country to be on the social welfare or rely on the Government, or to be locked away."

Ellie appears on the ballot paper for the Social Democrats and is seeking a Dublin City Council seat. She has opted to run in the Dublin North Inner City ward but is living in Balseskin Reception Centre in Finglas now. She has lived in several reception centres in Dublin over the years, after first being sent to Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. Her primary focus will be on local issues, promoting social entrepreneurship and issues that affect single parents.

She first got involved with the Social Democrats four years ago through councillor Gary Gannon, who she credits with listening to her and helping her to push through barriers.

But politics was always something she wanted to pursue having been an activist at home following the death of her father, who himself was very involved in politics.

The mother-of-two - her 18-year-old twins joined her in Ireland a number of years ago - is a volunteer director with Our Table as she does not benefit from the recent introduction of rules allowing asylum seekers to work.

The strict rules also mean she is facing becoming an elected councillor who would be forbidden from collecting a salary.

"I might be the first councillor going to the council without a salary because I'm not allowed to work, but you know, I'm up for the challenge," she shrugs.

Another unique challenge that will present itself throughout the campaign is that theoretically her case could be decided, and her request to stay here refused.

"I'm not worried, I'm not even thinking about it. I'm running a campaign at the moment and that's what I'm living for. If that happens tomorrow, we'll take care of that," she says with a laugh.

Participation

Indian-born Jagannadha R Muttumula is contesting a seat on Fingal County Council in west Dublin.

The father-of-two moved to Ireland in 2001 and joined Fine Gael in 2010. He is a stay-at-home husband, which he says allows him to focus on politics and community work.

After almost a decade in the party, he is now chair of the Clonsilla branch and sits on the steering community for Fine Gael Intercultural, which aims to encourage new communities to be part of the political process.

"In democracy, participation is very important. So far, most of the immigrants, even though they are living here a long time, are not involved in politics," he says, adding that many are not even registered to vote.

Politics runs in the family for Jagan, whose brother Ashok is a politician in the southern Indian province of Andhra Pradesh.

"I have a tendency towards public service. I've been involved in community events since I came here and at the time of the 2011 general election, I thought 'this was something that we have to look into'.

"So I approached Leo Varadkar at the time and I liked the vision he had for the future of the country," he says.

May's elections will be a litmus test for the performance of Fine Gael under the leadership of Varadkar. Traditionally, government parties emerge as casualties in a local election, but the party is laying the groundwork in a bid to buck the trend and overtake Fianna Fáil at local level.

Muttumula is aware that the election will be an uphill battle, especially with plans to add an extra Fine Gael seat in the area.

"It is not going to be a cake-walk. It's going to be a challenge, we have to work hard on the ground, talking to people and understanding the issues that they have," he says.

In a new community such as his, it is the bread-and-butter issues of politics that people raise with him time and again: school places, a lack of green space and transport links.

Promoting political participation among migrant communities can be difficult.

There is a misconception among some that you need to be a citizen, rather than a 'normally resident' to vote in the local elections, he explains. For others, it is the preoccupation with the things that spurred their move to Ireland in the first place that keeps them away from politics - economic migrants, he says, are worried about securing jobs and improving their standard of living.

While he has yet to formally start knocking on doors to canvass votes, Muttumula has been campaigning to promote voter registration among migrants.

This is something the Immigrant Council of Ireland has called on the Government to do officially: targeted registration drives in areas where migrants live.

"Awareness is increasing among the immigrant communities that we should be voting, rather than sitting back," Muttumula says.

Immigration has emerged as something of a poisoned chalice politically in recent years. In the US, it has fuelled a deep divide among people, creating a toxic debate which divides communities. In the UK, a backlash over immigration arguably became the fuel that propelled the country to the Brexit precipice - and tipped them over.

But that anti-immigrant narrative hasn't taken hold here.

Tjitske De Vries (37), a cyber-security worker from the Netherlands is standing for election in Cork City South West for People Before Profit (PBP).

Growing up in Friesland - "where the Friesian cows come from," she says with a laugh - her father was very involved in the trade union movement so politics could not be avoided.

"I quit my first job when I was 19 over working conditions," she says. Working as a courier, she raised concerns about the vans that drivers were using and resigned when they were not upgraded.

It was inevitable that she would end up politically involved, she says, but when she was first approached to run for the party just a few months after joining last year, she was reluctant.

The language barrier initially made her cautious, she says, despite her obvious fluency.

A few months later, she was asked again, and after a discussion with Bríd Smith - a Dublin TD - she decided to take a punt on it.

"She said you're a foreigner and a woman, it's the time to do it," she says.

Coming from a progressive country like the Netherlands, she believes her political perspective can bring "hope" that Ireland will continue to change for the better.

"If people see people (like me) getting elected this time, they will see it is possible - and maybe for the next election they will step up and say, I think I have something to bring to the council," she says.

Contesting in the east of Limerick city for Fianna Fáil is Abul Kalam Azad Talukder (50), who has been living in the city since 2000.

Originally from Bangladesh, he emerged as a de facto community leader of sorts for the various migrant communities making Ireland their home at the time, he says.

"If people had a problem, they would come to me," he says. As a result, he forged links with the various political parties in the area, but it was Fianna Fáil who impressed him most, and he joined the party formally in 2004.

Known locally as "Jackie", a name which followed him from Bangladesh, he has been active in a number of sports clubs in the area and worked on the Limerick 2020 campaign.

Interest in background

But after almost two decades, he decided that this was an election he should contest.

He plans to be a voice for the entire community, not just the migrant population in his areas.

"I only have one life. If in this life, I'm to do something, it will be for my children and the future of Limerick," he says.

Elena Secas, a Labour Party councillor originally from Moldova, was elected to Limerick City and County Council in 2014 on her second attempt. She says voters are interested in her background, but are swayed by her commitment to the local area.

Elena moved to Ireland in 2001, and after some research spurred by an interest in how the Irish political system works, decided to join the Labour Party in 2006.

In Moldova, she worked as a journalist but that was the extent of her political involvement. Her first bid to get elected in 2009 saw her miss out by a small margin, but she was elected in 2014 - a much harder election for Labour candidates to contest as the party was largely wiped out following the backlash to the water charges controversy and austerity measures introduced by the Fine Gael-Labour government of the day.

On the doors during her campaigns, she said people were interested in her background with many wrongly assuming she was Polish. Others guessed she was from Spain, based on her name. It sparked a discussion with people, but it was a gateway to discussing her reasons for contesting the election.

"At the end of the day, people looked at what I had to say," she says.

And now that she has been on the council for five years, it is her track record that people will be looking at as she seeks their vote in May.

"I'm doing my job as a councillor. People don't look at my background, they look at what I do, what I say, how I behave, what I've achieved. It's really about what you can do and how you present yourself," she says.

"I hope that we will see more people who have come to Ireland and made Ireland their home putting themselves forward to run," she says.

As polling day nears, it is likely that there will be more discussion around how to ensure immigrant communities are exercising their democratic right.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland (ICI) has already rolled out videos in 10 languages to help spread the word that anybody who lives in Ireland can vote in local elections.

"Our political system is woefully homogeneous and would both benefit from and be enriched by greater diversity," says Pippa Woolnough of the ICI.

Diversity officers

At party level, there is a responsibility for parties to be proactive, Woolnough says, including when it comes to putting migrants on the ticket: "It would be beneficial if they monitored and published the percentage of migrant membership within their parties so they can see how reflective their party really is of the communities they represent."

Minister of State with responsibility for local government reform John Paul Phelan is expected to bring a memo to Cabinet next week outlining how state funding will be rolled out to eligible parties for a diversity officer.

The move has been touted as an alternative to statutory gender quotas, but it is designed to promote participation across all under-represented groups.

One local election candidate who believes in making ring-fenced funding available to help one sector of society access supports to launch a bid for public office is Micheál Kelliher, who is contesting the Cabra-Glasnevin ward.

The Independents 4 Change candidate is deaf and has been involved in a number of campaigns to promote a more visible use of sign language across the media, and to ensure access to information to help deaf people make informed electoral choices.

It is easy for the deaf community to get locked out of the political debate. This was particularly evident during the presidential campaign - there were no sign language interpreters available for the televised debates.

"In America [during the presidential campaign of 2016] there was three interpreters for the debate - one for Trump, one for Hillary Clinton and a mediator," he points out.

He has been agitating for the introduction of an Access to Elected Office Fund to be established to allow people with disability to get funding for things like interpreters - but at the moment, there are no plans to introduce the scheme, a version of which is in place in the UK.

The 30-year-old software engineer hopes that the electoral commission being set up by the Government will have a role in promoting political participation among people with disabilities, noting that people who live with disability are able to bring a broader perspective on their needs to elected forums.

But for now, each of the candidates is gearing up to knock on doors in their local communities, asking people to back their vision for the area.

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