The 2014 Campaign
In Profile: Justin Cartwright, SDLP council candidate for Balmoral
Meet the Australian trade unionist running for Balmoral who says the SDLP should move away from the constitutional question and focus on issues of social and economic justice.
ustin Cartwright joined the Australian Labour Party in 2004 during a federal election defined by national security issues, the logging of Tasmania’s old-growth forests, and an incident involving an aggressive handshake. Though raised in a political Labour family, until the 2004 election, Justin had kept some distance between himself and the politics of his parents.
At the time, John Howard’s right-leaning Liberal Party had been in power for the better part of a decade. The Prime Minister’s handling of events such as the “the children overboard affair,” where critics claim Howard purposely mislead the Australian public for political gain, left a bad taste in Justin’s mouth.
Justin joined the East Melbourne constituency branch of the Labour Party, campaigning for opposition leader Mark Latham, hoping to oust Howard’s coalition government. Labour lost that election, but Justin’s involvement in the party had been cemented, and he would go on to be voted in as branch secretary.
While working for the Labour Party and an Australian trade union, Justin also sat as acting secretary for Cumann na Gaeilge na hAstráile in Melbourne, an Irish language and cultural organisation. He helped to bring fluent Irish speakers from Ireland to Melbourne to teach classes. One such teacher, from Andersonstown in West Belfast, brought along fellow traveller, Leigh. While hosting them, Justin and Leigh hit it off, and the couple eventually married. Four years ago they moved to Belfast to build a life together and start a family.
In Belfast, Justin initially found work at a call centre and joined a local trade union (he is now the head of policy for a housing organisation in the charity sector). But finding a political home didn’t come as easily. Politics in Northern Ireland was very different from what he’d left behind in Australia and that took some adjustment and some time for contemplation.
hen Justin arrives at my local coffee shop, he is dressed in smart business attire, taller than I anticipated, and walks with a comfortable, confident gait. As we get talking I ask Justin to tell me about how he initially got involved with the SDLP and about his first impressions of local politics. “There was too much of a constitutional focus, one that didn’t really enamour me from the outset. What changed that was Conall McDevitt.”
“I was very impressed with him as a politician. He was a breath of fresh air and talking politics in a language that connected with people. A political language that people understood. So I got in contact with his office and offered my volunteering services. And one day we sat down over coffee and he convinced me to join the party, which I am glad I did, because my local brach is made up of people coming from a progressive social and economic focus.”
To normalise politics in Northern Ireland Justin believes the SDLP needs to put the stress on a message of social and economic justice. As he explains his values to me, including the importance of fair and just economics and mustering a challenge to neo-liberalism, I feel this compulsion to ask him why, if these are his values, does his party continue to put a United Ireland at the top of its online policy agenda. How would a United Ireland achieve a better quality of life for working people?
Polls show that the majority of people in Northern Ireland, including people from a Catholic background, would not vote for a United Ireland in the short term. So why does the SDLP make it a policy priority? To clear the air, I ask Justin if he is campaigning for Irish unity. His honesty and forthrightness catches me off guard when he answers.
“No I’m not. I’m an economic unionist. Increasing numbers of nationalist voters are moving away from this idea of a united Ireland. There’s a reason for that, because people aren’t economically illiterate. They look at the the economy of the Republic of Ireland and they see a foundering ship. So for us to tether our wee boat to that, both vessels would go down. And that’s not in anybody’s interest, it’s certainly not in the interest of working people.”
“I think there needs to be a move away from the constitutional focus. Parties need to fall in line with people’s positions on that. You need to be moving away from border polls towards action on the A&E crisis, towards actions addressing unacceptable levels of child poverty and unemployment, towards closing equality gaps.”
The SDLP as a party, Justin stresses, already focuses on those bread and butter issues. “The constitutional issue is a policy point, and I do respect that is a policy point, one that has been democratically decided by the party. And the SDLP is very much a democratic party.”
“My own party, the Australian Labour Party, is staunchly republican, it wants to do away with the monarchy, but it’s just not a day to day focus. It went to referendum, it failed, so you move on and get on with the job and focus on the economy.”
Justin believes trade unionists from all community backgrounds should join the SDLP. When he worked at the call centre, he joined a trade union and set out to unionise his team. The experience led him to two conclusions. First, workers need legislative support, which can only be achieved in the longterm. The sector is too difficult to organise from the inside because turnover is so high. Second, they need well-resourced and dedicated trade unions that are going to put the time in. His ambition to create better working conditions for Northern Ireland employees led him to the values and policy priorities of the SDLP.
“The SDLP’s constitution is one of social democracy, which throughout the twentieth century in Europe has had a strong relationship with trade unionism, and has delivered. It’s really sad in the British Isles to see a no to poor relationship between politics and labour. Trade unions should have a functioning political link that delivers for working people.”
The current council is not delivering as well as it should be for the people of Belfast. Justin points to the DUP, who are looking to open a new community centre in an area of 300 people. This, he says, “is disgraceful pork-barreling and unjustifiable in the current economic circumstances.”
With the transfer of substantive planning powers to the council, local politicians will have a lot more power to address issues such as housing. “The housing supply is a massive issue because there is a chronic undersupply of housing in the city. We currently need 11,000 new units a year to keep up with household growth and we’re building 7,000. While we need genuine community consultation, and need to listen to residents, you also need proper delivery of planning outcomes. So yes, planning is going to be a massive issue where we need to break from parochialism and need that new-politics focus.”
I asked Justin if there was anything he would have done differently on council in terms of how the decision over restricting the flying of the Union flag to designated days was made.
“There were a number of complaints made to the council about the flag flying every day. The council decided to launch an equality impact assessment that took into account the council as a public building and also a work place, which is important, because people of all different backgrounds work there.”
“The assessment recommended designated days as a policy, and it’s one that I agree with, because the Union flag is the flag of the country so it deserves that capacity, the right to fly on public buildings. But that needs to be tempered with the realistic situation with the communities, which is why I don’t agree with it being flown every day, and if you want parity with Britain, the majority of their councils fly the flag on designated days.”
Asked if he felt the decision had been rushed through council, Justin responded, “You’ve got the findings of the equality commission in 2002 and 2011. So you’ve got the best part of a decade of consultation here.”
Last year the SDLP came under a lot of criticism for a vote on the Newry-Mourne Council where SDLP councillors voted to name a public park after IRA man, Raymond McCreesh.
Justin was on the executive at the time and thinks the decision was wrong. “We called on the councillors at the time to reverse the decision. To date they haven’t done that. In terms of any actions, that’s completely in the hands of the party whip, but I think it was wrong and I certainly won’t be supporting naming any public places in Belfast after divisive paramilitary or state figures.”
Looking forward, Justin is hopeful about the party’s prospects and is happy with the direction leader Alasdair McDonnell is taking the party.
“I am observing a step change within the SDLP since Alasdair McDonnell took over as leader. There has been a lot of organisational energy that I hope is bubbling up and people can see. We’re organising in areas where we’ve otherwise been silent over the last few years. We have fantastic teams in all reaches of Northern Ireland, from Strabane through to the East. We’re interrogating the health minister over the A&E crisis and the wider health crisis. It’s good to see this movement in the right direction.”