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.

1069273_10201482647647769_1681863594_nWhile 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.”

12 thoughts on “In Profile: Justin Cartwright, SDLP council candidate for Balmoral

  1. I’d be very disappointed if the SDLP became a pro-Union party. I don’t think this is the way forward at all. If Northern Ireland remains, we’re going to be burdened with the same old, tried generational problems – bigotry, sectarianism, flags, parades, jingoism etc.

    • So would I, for what it is worth. And I certainly don’t believe Justin is arguing that. What I hear from him is that the party needs to change its priorities. The SDLP will continue to keep a United Ireland as part of its democratically elected policies, but the focus, at this point in time, with polls the way they are, should be health, the economy, and equality. It’s a good debate for the SDLP to enter into.

      • I joined the SDLP because I wanted a United Ireland,the reason I am still in it is because I still want a United Ireland. I do not want a 32 County Socilaist Republic. I want a new Ireland where Prods and Taigs can stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder and where everyone has a stake and feels they belong. It is built on the twin pillars of equality and respect. Not only do I believe that the SDLP can do this, but I believe they are the only party that can do this.

    • I don’t get an impression that Justin is advocating that the SDLP become a pro-union party but rather they emphasise the Social and labour parts of their party name.
      For to long the SDLP have relied on middle class nationalists who could bring themselves to vote for Sinn Fien. Young people are more demanding where a united Ireland is not enough they want good jobs and opportunities.

  2. Interesting and thought provoking interview.
    I would take issue with his economic arguments however, particularly regarding south of the border. Perhaps he should update his economic informantion somewhat

  3. Presumably Justin Cartwright was at a meeting last night? A training session for candidates. I dont know what was said but Id presume candidates were told to be careful what they say.
    Justin was careless. He is Australian and has a labour pedigree and at least he found a party which is the best fit for him…rather than a perfect fit.
    Too many take the soft option of joining Labour NI….who are a joke and cowards.
    I dont expect Justin to be an Irish nationalist but I dont think he should be talking about the direction the SDLP should be going.
    Some basic facts….dont take South Belfast as being typical of SDLP.
    Dont take balmoral as typical of South Belfast.
    This is the heart of MetroTextual l Land….the Twitterati….the road between Shaftesbury Square and Stormont via the ring Road.
    The heart of LetsGetAlongerism, QUB, political professionalism.
    What Justin has managed to do is get Gerry Kelly on Twitter.
    And get Ian parsley of all people to Twjitter as well.
    Obviously the latter is not a serious commentator but nevertheless I doubt the SDLP a Press Office is thrilled at being put on the defensive.
    Justin strikes e as being semi-detached from SDLP…..if elected will he become Independent in a year or so. Those of us who are voting SDLP in May are entitled to ask if we are getting what we vote for.
    As I have often said on my own blog! the first challenge to the SDLP is nationalist voters who have opted for SF in recent years. I know that excellent work is being done in places like Strabane and South Armagh and I find that Justin’s comments undermine rather than strengthen the SDLP a position.
    Wee have tried outreach before. In 2011…it failed.
    We were caught between being SF Lite and Alliance Lite.
    Now when we are finding our own voice, we have someone declare he is an economic unionist.

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  5. If there was a poll on a United Ireland tomorrow I suspect a large/big/reasonably sized percentage of ‘Nationalists’ would either not vote or vote no. Ireland (South), although improving, is still saddled with levels of debt and emigration that will frighten northern ‘Nationalists’ into acceptance of their status quo.

    I think everybody knows this – but it is of course not that wise/easy to admit that your ideoogy has a price tag.

    In party terms this is probably damaging for the SDLP – there are certain things that are best (politically) left unsaid – this is one of them – but that does not mean it does not reflect a ‘substantial’ section of Nationlaist views.

    SF, should in my opinion, openly admit that the cause of United Ireland has been set back 25 to 30 years by the corruption and failure of regulation which was facilitated not just by FF but by a compliant media and oppostion as the country put its foot on the economic accelerator as it approached the brick wall of the economic reality.

    Instead SF claim/pretend they want a poll on a UI which would do massive damage to the morale of Nationalism if they were granted their wish and would simply show the embrassing extent to which the boul Justin’s views are held.

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  7. Must be hard to go from right/left politics in Oz to a sharply divided city/region.
    If he can settle down and more importantly make a living out of NI politics he’ll last.
    If not then it’s back to Kansas.

  8. I think Justin Cartwright show’s a fundamental misunderstanding of nationality versus socio-economic self-interest. Ireland’s economy is in a poor state compared to that of Germany. However would a majority in Ireland really vote to become Germans if given the option? Or closer to home the economy in Britain (actually s-e England) is doing well. Beyond the lunatic fringe in the Sunday Independent and Reform movement would anyone seriously argue that we should all vote to become British in order to reap some supposed economic benefits?

    The so-called UK is not the EU. It is not a socio-economic union. It is a nation-state. Cartwright seems to confuse voluntary agreements and organisations entered into by peoples and medieval anachronisms like the last remnant of the British colony on the island of Ireland.

    The Nationalist community in the north-east of Ireland is Irish because it is Irish. They are citizens of the nation of Ireland because they are citizens of the nation of Ireland. That is the essence of the 1998 Belfast Agreement on the Nationalist side and it ill behoves a would-be politician of a Nationalist party to undermine that. For me this is the takeaway comment:

    “…the Union flag is the flag of the country so it deserves that capacity, the right to fly on public buildings”

    No, its not. And no it doesn’t.

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