JENNIFER McCann MLA has stepped down. This marks a significant moment in the world of women in politics. It’s possible we are witnessing a generational shift that, had it involved a man, might have been commented on more widely.
Orlaithí Flynn has the confidence of her party – and those who know her well – to be a worthy replacement and I certainly wish her well. But I’m sure she will forgive this tribute to the MLA whose shoes she’ll be working to fill.
I first met Jennifer in the late 1980s when I was a student in Dublin and she was recently released from Maghaberry. Women prisoners were facing horrific daily brutality and Jennifer came to UCD to speak to a gathering of students. I was part of organising the night time meeting which was very well attended – a bit of a deal at that time when republican politics were censored and criminalised in the south.
I remember her arriving so well that cold night. She had travelled before there were motorways on a dark evening in awful weather, through the escalation of loyalist barbarism. Jennifer is obviously very beautiful and she took all of our breaths away when she came in. When she spoke in her gentle yet determined voice about the conditions she had just left and was determined to change, you could have heard a pin drop. There was a relatability while she spoke about an experience very distant from anyone’s present, which allowed us all to empathise wit,h and be motivated by, what she was saying. She finished to a standing ovation and left us to make her journey back, late at night, to the very real threat that faced her.
She brought those qualities of relatability to her political activism as the peace process developed, and she moved to political representation. Her work on the ground in the community, as part of the women’s movement in Belfast, learning counselling skills and contributing to economic regeneration, is all marked by a grounded focus on real people,with real issues, in real lives.
The journey to realising a properly-built Scoil na Fuiseoige is in no small measure due to Jennifer’s determination to realise the dream founded by her comrade and friend Bobby Sands. When the Stormont Executive made the awful decision to assess victims and survivors in the least appropriate fashion to allow them access to services, Jennifer’s integrity ensured this was reversed following her appointment to a ministry at OFMDFM.
In recent years, I have witnessed her commitment to victims and survivors from all backgrounds and in all circumstances. Her commitment, devoid of ego, has been outstanding and connected. When she has spoken of needing victim-centred approaches it hasn’t been lip service – it has been about real delivery.
She did all of the above and far more while she raised her own family. Hopefully she gets to spend more time with them now, although knowing her dedication to any task this is hardly retirement.
Jennifer McCann has been the jewel of West Belfast’s public service. A woman serving her community and people without equal. She is truly deserving of our gratitude and thanks as she embarks on a new era in her life.