Why I’m standing down as local MLA

By Gemma Burns

She is West Belfast’s longest serving Assembly member, at the time of her election one of the youngest MLAs in Stormont and the first woman chief whip of any of the north’s major political parties.

But Sue Ramsey’s abiding memory of her first day at Stormont is showing around two elderly West Belfast republican women whose only previous experience of life on the hill was going there to receive benefits with their parents.

“On my first day elected I brought two local republican women up to Stormont to show them around,” she said.

“Their only other experience was going up with their parents to get their benefits and that’s how they viewed Stormont. But that day in 1998 we were all there as equals. They saw that day how much had changed and they walked the corridors equal to everyone in there.”

The anecdote is typical of Sue, who steps down as a West Belfast MLA after 14 years in the corridors of power in Stormont. Known as a formidable chair of the Assembly health committee, which amongst other things scrutinises departmental spending and failings in patient care, it is her work in helping her constituents and individuals all over the north of which she is most proud.

On Tuesday it was announced to the Assembly that she is to step down after enduring months of ill health. The 44-year-old suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare and excruciatingly painful disorder of the main sensory nerve in the face. Pain can be so severe it is known as the ‘suicide disease’ because of its intensity.

The Twinbrook woman was first diagnosed with the complaint eight years ago but managed to keep it at bay until late last year when it returned so severely that she temporarily stepped down from her duties as an MLA.

“I was operated on using keyhole surgery where they basically put a balloon in your brain to try and help ease the nerve but it didn’t work for me and the balloon ended up damaging my eye, so I went to Leeds for radiation treatment. The treatment has been ongoing over since.”

There is no cure as yet for the disorder, so Sue is being treated with more radiation and strong medication. As it’s a condition that can be exacerbated by stress, during her break she began to consider the real possibility that she might have to step down from the job she loved – for good.

“I took lots of medical advice and they all told me that it is made worse by stress. I loved being an MLA but it was busy and stressful. I realised I might not be able to carry on. I didn’t think it was fair on the people who elected me that I might need to take more time off and I didn’t think it was fair on my party colleagues. I agonised over it but I knew it was the best thing to step down.

“Everyone in the party was shocked, even though they knew I had been ill but all have been incredibly supportive.”

A lifelong republican, her father is an ex-prisoner. Sue joined Sinn Féin as a young teenager in response to the inequality she saw all around her.

“I was 15 when I first joined the party and became politically active. I saw injustice on the streets and I am not just talking about political injustice, but social injustice too. I liked working on the ground and helping people and being in communities.”

When Sue was first asked by the party to run for election to Lisburn Council she refused.

“I wanted to continue to do the work on the ground so I said no. But then I realised that if you actually want to change things you have to go in and try and do it from the inside. Lisburn Council was a bastion of unionism and I wanted to fight in there for the people of West Belfast.”

She was elected to Lisburn Council in 1997 and one year later was elected to the Stormont Assembly.

As chair of the Assembly’s health committee, probably the busiest and most pressurised committee chair role, Sue quickly won respect from across the board for her down-to-earth, firm but fair attitude. She said she consid-ers this one of her greatest achievements.

“The chair of the health committee is one of the most demanding but I really enjoyed it. I think as chair I brought more motions to the floor of the Assembly chamber than any other committee chair. I think every month I had a motion put forward. But as well as that I liked to deal with individual constituents’ complaints. I liked to do what I could for the people who came to me for help.”

As news of Sue’s departure from the Assembly broke this week, tributes have been paid publicly and privately from across the political divide. Although she will remain a member of the party, her health issue means that she won’t return to front-line politics.

“I will be managing it now with more medication and treatment but it means I won’t be able to return. I am proud of the work I have done but I need to just rest now and focus on my own health.

“I come from a republican family. My mother and father have both been brilliant. My mother is my inspiration, she’s such a strong woman. She always says my granny, who is dead years, would have been so proud and probably stopping people in the street telling them my granddaughter is up in the Assembly. The support I have always had, and especially since I have been unwell, has been amazing, I am so grateful to everyone for their support. I’m proud to have represented the people of West Belfast and I know whoever comes after me will also do their best for the people of this area.”

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