Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

In Profile: Kate Nicholl, Alliance Party council candidate for Holywood and Clandeboye

Sun 23 February 2014, 7:32pm
Kate with Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast, Anna Lo

Kate with Alliance Party MLA for South Belfast, Anna Lo

Meet the Afro-Irish Alliance Party candidate tired of boring, wooden political rhetoric who wants to breathe life into the North Down council, dismantle racism in Northern Ireland, and inspire people to get involved in the democratic process.

T

he big yellow door at the Alliance Party headquarters opens and a staffer escorts me back to an overly-warm office smelling of perfume where I am greeted in an unplaceable accent by the ebullient, wavy-haired Kate Nicholl. After a minute of small talk and banter Kate runs off to the kitchen to grab me a mug of green tea and I am left in silence to take in my surroundings.

Splashes of yellow blurt out from every corner of the room. Yellow party literature, yellow daffodils, yellow party pens. Dozens of Thank You cards from constituents and integrated schools are displayed atop the shelves and two desks. Behind me, on the filing cabinet, is a Brian John Spencer cartoon of Anna Lo raising up two hands in a peace-sign salute.

Recent editions of The New Statesman and printouts of various policy documents are strewn across the desk. A Stratagem Public Affairs notepad peaks out from underneath a copy of Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora, a book, as I learn later from Google, that chronicles the experiences of women from across the island of Ireland who travel to Britain for access to safe and legal abortions

When Kate returns, she says the other party staffers give her flack for cranking up the space heater in her office. It’s not energy friendly, they say. But Kate has never gotten used to Belfast’s cold winters. Originally from Zimbabwe, it’s not in her nature to be cold.

216373_1008506626132_6770_nKate was born in Zimbabwe and lived there until she was a teenager. Her mother, from South Africa, married her father, from North Down, and they started a family in Northern Ireland. Because of ongoing violence and instability, Kate’s family left Northern Ireland to set up life in Zimbabwe. Until political trouble erupted in 2000, life there was peaceful and enjoyable and punctuated by a family obsession with cricket.

The first white farmer to be shot during Mugabe’s land reforms was Kate’s neighbour, a father of one of her school mates. As the political situation in the country grew increasingly volatile, Kate’s parents brought the family back to County Down. Except for her university years in London, Kate has been in Northern Ireland since she was thirteen.

Kate’s accent bears the marks of a life that has been picked up and transplanted—it’s hybrid, not one thing or the other. I ask her to discuss how her background and accent affect her experience as a politician in Northern Ireland.

“It’s an icebreaker. The first thing people ask me is where I am from. And Zimbabwe is an unusual place to come from. And being a Zimbabwean working in Northern Irish politics is even more unusual.”

Kate identifies as both Northern Irish and Zimbabwean and describes her self on Twitter as Afro-Irish. She’s proud of her Zimbabwean childhood, her mother’s family’s South African roots (and participation in the anti-apartheid movement), and her father’s Northern Irishness. “Identity is really interesting because you’re not just one thing. You’re not just one personality trait, you’re a combination of different things. I’m a mixture, I’m a mongrel.”

Kate plays an extensive role in the development of the Alliance Party’s shared future policy and worked closely alongside Chris Little on a project for victims and survivors. But people have commented, even friends, that she’ll never really understand the history of Northern Ireland.

She takes on this criticism with humility. She believes that her own experiences and background provide a unique perspective. “I am removed, on one level, but I’m also invested because I do have this Northern Irish side and I live here and I work in Stormont. And things are changing. I work for a politician who was born in Hong Kong. Northern Ireland is becoming more diverse and more accepting of that.”

Racism 

Last week, after speaking out in favour of removing paramilitary murals and flags from the route of the Giro d’Italia, Alliance Party MLA Anna Lo became the victim of online racist abuse.

Kate, who works in the Alliance office with Ms Lo as a researcher, told me that the racist attacks were horrific. “It’s funny, because I found it really upsetting. I was sitting in her office and first became aware of it because of the Loyalists Against Democracy blog post. I was really upset, and I said to her, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And she was sitting at her desk and she just looked up at me and said, ‘I won’t be intimidated,’ and put her head down and carried on working. That’s the way she is.”

Ms Lo is extremely professional, Kate tells me, but she’s also used to racism in Northern Ireland. “She came to Northern Ireland in the seventies and she used to get kicked on the street. She’s suffered a lot of racist abuse. Mark Carruthers made the really good point in his book that now when she would walk down Royal Avenue, everyone would know who she is.”

“I’m incredibly proud to work for her. She’s so dignified. The comments were vile but they are from a tiny minority. If anything, the response that we’ve had since that has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The ordeal raises the larger question of dealing with racism in Northern Ireland. “There is a lot that we can do. The racial equality strategy which we’ve been waiting for for ten years. OFMDFM need to get their act together. They’re not always the speediest. With Together  Building a United Community, that should be coming soon.”

Another way government can tackle racism, Kate says, is by supporting the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities’s proposal of setting up a Black and Minority Ethnic Parliament for Northern Ireland, which would provide a forum for increased participation.

Marriage Equality and Abortion

When I bring up the topics of marriage equality and abortion, Kate lets out a sigh, then sits up straight and begins speaking very candidly.

“There has been problems within the party about this. I won’t deny that. But party policy is in favour of same sex marriage. Eighty percent of party council voted in favour of it. And I’m proud of that.”

“For me marriage equality is not a question. If someone said they wouldn’t vote for me because of the marriage equality issue I would completely understand that and I would be happy to talk about it but it’s not something I am ever going to change my mind on. Equality is non-negotiable.”

“I have gay friends that are like my family and if anyone told anyone in my family that they couldn’t be with someone they loved I would be outraged, so yes, that’s something I’m pretty strong on.”

Kate understands the concern coming from churches, but points out that the proposed legislation protects those churches who don’t want to perform same sex ceremonies, and argues that religious freedom must also be protected.

On abortion, Kate relays the party line, then explains her own moral reasoning. “I’m always told you have to say this, it’s a matter of conscience. There’s no policy on it.”

“I am pro-choice. I’m of the view that criminalising abortion doesn’t stop abortions, it stops safer abortions. I have real issues with the inequality around it. I don’t think it’s just a feminist issue, I think it’s a class issue. Women who can afford to go to England to terminate an unwanted pregnancy can do so if they have £4,000 of disposable income. Working-class women may not be able to access that kind of money. And it is swept under the carpet, I don’t think it’s dealt with.”

“I understand that people have huge issues with this, and I totally respect that, they genuinely are opposed. But I have problems with vulnerable women being harassed when they go into clinics. I think we need to move to a place where we can safely talk about what women need and how they can best be protected.”

Alliance Party values, personal politics, and reaching beleaguered voters

Kate with fellow Alliance Party member and mayor for North Down, Andrew Muir

“I came back to Northern Ireland and got involved in politics because I believe in equality, I believe we need to do everything we possibly can to live together in peace.”

“I genuinely believe that Alliance offers the most. We’ve been fighting against this for forty five years trying to bring people together. Alliance believe in a shared future, and we genuinely mean it. That phrase has lost a lot of meaning a long the way. But when you really think about it, that’s the most important thing right now.”

“I never believed that I could be a member of a political party. But you’ll never agree 100% with any manifesto—it’s impossible. But I joined the party in December when I saw Alliance representatives come under serious attack simply for standing up for a policy that we’ve had for twelve years [designated days on flying the Union Flag]. And the way they dealt with it with such dignity and real courage. And that’s what inspired me to join.”

“As an Alliance candidate, I want to talk like a normal person, I really hate the wooden, political, I hate the boringness of it all basically. I want to see a bit more life in councils. I want to see people be able to discuss issues and debate them in a civil way. Not where it becomes some sort of attack. Politics should be personal, because we’re people, and you should relate to people on that level. So you should treat them accordingly. You may not agree with their views, but you know that’s another person. I think that element of humanity is largely missing in Northern Irish politics.”

“I think that if you are frustrated, which a lot of people are right now, you have an obligation to use that frustration and to change it into a vote for something that you think can make it better.”

On Ireland’s most recent T20 victory over the West Indies 

“This is almost as good news as when Zimbabwe beat Pakistan in the second test in September, I’m truly delighted!”

 

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Comments (24)

  1. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    Good to see new people entering politics.

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  2. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    ” Because of ongoing violence and instability, Kate’s family left Northern Ireland to set up life in Zimbabwe.”

    Odd thing that – to be so attracted by violence and instability.

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  3. Bangordub (profile) says:

    ” Because of ongoing violence and instability, Kate’s family left Northern Ireland to set up life in Zimbabwe.”
    Frying pans and fifes come to mind

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  4. Comrade Stalin (profile) says:

    Odd thing that – to be so attracted by violence and instability.

    Read it again Charles.

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  5. Delphin (profile) says:

    Ah! Frying pans and fifes eh, eating an Ulster fry to the sound of the Rathcoole KAI flute band – heaven indeed. Or is that too much saturated fat to the sound of mindless thugs trying to make music?

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  6. Zig70 (profile) says:

    I was hoping to read some analysis of the morality around the ousting of the planters in Zim. It’s always interesting to bring it up and hear the justifications on why the white folk should keep the land. People who think you can’t come from somewhere else and have an insight into tribal conflict are daft.

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  7. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    “But Kate has never gotten used to Belfast’s cold winters.”

    She should consider herself lucky that her father was from North Down and not North Dakota.

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  8. Turgon (profile) says:

    Mr. Creeth,
    I do not wish to be insulting but this post tells us nothing about Ms. Nicholl’s views regarding becoming a councillor for her local area. The issues touched on are her personal views and values but they relate to assorted issues outwith the competence of a local council.

    This young lady is a candidate for a council: she is not a minor celebrity. This is slugger and not an online glossy magazine. Knowing Ms. Nicholl’s views on planning in the local area; the train line to Belfast; the A2; regeneration in Bangor. All those would be a great deal more relevant than stuff about doors, perfume, flowers, hair colour or her personal choices regarding office heating.

    I am sure you are interested in local politics and I welcome you to slugger. However, in general what we are after here is politics not Ulster Tatler stuff. Profiling people here is a profile mainly of their politics especially in the case of election candidates as it relates to the office for which they are a candidate. Now clearly constitutional issues tend to impinge on things here all too much but in your blog we have some stuff about what might be called “right on morals” and then fluff about Ms. Nichol. Little about Northern Ireland constitutional politics (no bad thing) and nothing about North Down issues (a bad thing).

    Your previous interview was better but still a bit too Tatler. Sorry if that is harsh but try looking at the likes of David McCann’s stuff which is I am afraid rather better.

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  9. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    Aside from Turgons point I found something in particular quite strange in the profile – this whole emphasis on how she is “removed” from NI.

    Kate has been in NI since the age of 13, going to secondary level education in NI, living in NI, and is now mid 20s. She did her degree in London – which lots of NI people would do – and her father is from NI.

    It seems to me that if you were in NI since 13 and are now mid 20s you spent enough formative years to be fully aware of an integrated into NI. Not really an outsider at all.

    So I am surprised to read that “people have commented, even friends, that she’ll never really understand the history of Northern Ireland.”

    It just seems odd. Surely it can’t be necessary to have been here in primary school to have that insight and understanding?

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  10. Charles_Gould (profile) says:

    For background on my post Kate’s linkedin profile says the below, showing she had 7 years of grammar school education in NI.

    It just strikes me that if you did your secondary school education in NI your friends shouldn’t be saying that you will “never really be able to understand the history of NI”.

    //==

    Methodist College Belfast 2000 – 2007
    A levels, English, History, Drama, French
    Activities and Societies: Secretary General of Model United Nations, Chair Person of the Sixth Form Forum, Debating Society, Tennis club, Member of Sixth Form Council, Drama Society

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  11. oakleaf (profile) says:

    During the fiasco at Newtownabbey Council over the play being banned Jake O’Kane tweeted that councilors are elected to empty peoples bins which liberals all retweeted happily. So what has her views on abortion got to do with council elections? Also she seems very concerned about working class girls getting access to abortions. I’d be surprised if she knew anything about working people apart for feeling sorry for them.

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  12. Niall Noigiallach (profile) says:

    Just a thought but is she not the type of candidate that Alliance need in the Assembley as opposed to being a councillor?

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  13. Can the Alliance Party appeal to the Northern Irish identity in all of us, whether we also feel Irish or British or Zimbabwean or Chinese or none of the above?

    It is clear that the DUP/PUP/TUV/UUP can never appeal to non British and that SF/SDLP can never appeal to the non Irish. Voting for these parties will continue the stalemate of 15 years. Voting for Alliance gives a chance for progress

    https://whereareyoufrancishutcheson.wordpress.com/bundles-of-identities/

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  14. Turgon: Thanks for the criticism. I suppose what interests me are people: their stories, their vision, and their values. To me that’s really important to know in a politician. I want to know who they are, what life experiences inform their thinking, and what values underpin their approach to politics. I also think we covered some good issues, all of which were questions posed by people on Twitter.

    You say, “This is slugger and not an online glossy magazine.” By which I suppose you mean I should stick to policies and analysis (I would also point out that Vanity Fair, a great glossy magazine, is home to some of the best political writing out there!). This is definitely David’s strength, and I’ve said before, I can’t match that, my background is literature and theology, not politics. David is a far more capable political commentator in that regard.

    I am a little offended that you call my piece fluff, but I suppose that’s just part of the game, and I need to toughen up as a writer. I certainly don’t think what I write is “Ulster Tatler stuff.” Actually, there is some great stuff in Ulster Tattler! But abortion, marriage equality, racism, and improving the quality of political dialogue in Northern Ireland are all really important issues—all of which came from questions from people on Twitter, as I said above.

    This is my second piece on Slugger. I hope people get some value out of it—I’ve certainly been an admirer of Slugger for years, even before I moved to Northern Ireland permanently. I take your criticism that I need to really get candidates to speak directly to the council issues they’ll be responsible for. Give me a few more chances. I’ll try a few more pieces—if people don’t think it’s appropriate, then I won’t bring it to Slugger anymore.

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  15. “Turgon” is harsh (above).
    I know Barton Creeth and would describe him as the most sincere and decent LetsGetAlongerist I have met over the past few years.
    Almost uniquely when I use that word to describe him….I mean it as a compliment.
    I like his style of writing but yes this is not a particuarly good piece…slightly leaning to the celebrity profile rather than analysis.
    I wont speak negatively of other recent “new” contributors other than to say I am not as big a fan as “Turgon”.

    Most of the stances Ms Nicholl takes up are “totemic”.
    And Barton perhaps unwittingly demonstrates that this really is the type of politics we have here….meaningless.
    But she ticks all the right boxes for people who describe themselves as “progressive”…..and will be described as the right kind of candidate by those that look for and endorse those in all Parties who seem to have more in common with each other than people in their own parties.
    The support for Justin Cartwright of SDLP is a case in point….a story broke by Barton Creeth and a much more serious profile that this one.

    There are perhaps two attitudes to this.
    These young fresh voices are to be welcomed. hashtag new politics and all that.
    For those of is who prefer our political parties to do exactly what it says on the tin…then its a disturbing development which should be strangled at birth.

    Disturbingly…Ms Nicholl seems to be just another young politico with a reasonable chance of being elected in May.
    But “young” is not necessarily good and having had that whole democratic deficit in the 1980s and 1990s and alleged apathy now, we seem to be missing a mature middle aged political class….we have skipped a generation and now have simply too many young wannabe politicos who are being over-hyped by their Parties.
    I emphasise that I am impressed by SDLP Youth….but arguably too much too soon.

    We dont need more Politics students and PhD students in mainstream Politics…..more identikit politicians.
    and anyone with a Linked In profile should be disqualified under some Electoral Law.

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  16. gaygael (profile) says:

    Hi Barton.
    I asked you on twitter to ask the questions on abortion and marriage equality. I think these issues are hugely important and will be battles that will be fought for years here as we move towards normalised politics. I think it is of particular interest in the context of an alliance candidate, where the party allows a conscience vote on abortion, and is meant to have a policy on equal marriage. This policy has not been adhered to by assembly members.

    There is a point with turgons post, that some more locality specific issues may have brought some more perspective to her candidacy. As your series builds, surely this can also be built in to your profiling?

    I would not be as harsh as turgon. I think it may have been interesting to have asked Justin Cartwright on the issues of abortion and equal marriage. SDLP are somehow a left wing (?) party that are anti choice, and allow conscience based abstention on equal marriage.

    Well done. I think If I lived in north down, I might be minded to give her a high preference. But I don’t. My ward is castle in belfast.

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  17. Turgon (profile) says:

    Mr. Creeth,
    Oh dear now I feel a bit guilty. Of course personally I have no interest in people’s stories: I am merely a bitter twisted bigot ;>).

    Actually we get so used to trying to play ball not man on here that sometimes seeing stuff about a person just looks wrong.

    You really must not stop posting because I criticised your article. I would never want anyone to stop blogging on my account.

    I guess I am a bit worried that I still do not know what this lady stands for apart from on homosexual marriage and abortion.

    You are actually quite right that knowing about a person has some considerable validity in a politician and you did give Ms. Nicholl ample space to self define (I mean that as a complement).

    In light of that and Charles_Gould’s comments her self definition is interesting. Ms. Nicholl seems to be placing herself as from NI but not quite from here – indeed she seems to play down her NI-ness. She also name checks Anna Lo (reasonable as she works fro her?) and Naomi Long.

    It is going too far to read that much into this but it looks a bit like a pitch for the not from NI vote which is no doubt substantial in the area she is standing and also reminding us of the totally inappropriate threats etc. to Long after the Union Flag vote. A classic pitch for liberal North Down Prods and widening out to not from NI to try to make up for any loss of vote from North Down Prods due to the flags issue.

    Clearly she might be a potential for Stormont one day but she needs to get elected as a councillor first and I suggest that not mentioning local issues at all is a problem. Also being too obviously a “career politician” from a young age is not always a good idea.

    She reminds me of a younger more junior version of the UCUNF types who stood at the last Assembly election; were politically utterly destroyed and vanished. Clearly I hope exactly that happens to her politically but now I am back to being a bitter twisted bigot.

    Anyhow please do not stop blogging on account of me. That said I will not doubt attack you mercilessly for evermore: such is the slugger way.

    Regards.

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  18. DC (profile) says:

    Who isn’t against racism, against sectarianism and wanting a shared future?

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  19. Tochais Síoraí (profile) says:

    Is it because she is black?

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  20. Tir Chonaill Gael (profile) says:

    “I asked you on twitter to ask the questions on abortion and marriage equality. I think these issues are hugely important and will be battles that will be fought for years here as we move towards normalised politics.”

    You must be joking. Even in a ‘normal’ society they’re sideshows. It’s the economy, stupid.

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  21. Greenflag (profile) says:

    ‘Who isn’t against racism, against sectarianism and wanting a shared future?’

    In theory nobody .In practice in Northern Ireland several institutions political and cultural and pseudo religious have vested interests in maintaining sectarianism and keeping the future as far away from the present as they can .

    Never mind their fine words just watch their actions :(

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  22. Greenflag (profile) says:

    ‘Because of ongoing violence and instability, Kate’s family left Northern Ireland to set up life in Zimbabwe. ‘

    Oh dear from the frying pan etc .

    ‘Until political trouble erupted in 2000, life there was peaceful and enjoyable’

    Have to disagree with the timeline in the above as I lived in the country for 2 and a half years in the mid eighties and then was in neighbouring Botswana for several more years. during which I made regular trips back and forth between the countries ..

    The rot set in circa 1987 /88 about 7 years after independence . By 1990 /1991 anyone (black or white or other ) most could see the writing on the wall other than those who played ostrich . White farmers were particularly vulnerable as their main asset was irremovable . Currency devaluation a la Germany in the 1920′s became the order of the day with numerous re printing of zeros on banknotes which became so devalued that they had to be bundled and tied in ‘bricks ‘ to have any purchasing power .Capital restrictions and corruption on a scale that would make the current Ukrainian ex chief thief look like honest Abe .

    Under Mugabe’s reign the GDP per capita of Zimbabwe has shrunk to below $500 . Forty years ago GDP per capita in Zimbabwe then Southern Rhodesia was five times that of it’s neighbour Botswana . Today Botswana’s GDP per capita is probably 15 times that of Zimbabwe and the gap continues to widen . The population of Zimbabwe has under Robert Mugabe shrunk from close to 15 million to around 11 million .So where have they all gone ? Wherever they could particularly those with an education -to Botswana , South Africa , UK , USA and Australia .

    Meanwhile at 90 years of age Mugabe once again is up for election . He should be under an international arrest warrant for ethnic cleansing committed against the minority Matabele people in the mid 1980′s when his North Korean trained thugs were killing Matabele’s at will and disposing of their bodies in mine shafts in the south of the country .

    As an aside Zimbabwe could be an interesting example for those who are anti or pro Scottish independence in that Zimbabwe is an ‘independent ‘country essentially a one party dictatorship -with no national currency . They use US dollars , UK Pounds , South African Rands and Botswana Pulas and Euros .

    Life expectancy has reduced to 45 for males and females due to the Aids epidemic but also due to the malgovernance and corrupt government the country has endured for at least 30 years :(

    And of course just like Northern Ireland’s particular tragedy Zimbabwe’s suffering could have been avoided if only the hardline White Rhodesian politicians had not declared unilateral independence and gone to war against the future.

    As to

    ” people have commented, even friends, that she’ll never really understand the history of Northern Ireland.’

    I would hazard a guess that what this means in plain English is that Kate Nicholl doesn’t quite get the sectarian divide including the different histories that each tribe promotes unconsciously even those who will loudly proclaim their non sectarian mindsets etc etc .

    This should be another reason for giving Kate Nicholl a vote . The more Kate Nicholls and the more Anna Lo’s the better for Northern Ireland and Ireland .

    .

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  23. gaygael (profile) says:

    Thanks Tir Connell.
    I am obviously not joking. You will see that when I post on these issues it is not for humour.
    Delighted that these ‘sideshow’ issues moved you to post. The full rights to equality for women and lgbt people are hugely important issues, and will be consistently recurring issues in our evolving discourse here in the north.If you don’t believe that social issues are hugely important that’s fine. I would suggest you are wrong, and that political discourse is not exclusively dominated by political economy.

    Obviously the economy is important. But that wasn’t a theme of this thread so far, nor did you say anything to stimulate discussion on this issue, just to try and denigrate my reasoning for asking.

    In addition, with alliance mlas failing to follow party policy, and candidates having a free vote on abortion, it is important to ask.

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  24. Greenflag (profile) says:

    ” You may not agree with their views, but you know that’s another person. I think that element of humanity is largely missing in Northern Irish politics.”’\

    Kate Nicholl

    In the land of the narrow minded one eyed bigot somebody with two eyes can’t be human :( Has to be one of themuns and not one of usuns ,

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