Failed candidates, don’t give up on your Assembly dream…

Selecting an Assembly candidate can be a fraught and tense business for many local associations but what does it feel like to be an unsuccessful contender?

On Tuesday last I had the pleasure of putting my name forward to be the next Alliance Party candidate for the forthcoming Assembly elections.

It turned out to be a hugely rewarding experience even though the result did not necessarily go my way.

More generally, I believe that we should explore how unsuccessful candidates feel after a selection process to ensure that they do not give up on their goals or political ambitions.

Indeed, this was suitably demonstrated over the last few days when I read that Colum Eastwood is to meet with SDLP members of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to discuss their selection process showing that tensions can run high at this stage of the electoral cycle.

My own personal political ambitions all started back in 1985 during the Northern Irish local elections. I had just turned 18 years old and was both enthusiastic and eligible to vote for the first time.

Even though our family wasn’t directly affected by the violence and disturbances of the 1970s and 80s – commonly know as the Troubles – I was acutely aware of the painful divisions within our society and I desperately wanted to contribute to or be a part of, finding solutions.

As my parents had decided to vote for the Alliance Party, under the then leadership of John Cushnahan – and my wider family had connections with the party from its foundation in 1970 – I was persuaded to vote for Alliance.

I dreamed of a Northern Ireland that could be taken away somewhere safe so that everyone could live in harmony and peace. However, over the years that followed, I matured and started to appreciate the complexities, economic realities and deep divisions that persisted in our embattled society over many generations.

It was around that time that I set my sights on Stormont. I wasn’t a confident youngster and didn’t have a particularly good academic record – other than excelling in sport and athletics – so it was a rather forlorn hope. But, nevertheless, this ambition was indelibly imprinted upon my young mind.

However, back to this week’s selection meeting. It was held in Lurgan Town Hall and my opponent, Eóin Tennyson, is young, energetic, knowledgeable and highly articulate so I knew the odds were stacked against me.

I like to think of myself as a bit of a free-thinker or individualist so even though competing on presentation alone would be challenging I was absolutely determined to be myself.

The only downside with this way of thinking is that I can have the dilemma in these more formal situations of whether to say what I think people want to hear or to say exactly what I think and feel.

Therefore, I was pleased that this time I managed to pick up enough courage to be myself during both my presentation and the questions that followed.

Certainly, the local association members pulled no punches with their questions as their second question involved what the Alliance Party would do if they found themselves the second largest party after Sinn Fein following the Assembly elections.

Appealing to the democratic nature of the assembled audience I dispatched this question readily, but a lingering doubt started to appear in my mind on whether I had done enough to convince the association members to support me.

Ultimately, I was unsuccessful in becoming the next Upper Bann candidate, but I can genuinely say I felt truly elated afterwards as I had done my best and had been true to myself.

Over the following days, the physical and emotional exhaustion was replaced by a sense that I wanted to work hard to support the successful candidate, Eóin Tennyson, in his bid to become an MLA.

Also, maybe a little relieved that the spotlight won’t be on me over the coming months.

So, to all my unsuccessful candidate colleagues – congratulations to everyone who is brave enough to put their name forward for selection to become a candidate for elected office.

And, most importantly, don’t be downhearted and don’t give up on your Assembly dream.