Gemma Brolly is the Aontú candidiate for East Derry.
A County Derry teacher who is running as a candidate in the upcoming assembly election says she believes her classroom experience allows her to voice the issues affecting local schools.
Gemma Brolly, an Irish language teacher and special needs co-ordinator at Bunscoil Naomh Bríd in Tirkane, is hoping to be elected as an MLA in East Derry when voters go to the polls on May 5.
The Aontú candidate's election campaign also focuses on the cost of living crisis among other issues affecting rural communities in the constituency.
The 39 year-old, who is a fluent Irish speaker, said she first took an interest in politics whilst studying her A-levels at Loreto College in Coleraine.
After attending an SDLP conference as a teenager, Gemma had considered entering politics but never actually joined a party.
Gemma said she never felt she could align to a particular party, until she heard about Aontú.
“I was just dumbfounded that there was no voice for me and I felt there was nobody to vote for at a stage,” explained the mum-of-four.
“I believe people fought and died to give us the right to vote and I would never ignore that opportunity, but I really felt that my back was against the wall as a nationalist and a republican as to who to vote for.
“I suppose I was on the lookout and just hoping that something would come out of that and Aontú came along.
Gemma said she was inspired by the late Francie Brolly.
“It all began with a small meeting in a neighbour's house with a few people who were thinking about starting a cumann.
“We spoke to Anne Brolly and Eamon Dallat and then we turned up to a meeting and just gradually became involved.”
Gemma, who lives in Ballerin, said she was really inspired by the late Francie Brolly and his wife Anne.
“Francie and Anne Brolly were at the meetings – they were so inspiring and so vocal. Francie was so modest and when he spoke it was important, you knew to listen as he had something very important to say.
"They were just so respectful – they weren't about sides, just about bettering life and giving people a voice and somebody to vote for.”
Gemma said the decision to stand in the elections was an easy one for her as she is keen to bring about change for the better.
“When you have children, you look at life differently,” explained Gemma, who is married to part-time farmer Eunan.
“This last five years I've felt a real frustration. I was really shocked by the abortion referendum. At least in the Republic of Ireland, people had a say, but up here I just never believed that nationalist parties in particular would do such a u-turn on their values and without giving people a voice on it.
“I would have been in support of our nationalist parties but when they did come to my door that was one of the things I wanted to know.
"To me, that's discrimination against the most vulnerable in society and I believe there is a picture painted out there that's not completely accurate.
“There needs to be more compassion and respect. In this country in general, people need to listen as opposed to talk and be prepared to park their opinons and hear each other – that will be the only way forward.”
Gemma currently teaches in Tirkane.
Having taught at the Slaughtneil school for the last 14 years, Gemma says she is more than aware of the issues affecting education in the North.
“Education is a major drive for me. I've experienced it as a parent, a teacher and a special needs co-ordinator,” she said.
“My husband didn't really understand it until recently but he said if you can change this system then go for it.”
Gemma believes that 'forward thinking' is what is needed in the education system.
“I would advocate for what the unions are saying about teachers' wages but I would go further than that,” she continued.
“I would rather they improve the system and the workload within the system and increase the respect within that system, especially for classroom assistants. I think classroom assistants are completely forgotten about and completely undervalued.
"They are expected to just jump through hoops and go where they are told and do what they are told although a lot of them have very little security in their job and are not paid what they are worth.
“There is so much forward thinking needed in the education system and it's just not there.
“I have been raised in a world where my faith was entwined through my education and it's something I feel quite passionate about. I have nothing against integrated education – I think it's great – but it has to be part of a pluralist system.
"I believe faith in this world now, more than ever, it's not to discriminate or to push down anybody's throat but people should have the right to be vocal and to have their faith if they wish. Parents should have that right to offer that to their children.”
She continued: “I believe in education. I'm on the inside and what drives me to distraction is people in departments and ministers elected into positions where they have very little experience.
"You wouldn't take a farmer and put them into a classroom, just like you wouldn't take a teacher and put them into a field. If you can't do it at the level we are at, why should you be able to do it there?”
While out canvassing, Gemma says she and her election team are receiving the same feedback on the doors from householders who are deeply concerned about the cost of living.
“People have just had enough,” she said.
“The cost of living, and in particular the price of fuel, has just tipped people over the edge. I do believe there is so much more the executive should be doing.
"We see it even in the different petrol stations and the price difference between fuel. There should be some type of regulation that that can't happen.”
Having been brought up on a farm close to McLaughlin's Corner, near Kilrea, and now married to a farmer, Gemma says she knows about the real issues that are facing the farming community.
“I come from a farming family and I'm now married into a farming family,” said Ms Brolly.
“People have had enough. So many farmers are grasping to try and make a living. We are an example of that – two people in the house working full time and yet a farm would never provide what we need.
“Those days are gone, it's literally such hard work just to keep the farm going. We have the Climate Bill which is great and I'm all for the moves to save and improve our environment but there is so much more that can be done and I think the ordinary people on the ground have lost their voice.
“The people in power have become lost and run away with themselves a wee bit and they need to refocus on what this is about.”
Gemma says that following the May 5 elections there should be no return to the recent situation in the local government.
“There should be more accountability,” she said, continuing: “I cannot fathom, and it should never be the case, that people can just decide 'well here I don't like how this is going so I'm just going to walk away and still get paid'.
"There should be changes immediately in how the executive is run. MLAs do not deserve to get paid when not working. I can't decide I don't want to go to work and still get paid, so nobody else should be able to do it.”
She went on: “There should also be some form of accountability in regard to respect and behaviour. Slurs on each other, while teachers and parents at home are trying to educate their children, and they are looking to the very people running the country and are hearing and seeing this behaviour.
"I think there should be some form of accountability implemented there in the same way there would be in any job. It's obviously something that needs to be worked out but there should be some sort of sanction when a grown-up cannot show respect. There has to be a way forward here.”
The promotion of East Derry and all it has to offer is something else which Gemma says will be high up on her agenda, should she be elected.
“East Derry is very much forgotten, I don't think it's any secret,” said Gemma.
“The statistics are there to show that housing, healthcare and education are very much on the backburner there.
“We've had endless promises, particularly with the University of Ulster and even Magee in Derry. I would push for us to gain our focus and rightful place at the table.
"I do believe we have an awful lot to offer in heritage and tourism also. When you take the Causeway Coast and Glens, or for example Dungiven and the Old Priory – there are so many tourist hotspots and places we can avail of.”
Other issues on her agenda include proper mental health services, alcohol and drugs issues, particularly among young people, and being an advocate for the rural communities with priorities including the closure of vital services.
Mrs Brolly has said she will campaign against mining locally.
Gemma also lists the threat of rural school closures and mining as something she is keen to campaign against.
“A lot of people are beyond frustrated that they are lost in the system,” she said.
“I think they feel there is almost a hierarchy and we are just the ordinary people on the ground and I would say I am one of those ordinary people.
"As I've said quite recently, I'm not a politician. I'm just somebody who has literally had enough and has been pushed to the brink.
“I want to push for the common person on the ground, the people who are literally knocking their heads against a brick wall trying to make a living.”
Quoting Irish republican James Connolly, who talked about 'hoisting the green flag', Gemma added: “I always remember that quote of his. That's the way I see life at the minute.
"I can see us back to 1916 nearly where the ordinary people are being trampled on and forgotten about. One of the biggest issues at the minute is apathy.
"People really are scundered to the back teeth and it's encouraging them to come forward and use their voice, be active and tell people enough's enough.
"That's exactly what Aontú is about, we are about the right to life and every right enshrined within life.
“I think we need to have good faith, I'm a positive thinker in that way – never give up. I think our children need to see that and hear that now more than ever,” she added.
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.