Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.

Naomh Gallagher

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.” – Helen Keller

When I step off a plane and breathe in the air, I never fail to think that there’s no fresher air I’ve ever experienced than that of home. But there was a time when even the freshest air imaginable wouldn’t have convinced me to stay here. By 18 years old I couldn’t wait to flee the nest, to experience true independence (well, my adolescent belief of independence), to exist outside the Northern Irish bubble, to really see the world. My university experience in England was amazing, and I would eagerly promote it to any young person planning their higher education journey. However, it wasn’t the panacea that I expected. I missed so many aspects of home; the friendliness of strangers, the comforting feeling of being surrounded by other weird and wonderful accents, our unique sense of humour (that non-NI folk don’t often appreciate), and the ability to breathe in that beautiful Atlantic air and exist as an island people with all the solitude and contemplation that entails. Whilst all those around me were making plans to move to London and further afield, I quietly enrolled in a postgraduate course back home in Belfast.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love to travel and visit new places. The summer before moving back home I spent three months cycling across Canada, a life-affirming experience that provided the basis for my overwhelming faith in the goodness of fellow human beings. Since then I have travelled all over the world, and experiencing new people and places remains one of my favourite things to do. But the feeling that I experience upon returning home is one that has never yet been paralleled. So at the ripe old age of 21 I moved back to Belfast. I hadn’t decided to stay here indefinitely back then, that was more of an evolution.

It wasn’t until the second year of my PhD that I had direct contact with party politics, despite always having an interest. I answered an advertisement asking for volunteer interns to work with a local MLA, and ended up analysing the impact of segregation in Northern Ireland. Using my own skills and experience to contribute to this kind of work really opened my eyes to what was possible; politics didn’t have to be about these old white guys who have been arguing about the same thing for the past 30 years. Politics could be about looking objectively at what was happening across Northern Ireland, pointing out where things were not working and could be improved. I got involved at a local level after that, spending at least a year going to branch meetings without once opening my mouth to speak! Four years later I became chairperson of that branch, eventually finding the words that I needed to contribute my voice to the mix.

I have so many family and friends who love this place like I do, but have chosen to live elsewhere. This is common, even looking at the contributions to this website and so many have been written by Northern Irish residents living away. I don’t blame people for leaving or for staying away; there are so many valid reasons not to be here and there are so many other incredible places to be. But I want to raise the flag (fleg?) for coming back (or at least getting involved from afar). Spend one evening in Belfast city centre, speak to people in the streets, listen to our young people question their election candidates, see how quickly we can organise a rally for what is right – any of these would instantly convince you of the wonder and positivity present in this place, despite what you might read in the media. Yes, we need more jobs, we need real equality, we need an end to the sectarianism, but we need cheerleaders for the good things too. We need people to tell the good stories as well as the bad. We need to tell people that there is hope, that there are people choosing to fight for what is right, that there are people making plans to improve our future.

We need people to believe that we have a future.

I am Irish, I am Northern, I am an island dweller, I am a massive fan of the BBC, I love the NHS, I believe that Mr Higgins is a wonderful president, I am optimistic about our future. I am full of dichotomies, as I think most of us from our corner of this island are. Our politics needs to catch up with our people, but I also believe that our people need to make that happen. There are so many ways to be involved in politics; our small size makes it easier than in most places! If you find yourself complaining about our present, think about how you can impact our future. From voting to running for election, and many things in-between, you can do something that might just convince someone that they’re ready to move back home, to make a go of it where their heart really lies. To make Northern Ireland a place that is no longer synonymous with violence and conflict, but instead a place where hope grows and we the people decide our own fate in this land of optimism, to achieve a better future, together.

Naomh Gallagher is an epidemiologist and is running as a candidate in South Belfast for the SDLP.
Follow her on Twitter.

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Photo credit: Brendan Harkin