‘I did not intend to become a politician. I really didn’t. I’ve always wanted to write’ – The Meczyki Times

Actor and comedian Luke Sorba – now a Labor Party councilor for Lewisham – taught Matthew O’Toole at the workshops: “I remember Matthew because he worked in George Osborne’s office when he was General in 2015. I was the finance minister. The election, and we discussed politics. Sorry, I don’t remember his comedy performance.

O’Toole, of Downpatrick, co. Raised in Down, later Downing Street spokesman, but now Leader of the Opposition at Stormont after the SDLP’s decision to withdraw from executive membership.

The pub has played a role in his life. In Downpatrick, he worked part-time in a nearby country pub owned by his uncle Hugh. On the night of Ireland’s World Cup opener against Italy in 1994, UVF gunmen opened fire in the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, killing six Catholic men as they watched the game. It was one of the worst atrocities of the Tribulation.

The 39-year-old is reluctant to talk about the massacre and the impact it has had on his family. However, he believes that politics is conditioned by “how you were brought up, where you grew up and the values ​​that were imparted to you”.

“There was definitely something about the place I grew up in. It had relatively good, strong community relations in a difficult time and a culture that was focused on reconciliation,” he tells The Meczyki Times.

“I’ve always been very careful about claiming to be a direct victim of Loughinisland… I wasn’t but I’ll never forget it.

“It was important in the sense that my father was one of the first people on the scene. I remember watching the match with my cousin who was staying over and my father suddenly had to leave home. My uncle was a charity worker at the time. were in Romania as part of the project.

“I worked in a pub afterwards for a while afterwards. So you know how it was deeply hurtful and a huge wound on the community.

“Obviously, the revelations of the investigation and the indisputable evidence of collective behavior later made it all the more shocking.”

No wonder

O’Toole’s nomination this week as leader of the opposition at Stormont for the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) comes as no surprise to party veterans or political rivals.

Despite taking up an Assembly seat in south Belfast only two years ago and having spent most of his working life in Westminster, his intelligence and Whitehall experience – he led Downing St Communications and Communications before the 2016 Brexit referendum. Coordinated policy. quickly established him as a rising star in a party clamoring for new blood.

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Leaving the civil service in 2017, he became one of the UK’s most persuasive media pundits and a leading writer on the negative impact of Brexit on Ireland.

Political commentator Tom Kelly, who masterminded the SDLP’s successful election campaigns in the 1980s, says, “I think he’s an incredibly bright person, and socially he’s great company. “

‘I was watching him at Stormont finance committee meetings and was amazed at how unionists had a real respect for him.’

“There’s an intensity to it. It’s a Durkan thing [his uncle is former SDLP deputy first minister Mark Durkan] And his questions are long, but that’s because he knows so much.

“I was watching him at some meetings of Stormont’s finance committee and was amazed at how unionists have a real respect for him. It’s because of his time in the Treasury: he probably knows more than any other MLA that How Government and Civil Service Work

“He’s definitely future leader material. It’s interesting that he wasn’t comfortable on the campaign trail. It’s very difficult to ask people to vote for you. But he has a likeable style.

“There’s a brutal honesty to him. He didn’t deny that he took the assembly election results badly. He wasn’t going to run away from that.”

A humiliating defeat

Once enjoying majority support within Nationalism, the SDLP suffered a humiliating defeat in May’s Assembly elections, leaving it with just eight seats, four down on 2017, leaving it in the Stormont line-up. Left in fifth place.

The disappointing result meant the party lost its right to nominate ministers in the executive.

Contesting his first election in the Liberal South Belfast constituency, O’Toole won his seat – the final announcement came at the end of a tense first night of counting in the city’s Titanic Centre.

Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) MLA Jim Allister served with him on Stormont’s Finance Scrutiny Committee, and acknowledged the SDLP “probably has more intellectual talent on their benches than any other party”. “For them, sadly, it didn’t mean anything in the election,” he adds.

Asked about O’Toole’s suitability to lead an official opposition – O’Toole has encouraged other parties to join in opposing a “divisive and deadlock-inducing Stormont” – Alastair replied Dia: “Matthew is very capable but he is very thoughtful, which is his biggest weakness. . . you sometimes listen to him and think: ‘You could have done that in 30 seconds instead of two minutes.’ .’ He makes a little meal out of the problems. You can see his mind working where he’s saying something and he’s thinking, ‘I’ve got to close this cul-de-sac and this cul-de-sac. -To tell Sock this.”

The lone TUV assembly member is staunchly opposed to a mandatory power-sharing alliance and has repeatedly called for opposition.

The North is without a functioning assembly after the DUP refused to elect a speaker amid ongoing protests over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Alastair adds: “One of my reservations is that Matthew and the SDLP are ideologically tied to the system. I wonder if that will stop them from applying the rigor and enthusiasm that they have to do.” Need to apply. But there’s no doubt he’s capable and raises relevant points. I’m sure he’ll get it all right.”

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Despite his family’s strong association with the party – another Durkan, SDLP Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan, is a first cousin – O’Toole insists he had no desire to enter politics.

He was born in Belfast and his father, originally a solicitor from Lougheenland, moved the family back to the South Downs when Matthew was a toddler in the mid-1980s.

After graduating from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, he moved to London to pursue a career in journalism and worked for a company publishing political magazines while joining the Labor Party.

“I didn’t set out to be a politician. I really didn’t. I always wanted to write,” says O’Toole. “But someone from my background being a press officer in Whitehall – it gives you an insight into how big government departments work, experience of being inside the government machine… and my It’s not meant to be rude, but it’s a daily way of realizing how little attention Northern Ireland gets.

“We’re not the only high priority in the machinery of government in Whitehall. More often than not, I disagreed with the policies of the government I was working for – I started when it was under Gordon Brown. Under the Labor government.

SDLP South Belfast MP Claire Hanna, who replaced O’Toole as MLA after his landslide Westminster victory in 2019, was instrumental in securing his appointment to the Stormont Assembly. were She confirms his claim that there was “no grand plan” behind the move: “I only met him three times before he got involved. He was literally in the right place at the right time. was

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“There was someone else who was up for the job, but who had a successful career. We were over at Westminster and trying to figure it all out after I became an MP. I called Matthew. had corresponded on Brexit and had lunch with her on the first day they came in.

“I asked Colum (Eastwood, the SDLP party leader) to meet us for a drink. We kicked the tires and realized in the evening, ‘Yes, that’s the man.’ We were impressed by his writing on Brexit. But it was really random. It wasn’t like he was hanging around to be an MLA.

‘He is very much part of the intellectual center of the party at the moment. He has really solid judgment and is easy to work with.

I remember that whenever he was appointed, The New Statesman wrote an article on him. It was unusual for a British political magazine to cover co-ops, but everyone knew how brilliant he was. At no point in the past two years have I ever regretted the decision to bring him on board, in fact I routinely pat myself on the back for it.

“He’s very much part of the intellectual center of the party at the moment. He’s got really solid judgment and is easy to work with. But he’s also really good at slanging people.

“People enjoy his crack and will tell you in private that ‘Matthew has a big brain’ as opposed to ‘Matthew has a voice.’ Some people are surprised that he is such good company and wears his studies so lightly.

Before the May election, O’Toole became embroiled in a heated on-air debate with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan after he accused him of giving airtime to “a small section of hard-line voices” on the presenter’s daily phone-in show. Challenged about the level of BBC Radio Ulster.

Nolan, the BBC’s fifth-highest paid, hit back, saying critics were trying to “censor” some voices. “Matthew was the first politician to take on this challenge, others wouldn’t have dared,” Hanna notes.

Having just returned from maternity leave, O’Toole has fiercely guarded her privacy, though took to social media to say that “another redhead” had “been unleashed on the world” before she welcomed her baby. Thank the NHS staff for looking after your family after the birth.

“I’m married and we have two sons but I don’t do the whole Instagram thing, it’s not me,” he says.

Former Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken is more than happy to talk about what he refers to as an “interim” opposition leader – until the assembly becomes “no opposition” again – in his fledgling Park in Leicestershire pushing granddaughter around.

“Matthew is a very capable politician and brings a lot of experience about how government should be done in the Assembly if we’re up and running,” says Aiken, who has also served on the Finance Committee.

“Despite his strange views on protocol and the fact that he wants a united Ireland, we are getting on very well and I think we are similar in our approach.”

However, Aiken – who once worked in Whitehall – believes O’Toole’s future is not in the Assembly.

“He’d naturally be a Labor MP, maybe he’d be better off there than here. His politics are a bit like mine, centre-left, he’s more in a Conor McGinn mode. [McGinn is a Northern Ireland-born Labour Party MP] than any SDLP variant.

“No matter when we get the assembly back it will be an uphill battle for the SDLP. All the parties in the center are being squeezed, including our own. So given the background, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a Labor MP somewhere in middle England in five to 10 years.