EVERY successful political party needs respected community activists on the ground. You really cannot get someone with deeper community roots than Paul McCusker, one Belfast’s newest city councillors co-opted to replace Nichola Mallon from the SDLP.

His name had been mentioned to me a few times as someone who would be a surprise candidate and chosen because he had the potential to change the image of the SDLP in North Belfast.

Aside from working part time as a nurse in the nearby Mater hospital, sitting on the board of PIPS Charity, a trustee of the Crumlin Star Social Club, a volunteer with the Welcome Organisation, a volunteer with Ardoyne, Hammer and New Lodge youth clubs, a trade union representative of Unison, McCusker has almost fifteen years behind him as one of the organisers of the Ardoyne Fleadh.

You would be hard pressed to find someone else as integrated into the area in which he was born and reared. At only thirty years old, he has a wealth of life experience.

In his work as a nurse, his shifts have seen him saving lives by CPR one minute and chasing after a suicidal person on the Crumlin Road the next.

When he’s not working thirteen hour shifts in the hospital, he goes out onto the streets of Belfast meeting the needs of rough sleepers with others from the Welcome Organisation.  They go around the city meeting their food and drink needs, talking to them and trying to get them a bed in a hostel for the night. A few years ago he went undercover on the streets of Belfast to experience life as a homeless person.

He doesn’t look like a politician and doesn’t strike you as a public speaker given that he’s so quietly spoken. But what he has to say shows he’s very passionate about the work he does with people in North Belfast.

He has twice taken groups of teenagers to Africa and has just returned from Romania where he and they worked in an orphanage in Baraolt. They went to experience life for those less off than themselves. Since then, some have turned their lives around; they’ve gained employment and don’t stand on corners drinking anymore.

He believes in early intervention and says he wants to change the mind set of those that want to move out of Ardoyne, by listening to them and acting on their behalf to give the most vulnerable a voice in local government.

His first task as city councillor will be to set up a focus group consisting of a young person, an elderly person, an ethic minority and a gay person so that they can continuously have their voice heard and able to feel ownership of the area.

When asked about the increasing presence of paramilitaries in Ardoyne and how he hopes to approach the subject, McCusker says he intends to keep working with the young people to ensure they don’t come under their attention. Then he is open to dialogue asking the paramilitaries to disengage from their behaviour.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you’ll know I have a bee in my bonnet about co-opting. I’m not a fan of the SDLP either but I really cannot criticise their choice in candidate here. What’s clear about him is that he genuinely cares about people; he has the connections and a track record in helping people out. Surely his appointment can only be a good thing for Belfast.

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