27 November 2008 Edition
INTERVIEW: EU election candidates, Kathleen Funchion & Tomás Sharkey
Ambition, determination and down right hard work
TOMÁS SHARKEY (32) is one of a family of five, with one brother (Paul) and three sisters (Annaleen, Roisín and Onnagh). His father is Martin and his mother, who manages the Sinn Féin office in Dundalk, is Olive.
Tomás Sharkey was only five at the time of the 1981 Hunger Strike but, like so many other youngsters of the period, the memory stays with him.
“I remember watching the news bulletins, wall-to-wall viewing through a slot in the wall that led into the other room where the telly was. I remember the Hunger Strike protests in Dundalk and seeing the gardaí and the Special Branch running after protesters around the town.”
He also has memories of republican activists staying overnight in his home.
“While I was in junior infants I remember waking up early one morning to get ready for school and seeing a man on the floor. He’d been travelling and I noticed there were small traces of blood on the floor where he lay.”
Asked if he felt that memories such as those impacted on his decision to get involved in republicanism he says he thinks not, believing instead that people make decisions on their own initiative.
“I don’t buy into this idea that every single incident that you witness as a child has to have an impact on you. For instance, I took on my own back to study Irish history in primary school and on my own volition I decided to pursue studies in the Irish language.
“I was 11 years old when I set myself the goal of getting into the all-Irish class in the Christian Brothers Secondary School in Dundalk. That was by entrance exam and I won a place in an all-Irish class.
“The teaching was by immersion and all subjects were taught through Irish. I was studying the Reformation and the Renaissance through the medium of Irish. My first-ever ambition in life was to become proficient in the Irish language.” And he achieved that goal.
That same self-motivation made a high achiever of Sharkey and he went on to study Irish and Japanese at a high level.
“I did Celtic Studies – Welsh, Scots Gaelic in 1994 in Queen’s University Belfast. That was three weeks after the first IRA cessation. I joined the students’ union in Queen’s and the memory of Sheena Cambell was strong at the time. Later, I went on to take a one-year Higher Diploma in Education. (H Dip) in Maynooth.”
So Tomás took up a career in teaching. “I worked in St McCartan’s School in Monaghan, then in Ardee and now in Dundalk. I love teaching because it’s a job in which you can realise ambitions and you can change the world with your ambitions. It’s about helping people to learn for themselves and you can also learn from your students.”
He is passionate about teaching.
“I love teaching,” he says, and if the teacher ratings on RateMyTeachers.com is anything to go by he’s good at it: “A dead-on teacher,” one student writes. “He’s so sound and a very good Irish teacher and good craic,” writes another.
For Tómas Sharkey, education is key not only to the development of the individual but is also crucial to the advancement of the struggle.
“I think that when we have young republicans involved in education we should encourage them all the way and when they get into their respective professions we should encourage them to remain in those jobs and become increasingly adept rather than bring a lot of people into the party full-time.
“You can integrate with communities as a republican and bring that republicanism to your workplace. Also, when people see that we are skilled, professional and successful they will have more and more confidence in our ability to run the economy and society.”
Sharkey refers to his wife, Caroline, as an example of what can be achieved at a young age. “My wife is a successful businesswoman. When she was 21 she opened her own business in Dundalk and is still in business 12 years later.”
Not only does Tomás see the need for more and more teachers but he believes in the power of original thought and is a strong advocate of the republican maxim ‘Educate that you might be free’.
“We need to enable people to go wild with their thoughts. That’s where original ideas come from. If you don’t encourage free thought the wild become tame, the tame become wild. When it comes to creative thinking, ‘the wild’ creates the thinkers.”
Along with his very proactive teaching role, Tomás Sharkey has been active in the Republican Movement since he was nine years old. “When I was nine I sold An Phoblacht – then called An Phoblacht/Republican News.”
Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan has made a big impression on Tomás.
“Arthur is an inspiration and very helpful. He’s been working very hard on the ground. I remember his election campaign in 2002. We were making a breakthrough when Arthur got elected to the Dáil and little did I know that I’d be co-opted to his seat.” In the 2004 local elections, Tómas was elected in his own right to the council for the Dundalk/Carlingford area.
“I thrive on my work,” Tomás says. “I’m at the computer at 7am. My mother, Olive, is an example of sheer and utter hard graft. She knows how to make hard decisions and critically engage.”
Tomás married Caroline in 2004, during the local elections, and their honeymoon took a flying start when he was deemed elected. “We married just before the last local elections. We were leaving to go on our honeymoon and the result came out. I remember being on a payphone in Heathrow listening to myself being elected. I was very proud... and relieved.”
Tomás is very confident in his running partner for Leinster, Kathleen Funchion. “Myself and Kathleen make a perfect ticket. We’re both conscious of the needs of our communities. We want to generate local economies and local communities and stop them being squeezed out. I also want a decent transport system and proper medical services. Ireland has one of the worst ratios of GPs per population and if I’m elected I’ll be pushing a crusade in Europe to get better medical services for this country.”
You can see how Tomás Sharkey makes an inspiring teacher believing, as he does, that there are infinite possibilities for human achievement given the right attitude. “Everything in my life has been a combination of ambition and determination and downright hard work. In terms of electoral politics, I’ll be whatever the people decide I will be.”
Would he like to be Minister for Education for Ireland?
He laughs in that good-humoured and open manner that has won him so much admiration among his students.
“You bet I would!” he exclaims. “But at the minute the best chance of making big change is through being an MEP.” And Tomás Sharkey has the determination to do just that.
TOP FORM: Protesting against education cuts
When the Irish sit up and be counted they can get results
KATHLEEN FUNCHION (27) is from Callan, County Kilkenny. She is an organiser for the SIPTU trade union, working with community partnerships. Her husband is Waterford Councillor David Cullinane, who stood for the EU elections in 2004.
It was while attending college that Kathleen got interested in joining Sinn Féin.
“I was studying Sociology in the American College Dublin. After I completed my degree I stayed on in the city for a year and I’d often come across Ógra members handing out leaflets or selling An Phoblacht and, as time went by, I got more and more interested in republicanism and I joined the party in 2003.”
Last year, Kathleen was selected to be the Sinn Féin candidate for the Carlow/Kilkenny constituency in the general election and she spoke to An Phoblacht then, outlining her hopes and experience of political activism at the time. There’s a world of difference between last year’s first-time candidate and ‘Kathleen the South Leinster EU candidate’ of today.
“I got a lot of experience out of the general election campaign. Speaking at various events helped me gain confidence and know-how and I came into my own. I found my own style and my style is to be upfront with people.
“I’ve learnt from looking at politicians from mainstream parties that it’s a big mistake and downright wrong to over-promise to people – to tell them you’ll get them something if you’re not sure you can. That’s something I don’t do. You have to be honest with people.
“I think a lot of the apathy that’s out there is a product of politicians promising things they can’t deliver. One positive from the current recession and the recent Budget is that people are starting to use their voices to express their frustrations.”
Like so many other Sinn Féin activists, Kathleen Funchion does much of the work of a councillor although without the advantage of being an elected representative.
“I do constituency work and put people’s issues to our TDs, but I don’t have access to the same information as if we had a Sinn Féin elected representative here in this constituency. Arthur Morgan in particular has been a huge help to us in terms of advice and access to information.”
Kathleen’s father worked as a SIPTU official for Carlow/Kilkenny for most of his life and now she herself has taken up the mantle, working as an organiser for SIPTU.
“My work with SIPTU takes me to different towns for meetings. Today, for instance, I was at a meeting in Nenagh, County Tipperary. We work with community partnerships and at the moment we’re going round to the various partnerships, talking to them about issues affecting the workers during structural changes in terms of changing managerial arrangements.
“There’s three community partnerships in Kilkenny and before they used to run separately. Now, with the change in Government policy, they are to run as one partnership. While that change in the long run will be good, in the meantime that change affects workers in terms of working hours, and payment arrangements where some staff would be paid on a weekly basis and other staff on a monthly basis. As usual with the Government, there has been no consultation and these are the issues we help work through.”
Funchion is aware that work at an EU level is a very different kettle of fish to what she’s doing now but she sees her work at local level as a good grounding for the bigger picture and believes she can do the joined-up writing between local and European politics.
“Political work at local level is a very good starting point for someone going into the European forum,” she says.
“After all, 80 per cent of legislation affecting Irish people at local level is born in Europe. It’s vital for Sinn Féin to have elected representatives in the European Parliament and too many people don’t realise how important it is for Ireland at local level.
“The EU parliament is a very faceless organisation and people often wonder what it really does. So it’s important that there are republican elected representatives in the parliament who let people know what’s going on and let people have their say in Europe.
“The Lisbon Treaty was an example of what can be achieved by Sinn Féin in Europe.
“I think the ‘No to Lisbon’ campaign was a kind of turning point for Irish people. They realised that if they sit up to be counted they can get results.”
Kathleen’s husband, David Cullinane, is a Sinn Féin councillor for Waterford City and was the Munster candidate in the last European elections, in 2004. While David’s experience is a big plus for Kathleen, life can be hectic at times.
“It helps that David’s ‘been there’. It means I’ve someone to bounce things off and he understands the pressures of being a candidate. He is also a help when it comes to media work – he’s very supportive in it all.
“I work from home and you can make that work. I usually get work done when our young son, Emmet, is asleep. The most difficult thing for me is having to juggle my job, home life and my political work. It can be hard and you have to be careful because you don’t want to lose your job but it can be done.”
And Kathleen enjoys the busy pace of party activism, and Sinn Féin policies speak directly to issues that most compel her.
“You’re always busy – there’s never a dull moment. Sinn Féin’s policies in the areas of education and childcare really speak to my own views. If women are to go back to work or further education after giving birth then you need good, affordable childcare facilities.
“Childcare is an area of work I’d like to pursue for the party, agitating for better conditions for childcare workers on behalf of Sinn Féin. This is an area I’d like to be very active on, especially if I become an elected representative.
“Obviously you can make more progress for people as an elected rep. It’s better to be shouting on the inside than from the outside.”
So what will Kathleen Funchion be shouting for on behalf of her constituency when she gets elected to the European Parliament?
“Rural Ireland is crying out for balanced regional development along with enterprise and employment. Basic workers’ rights remain unprotected with the low-paid carrying the can for the Government’s mismanagement of the economy.
“These are some of the issues that we can impact on in a big way in Europe. Sinn Féin has already made its mark on the European stage with Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún and I hope the Irish people will enable us to continue doing so by voting for Sinn Féin in huge numbers in Ireland East.”
TEAM: With husband Sinn Féin Waterford City Councillor David Cullinane