I’m incredibly proud of where I came from – I feel deeply passionate about the Lecale area

I’m incredibly proud of where I came from – I feel deeply passionate about the Lecale area

27 March 2024

A SOUTH Down MLA has said that Downpatrick has “all the ingredients” to be an economic success, but fears the area is not a priority for the current Northern Ireland Executive.

In May 2022, the SDLP’s Colin McGrath was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In an exclusive interview with the Down Recorder, the 48 year-old spoke about living in Downpatrick, the importance of community work, his involvement in politics over two decades, his hopes and ambitions for the district – and his concerns.

“I’m incredibly proud of where I come from,” Mr McGrath said. “I feel deeply passionate about the Lecale area. I grew up in Downpatrick and I went to St Patrick’s Primary School in Saul.

“I continued my education at the South Eastern Regional College here in the town and then went onto study Community Youth Work at Ulster University in Jordanstown.

“While a lot of my contemporaries and compadres never came back to Downpatrick – an issue we are still facing today – I came back and soon started working for the Patrician Youth Centre.”

Mr McGrath described being a youth worker and bettering his community as a vocation which is why he pursued it for his studies at university.

“I always enjoyed the craic more than I enjoyed actual school work,” he said. “I was never the most academically gifted individual, but I saw that youth work offered a vocational education route.

“The work at the Patrician Youth Centre is very person-centred. It is a safe place for young people that offers them various bespoke programmes such as exchange trips that allows them to participate in new cultural experiences, but most importantly it’s about helping the development of that young person.

“The youth centre ensures that young people are better equipped for life and helps guide them in areas where their skills sets lie – the same thing was done with me.

“I remember when I attended the youth club when I was a child, I asked one of the workers if this was her full-time job,” Mr McGrath added.

“She said it was and told me how much she enjoyed it and I remember thinking in that moment this is exactly what I would love to do.”

While working at the youth centre for 17 years, Mr McGrath quickly ascended in the ranks – becoming the chairman of the senior member committee.

Continuing to work at the youth centre and organise various community projects, a turning point came in his life in 2005 when he was elected as a counsellor to the former Down District Council.

“I remember when the penny ped about entering politics,” Mr McGrath recalled.

“As a youth worker, you get to meet so many people which then allows you to get to know people.

“I was overseeing a cross-community youth programme which involved kids from Belfast and Cork, and walking through Downpatrick I kept stopping to talk to people and most of them would tell me about the issues that were affecting them.

“One of co-workers said to me that I was like the mayor of the town – we both found it funny but I remember thinking, I could get involved in politics because I love listening to people and working with others to try and resolve any ongoing issues.”

Mr McGrath said he naturally gravitated towards the politics of the SDLP, which was then the most electorally successful party in South Down. 

Having become a councillor, Mr McGrath served as vice-chairman and the youngest ever chairman of Down District Council.

“When I first became a councilllor, the SDLP were an institution of this constituency,” Mr McGrath explained.

“I was always attracted to their politics of social democracy, which focused on making your community better and serving the community first and foremost.

“I was also inspired by the hard work and dedication of influential figures like Eddie McGrady and Margaret Richie, who delivered so much for the town, like the Downe Hospital.

“I remember Eddie bringing members of the Northern Ireland Office and strongly advocating for the need of hospital to be built in Downpatrick and that was just one of many things Eddie’s leadership and vision gifted this town.

“I was also inspired by the SDLP’s consistency in practicing power-sharing,” Mr McGrath added.

“This constituency has always been at the forefront of power-sharing, extending to hand of friendship and listening to our neighbours, not just because the numbers required it, but because it was done in good faith in creating a better future for all.

“It’s disheartening to see that politics has become increasingly more tribal – it’s still about green and orange issues.”

In 2014, Mr McGrath was elected to the newly formed Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Two years later, he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly alongside his colleague, Sinéad Bradley.


However, in recent elections since 2017, the SDLP has seen a consistent decline in votes for their party, which has led them to becoming the opposition in Stormont during the last Assembly election nearly three years ago.

“This is something we need to address, but if it were a debate about policy, I would wholeheartedly stand by our record,” Mr McGrath said.

“Unfortunately the make-up of Northern Ireland politics isn’t debated on policy lines – I think the last time you can say police was the main cause of concern in political discourse was Brexit.

“We are now in opposition and it is our job to hold the executive to account and listen to committee members about their concerns so we can deliver real change.”

Throughout his political career, Mr McGrath has emphasised the need to address rural issues, accessibility to local services and youth issues as the main priorities.

While he is optimistic about the future of the district, he believes successive Executives have taken Downpatrick and towns throughout South Down for granted.

“I don’t think Downpatrick is a priority for this Executive and like previous governments here, they have taken their eye off the ball,” Mr McGrath said.

“It’s so frustrating because towns up and down the district, especially Downpatrick, have all the ingredients to be really successful, but there is a lot of reasons why they’re not.

“A lot of investment has been trapped inside Belfast, but that's always been the case,” he explained.

“Locally, I think the focus on investment has been very Newry-centric, and while I understand the appeal to do that, it means other towns are missing out on their fair share.

“It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that if we don’t get the necessary investment to attract more tourists and people, shops begin to close, services can’t continue or aren’t provided as frequently as we would like and people start to move away.

“I think one of the worst things to happen to this district was the amalgamation of Down Council and Newry and Mourne Council. The area of the new council is too big.

“Previous Executives have left it the council to deal with issues, but I don’t think the council is equipped to deal with some of the issues and the current Executive needs to take responsibility for that.”

As the SDLP’s spokesperson for health, Mr McGrath said people must have timely access to health care services.

“We need to invest in the Downe Hospital. We are continuing to engage with healthy care workers about what they need to tackle waiting lists and other ongoing pressures surrounding health.”

“This town’s collective self-esteem has been hit on many occasions – the recent flooding was a major blow – but we will bounce back,” Mr McGrath added.

“The Executive needs to include this area in their spending priorities – the people here deserve their fair share.

“The people here are passionate about their community, caring about others, have an amazing sense of humour and are so proud of what they have and what they’ve come through.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I am optimistic that this area will see better days – it’s our responsibility as politicians to make sure that it is delivered.”