Yemi Adenuga and Uruemu Adejinmi: Making a mark in Irish politics

‘We have no shortage of migrants. I’d like to see them run in every electoral area’

When Yemi Adenuga relocated to Ireland from Nigeria in 2000, she had no interest in any political office. Yet in 2019, the former Gogglebox Ireland star became Ireland's first elected black female public representative and Meath County Council's first migrant councillor.

She had built a 10-year career as a radio and TV broadcaster in Nigeria but moved to Ireland for family reasons. Adenuga settled in Dublin but found life wasn’t as smooth as she had hoped.

When the now-49-year-old couldn’t land a job in the media industry, she started looking elsewhere. Armed with an accountancy degree, she found a job but found it difficult to rise in the role.

“I remember when there was an opening in one department, I requested to shadow, in the hope that I would be given a chance when the company decided to fill the vacant position.” She was told the job was taken, but some time later she learned that it had, in fact, been vacant. Another manager, shocked to learn how Adenuga had been treated, offered her the position immediately.

The experience gave Adenuga an indication of the challenges ahead.

Adenuga had been actively involved in her local community of Navan but was not interested in mainstream politics, even when asked to get involved. "A delegate of Fine Gael approached me and said the party wanted me to represent them at a local level in Navan. My first answer was no," she says.

“I needed to be clear in my mind if I was going in [it was] for the right reasons. I needed to be convinced that I could bring something onboard. Having had serious conversations with my husband, we decided that the office would be a bigger platform to do more of what I was already doing in the community.”

There is a marked underrepresentation of black people and other ethnic minorities in Irish politics when compared with the diversity of the country. The 2016 census showed 12 per cent of Irish society are people of migrant backgrounds. Yet of the 160 members in the Dáil, only one is of ethnic minority.

Out of 949 local councillors, only 10 are from migrant backgrounds and only two are black.

“We have no shortage of migrants in different communities and I’d like to see them run in every local electoral area, in every county in Ireland. That would reflect the support minority groups are getting and would make for a more inclusive country,’’ says Uruemu Adejinmi, Ireland’s only other black public representative, serving on Longford County Council.

I thought if I get this role, I would be able to influence policies and highlight the issues of minority groups in the community

Adejinmi was born in Nigeria. She moved to Ireland with her family in 2003. She had lived in Longford for 15 years when she decided to run for the local elections under Fianna Fáil, two years after being introduced to the party by a neighbour.

Before that, she had never been involved in politics. “The last thing migrants think when they arrive in a country is to get involved in politics. For me, my priority was to settle down, get a job, raise my kids and be able to live a comfortable life,” says Adejinmi.

“I was very active, I attended meetings and fundraisers. Initially, I didn’t see a career there but in 2018 when the party was processing candidates to run for election, I was asked to run and couldn’t say no,” Adejinmi says.

“I thought if I get this role, I would be able to influence policies and highlight the issues of minority groups in the community. Having someone who they can instantly relate to make things a lot easier and quicker,” she says. She lost her first election but was co-opted on to the council in 2020.

Adenuga agrees: “When I go to schools and talk to young people about diversity and inclusion, it’s just incredible seeing the faces of migrant kids especially black kids light up. Some of them come to me afterwards and want to have a chat. That is what representation means.

“I would always work for my constituents regardless of their race or colour but let’s not undermine the importance of representation,” she says.

“We have had migrant integration strategies that were written for people of ethnic minority backgrounds in Ireland without their input. How do you expect them to work?’’ asks Adenuga.

Adejinmi, who chairs the Longford African Network, says the best part of her job is knowing that she can use her position to put smiles on faces. The 43-year-old has a degree in maths and says her academic background has made her a natural problem solver.

In her one year as councillor, she has been able to influence a lot of motions in council.

“The biggest one for me was to get the county council to provide free period products in all public buildings in the county. Period poverty is the biggest reason why girls are absent from secondary schools. I have also asked the council to write to the national Government to make period products free for second and third-level students,” says Adejinmi.

She has also put forward motions on the provision of footpaths, and the installation of contactless drinking water fountains around the county to limit single-use plastics.

Yemi Adenuga believes her historic win in 2019 has given a lot of migrants courage. “I got a lot of young people ringing me saying, ‘If you can do it, we too can.’ For me, that’s the biggest win.’’

Adenuga recalls being asked whether she was intelligent enough to run for councillor while canvassing

The Fine Gael councillor is already building a generation of young females to take on Irish politics through her mentorship programme, the Sheroes Girls club.

And, through the similarly themed Sheroes Boys-to-Men project, which has kicked off in Meath, Adenuga hopes to groom boys to become good men through a mentorship programme.

“In Ireland, over 150,000 kids live without the presence of a father and over 200,000 kids live without the influence of a father. Seventy-seven per cent of those kids are likely to take to drugs and alcohol. These young men don’t have role models,’’ she says.

Through the Meath Stand Against Racism campaign, Adenuga has helped educate people about the power of diversity.

Since joining politics, Adenuga has had to endure a lot of disparaging remarks both online and offline. She recalls being asked whether she was intelligent enough to run for councillor while canvassing. “If people think black people can be spongers,” she says, “I’m not one of them. I’ve always worked hard and I will never accept that stereotype.’’