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Growing up in Kiev, politics was often discussed around the dinner table in Oksana McMahon’s house.

Her dad worked for the Ukrainian government, both before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

So when Oksana moved to Ireland with her husband and daughter 20 years ago, it was perhaps unsurprising that she would eventually become involved in local politics.

Oksana McMahon, Deputy Chairperson of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Photographs: NewRayPics.com
Oksana McMahon, Deputy Chairperson of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Photographs: NewRayPics.com

She was co-opted on to Newry, Mourne and Down District Council in March 2017.

Just over a year later, Oksana was elected Deputy Chairperson of the Council – the first Ukrainian national to hold such a title in Northern Ireland.

It was a proud moment for the mum-of-two.

More so, she hopes it helps inspire people from ethnic minority communities to become politically active in their new home and use politics as a force for change.

“I was very proud to be elected deputy chairperson,” said Oksana.

“Being a Sinn Fein representative on the Council, I was extremely humbled and honoured, then a year on I became the Deputy Chairperson, so it was a very proud moment for me.

“My mum was so proud too and she told me that my dad, who passed away four years ago, would be really, really proud too which meant so much.

"There is a big Polish and Lithuanian community here - I don't think there are as many Ukrainians or Russians - and I hope my example shows what you can achieve if you have the mindset and drive.

“I would love more people from different ethnic backgrounds to get involved politically.”

Oksana McMahon wearing her chain of office.
Oksana McMahon wearing her chain of office.

Oksana also hopes she can inspire young women to become involved in politics and have their voices heard.

“My example can also be used for any women looking to get involved in politics,” she said.

“A lot of young women are coming forward and interested in becoming politicians, so yes, I hope I can set an example and encourage more people from ethnic minority backgrounds and more women to become involved in politics.”

Following in her mum’s footsteps, Oksana studied Modern Languages at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.

As part of the course, students were sent out on work placement and encouraged to find English-speaking companies to enhance their own English.

She spent time with a firm working on a major contract at Kiev International Airport and it was with this firm she met her Newry husband.

The couple had a daughter and spent five years living in Kiev.

They then decided to move to Ireland.

"It was a big decision for me because I was leaving all my friends and family behind,” said Oksana.

“We came to Newry and it was a completely different surroundings I was used to coming from a big city with over three million people.

"First of all I was really amazed how green everything was. There were beautiful houses, people really looked after them and they were all decorated with flowers; it made a really good impression on me.

"In Kiev, it was a really fast-paced life, coming here it was fresher, with very friendly people. And not once have I ever experienced any sort of hostility or people comment on me not being welcome here. Never."

The couple had a second daughter and Oksana worked with her husband’s firm.

But the draw of politics was never far away.

“I was always interested in politics,” she said.

“My dad worked for the government, so you can understand what kind of discussions we had.

“At school we were taught about different countries, about their political structures, their economic structures and population and customs and traditions, so we were quite clued in.

“It's very important for the person, no matter where they live, to have a voice and to be involved in politics, especially if you want to change something in the society you live in.”

Oksana joined Sinn Fein.

She said the party was the obvious and only choice for her.

Oksana McMahon, Deputy Chairperson of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Photographs: NewRayPics.com
Oksana McMahon speaking to reporter Brian Hyland.

“The party stands for equality, integrity and respect, and that sums it up. I think it's a very inclusive and progressive party,” she said.

“I have been living here for over 20 years and this is my input into the local community - being a councillor provides you with a platform to speak for the people of the region you live and represent their views.”

In her role as a councillor, she said she has met many people from ethnic minority communities that now call Newry their home.

She said the uncertainty of Brexit is a major concern for people in these communities and hailed the work of the Council’s Ethnic Minority Support Centre – the only of its kind in the north – for helping and guiding people through this difficult period.

“People are not sure what is going to happen and they are very concerned,” said Oksana.

“A lot of them have made the Newry, Mourne and Down district their home, but now circumstances are changing and there is a great unknown and people are very nervous.

“The Ethnic Minority Support Centre is engaging with various communities about Brexit and getting people registered.

"It's a brilliant initiative by our Council. They are extremely busy and deal with many different issues.

“It's very important the Council thinks about expanding these structures and trying to help people because there is a big community living here in need of advice and help.”

Away from politics, Oksana enjoys walking, sports and enjoying quality time with her family.

She said she “loves the spirit of Irish people” and believes here is one of the safest environments to raise her two daughters.

She speaks to her mum every day on Skype and visits her and her family in Ukraine at least once a year; she loves it as it gives gives her and her daughters the chance to speak the native tongue and reconnect and embrace the Ukrainian culture.

She said she hopes peace can be found soon in her homeland following the ongoing unrest caused by the 2014 invasion by Russia and annexation of Crimea.

She is also hoping to be elected for the first time in the local government elections in May.

“I am really happy where I am,” added Oksana.

“Deputy Chair consumes a lot of your time every day. But I love it, I love meeting people I have never met before and visiting places across the district I have never been.”

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