Sinn Féin’s Fermanagh and South Tyrone candidate for the upcoming general election has said the pain for Troubles’ victims is “no different” whether it was inflicted on Catholics or Protestants.

Pat Cullen responded to comments made about her time as a nurse during the Troubles and the actions of the IRA after critics called on her to state her position on IRA violence given that her previous role had her treating victims of the group.

Mrs. Cullen, in her first interview since being selected for the party told The Impartial Reporter: ”I’ll tell you who I supported during those very, very dark days. It was the people that I was treating, providing treatment and care for.

“During that time I was a community nurse in North and West Belfast. And I walked from West Belfast, the Falls Road in West Belfast, to treat my patients there and to the Shankill Road, Ballysillan and then travelled up into Twinbrook and Poleglass and further into Lisburn.

“And what I would say to you is that the pain and the anguish and the tragic circumstances that I felt from those families and individuals as a consequence of the conflict was no different in the Falls Road than it was in the Shankhill Road, as it was in Ballysillan.

“Their pain felt the same. It felt as acute and I witnessed with my own eyes what that did to those families. Also witnessed people dealing with the impact of suicide as a consequence of post-trauma and trying to treat those people.”

Mrs. Cullen said she approached her work as a nurse at the time in a “non-judgemental” way, adding: “What I see now and what I want to be part of and having the courage of my convictions is to step into a space where I want to be part of the strong leadership that will make sure that we never go back to those days. That positive change that people are looking for, the hope that people are looking for.

“That’s what people are saying to me in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. No one’s asking me about what I feel about the past.

“They’re asking me to talk to them about the future and give them hope. And talk to them about their public services. Talk to them about the working people that deserve a decent standard of living and do not have to depend on food banks.

“That’s where this party is going. That’s why I want to be part of it. And having the courage of my convictions to put my best foot forward to be part of that change.”

Mrs. Cullen also spoke about her connection to the most westerly constituency in the UK, her experiences of dealing with the Tory government as General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the issues she has heard about so far on the campaign trail and women in politics.

The Sinn Féin candidate was a surprise to many when her name was released to replace Michelle Gildernew to run in the constituency.

Originally from Carrickmore and with strong connections to Dungannon, she said the area “is naturally home for me”.

Mrs. Cullen has been out on the campaign trail since her selection spending a day in Lisnaskea last week commenting that she has been “overwhelmed” by the welcome.

Some may wonder why she decided to run for Sinn Féin in this election and leave her role with the RCN.

“I will never leave nursing. And I think what I bring to politics is that innate sense of justice and standing up for people and working with people. That is ingrained in my nursing characteristics.

“But was it hard leaving the Royal College of Nursing? I probably will never leave it because it’s in my heart and the 500,000 people that I represented right across the islands but when Michelle [O’Neill] made that phone call to me a matter of weeks ago and we talked at length and had many conversations. I have no doubt that this was the right thing to do.

“And I just when I look at what Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald and others within Sinn Féin are delivering it naturally coalesces with what I believe and it’s really, really strong, strong leadership that’s been provided.

“They are totally focused on positive change and giving people hope.

“I think that’s the important thing. People need hope, want hope and I see the party delivering that.

“The other things that resonate very much with me that Michelle and I talked about and which absolutely enabled me to make my decision was their focus on the need to ensure our public services have the funding and investment that they require. That’s so important to me as well.”

Mrs. Cullen said the impact of 14 years of Tory rule has decimated public services and she wants to be part of the transformation to give people hope and change.

But how does she do that as an abstentionist MP?

Mrs. Cullen sheds light by recalling her experience when negotiating pay terms and conditions with the Tories.

“I’ve spent the last three years fighting for nurses right across the islands. And during that time, I’ve probably been up and down to Westminster on a weekly basis fighting for nurses,” she explained adding that in her time she dealt with five Health secretaries and a number of Prime Ministers.

“And what really struck me about my time negotiating for the nurses in England is that if you look at the House [of Commons] on any day, that they’re debating, critical and serious issues, as they should be about the North.

“They’re talking to an echo chamber. There’s no one there. You could count on one hand, the number of people that actually sit in the house and listen to any debate about the people here.

“And I’ve talked to them around my tables about that to those people, why is it and they glaze over quite frankly, they glaze over.

“And then it comes to me negotiating pay terms and conditions for nurses in England and saying now, I want to talk to you about the nurses in the North, and what are you going to do for them?

“And the answer back to me and I’m not paraphrasing was ‘that’s not our responsibility’.

“That’s how they see it. I think that paints a story and tells its own story when those senior Tory ministers around my table were saying the nurses from here are not their responsibility and they weren’t willing to discuss with me or negotiate investment in nursing in the north of Ireland as a consequence.”

Mrs. Cullen added that a Labour government would bring a “bit more hope and more optimism” and that “we can’t continue with a Tory government”.

The MP hopeful has met with nurses and other healthcare workers at the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) in recent days while she has also heard issues on road infrastructure and the rurality of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Issues around SWAH have united political parties locally and a huge campaign was started following the removal of Emergency General Surgery.

When asked about SWAH and if she would meet with health campaigners locally, Mrs. Cullen said: “The one thing that’s really important is that collapsing services isn’t the way to progress our public services, and particularly within the NHS, and that’s exactly what’s happened in SWAH.

“It has been collapsed and not planned. And if you really are serious with transformation, which the party is which I am as well, you need to work with local people, you need to engage with them.

“Because collapsing services instils fear and it inevitably brings people to a place where they feel that services have been withdrawn and that they’re going to be left behind particularly, in rural areas.

“So I will want to meet with those clinical staff and those people that need to be involved in decisions and discussions about the future of SWAH in a transformative way and in a planned way.

“And of course, the local community needs to be involved in that.

“I’ve spent the last couple of days meeting with a number of local community groups, and they all are up for change. And they understand change, but what they want to be is fully engaged on a proper plan put in place and not just collapse and decimation without their engagement.”

With her hat now firmly in the ring and nomination papers submitted, Mrs. Cullen will be at the forefront of news and media over the coming weeks.

On Wednesday, the head of the Northern Ireland Electoral Commission, Cahir Hughes, said it would damage democracy if women felt unsafe campaigning.

Mrs. Cullen said it was a challenge for women in public life.

“And I certainly I suppose bear some of the scars as a trade unionist have haven’t stepped forward and stepping up and speaking out for people that really genuinely need a voice.

“That’s what I’ll be doing in this role as well.

“It is difficult, it is challenging, and particularly now with social media. It makes it all the worse because people can sit in darkened rooms and just fire cheap punches at you all of the time.”

But she said what carried her through the last three years and will continue to carry her through is “to do the right thing and the best thing for people that absolutely need a voice”.

“That’s what this party does. That’s what Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald and others have done. That’s why I’m attracted to that.

“That really strong leadership and standing up and putting yourself second to the person that you’re trying to get the best services for, to do the right thing for.”