Giving Loyalist Women a Voice

Giving Loyalist Women a Voice

In Conversation with Emma Shaw

In Conversation with Emma Shaw
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Starting this blog has always been about giving voice to the views, ideas and aspirations of Loyalist women who don’t often get the chance. I have received many direct messages from people offering support and encouragement. Those messages are greatly appreciated. One such message brought a tear to my eye, it simply thanked me and said “No-one likes us”.

I can honestly say it broke my heart hearing this. How did we ever get to this point? Every voice is important, every voice is vital.

I will let the stories be told.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Emma Shaw to discuss her views and ideas. Emma is a single mum and a mature student at Queen’s University Belfast where she is studying International Politics and Conflict Studies. She is an active member of her community and volunteers as a Governor at two local schools. Emma is, also involved with a local ladies football team. She is passionate about education and updating what she sees as an inflexible education system.

What does being a Loyalist mean to you?

Being a Loyalist is a representation of my identity. I feel a sense of loyalty to the Monarch, to the Queen but not just to the Queen as an individual but the role of the Monarchy and as head of the United Kingdom.  It also has the symbolism of culture and our cultural identity especially within the Northern Ireland context.  So bands, marching, bonfires all the things I was brought up with and I have participated in. 

I remember going to watch the bands on the 1st of July as they passed my Grandfather’s house in East Belfast.  We would have sandwiches and sit and watch them.  One thing I would always remember was how well dressed they were and how respectful they were.  They were smartly turned out in their uniforms with their polished boots.  When they would take a break they would ask my Grandparents if they could use the bathroom.  They would even offer to pay but my Grandfather was having none of it.  They would however sneak a pound in to our hand though.

The thing is that people believe the negative view of loyalists.  They are not all louts and drunkards, that is simply not the case.

You seem to have very positive experiences of growing up watching the parades, would you say that you had a sense of belonging?

Yes there was certainly a sense of belonging.  Growing up I was immersed in the culture it wasn’t until I got older that I became aware of the other community.  I was quite curious because I knew nothing about them.  Indeed I can remember being at the Valley Leisure Centre swimming one day and this girl asking me if I was a pig or a cow.  I had no idea what she was referring to.  It was my dad that had to explain it to me.  That was my earliest recollection of not belonging.

Another story I wanted to share was off the bravery of women.  We lived off the Albertbridge Road, there were always people from the Short Srand fighting and throwing stones and bricks.  I can remember a young girl getting lost.  She walked up our street and as my mum was at the front door she asked if someone could help her.  The little girl didn’t remember her address but she knew the basic direction.  It was in the Short Strand.  My mum took her hand – along with mine – and walked her back to her house.  After dropping her off we rushed as quickly as we could back home.  My mum didn’t think twice about helping, her instant reaction was to get the little girl back to safety.  We could have been walking into an ambush but at the forefront of my mum’s mind was the safety of that little girl.

That was my normal.  I don’t recall ever feeling intimidated. I never felt frightened. I never felt any of those things.  It was normality for us all growing up in Belfast.  The bombs, being evacuated.  Looking back, it is terrifying, as a parent it’s not something I would want my child to grow up in.  As a parent, you’re fearful enough of things that your child can encounter, whether it’s a predator or an accident and you just don’t want to see that return of terrorism to the streets.

I’m conscious that this is my experience and completely understand that the other side, the other community had a completely different experience.   We all therefore need to recognize the trauma that we have experienced in our own community.  And start to heal.

How can people heal, how can we move forward?

That is a tough question.  Of course it’s going to take time.  I can hear people groan already and saying it has been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement.  The thing is, it is still fresh in people’s heads.  The trauma inflicted, the hatred, the violence, the deaths, it is still there and that isn’t something you recover from in a generation. It’s going to take a couple of generations before people start to heal.

We need to have that important dialogue between the different communities to move forward. We need to make Northern Ireland work, we need to make it work for everyone not just for one side of the community.  Quite often I think this romanticized image that Sinn Fein portray is exactly that.  A romantic image and trying to pit Protestants against Catholics.  If you look back to the civil rights movement it was about the issues of working class people.  Working class people who couldn’t get a job, working class people who had poor housing.  The idea that the shipyard provided well paid jobs is a myth.  Many of those in East Belfast who worked in the shipyard were struggling to make ends meet.  It wasn’t secure work, it was seasonal.  So this view that if you were a Protestant you had a good house, you had a good job and you have a good life, that certainly wasn’t the case.  That myth needs to be debunked right now for the other community to understand that the narrative you are being fed is not correct.

That links nicely to my next question.  Poverty, educational underachievement and mental health issues within working class areas.  These seem to be the issues that are being talked about and they are the issues that are highest in working class areas on both sides. Have politicians delivered in eradicating these important issues?

To be honest politicians are quite happy to deny there are these problems and gloss over them.  They don’t seem to be interested in working on the issues that matter to people.

I did a research paper after Brexit as I was interested in the statistics behind it.  Overwhelmingly our community voted to leave and Republication and Nationalist communites voted to remain.  I wanted to understand why that was and to find out if our communities are really that different. I used the NISRA statistics and looked at East and West Belfast, looking at areas of deprivation, teen pregnancies, rate of mortality, all those key indicators. The similarity was so stark.  The issues we face as a Loyalist working class community are exactly the same as working class Republican areas face.

We have more in common when we look at those parameters.  My conclusion was therefore it coming down to a sense of identity as to why we voted differently on Brexit.  It really got me thinking more about the commonalities that we have as a working class group of people as opposed to between religions.

I’m extremely interested in education and ensuring my community get the opportunity to take part in education.  It’s not just about exams, it’s about vocational qualifications, apprenticeships.  The thing is that many academics seem to think that Loyalist working class people don’t want their children to be educated or are not interested in further and higher education.  That is not the case.  They just have a lot more barriers to overcome. They have aspirations, they want to do well. 

The research I carried out showed me that working class children do have the aspiration, they have parents who support them, it’s just the other challenges and barriers they face.  Republication and Nationalist working class areas have had decades of intervention from community groups and setting up homework clubs. They even have bursaries.  They discovered quite quickly that education was a way out of poverty. It is just recently that Loyalist and Unionist communities are starting to get that help.

What does this have to do with our politicians?  Because all our politicians are quite content to keep us where we are because if we are educated and can ask questions then we are a challenge to their power. 

That is a very stark view and something that hasn’t come up before – the issue of power.  So why do people vote for the DUP and Sinn Fein if the reality is they want to keep people where they are?

They support them because there isn’t really a huge alternative. If you look at the DUP being the biggest party, their core tenant and their scaremongering is if you don’t vote us in then Sinn Fein will get in to power. That is their key message. In the December election some of those DUP votes were lent votes.  There was a lot of canvassing done to get people out to vote. I helped hold clinics so people knew how to vote and were registered to vote.

My focus is on education and I’m also very keen on getting more of our electorate out to vote.  If you don’t vote then your voice isn’t heard, even if you go and spoil your ballot, just go and use your vote.  

DUP have the monopoly on power and from my own view there is now a backlash against them.

Why is there a backlash?

It has been bubbling under for some time.  Some people feel they are only there for their own self interest.  We seen a particular politician lose their seat and within days they are then a Special Advisor.  Was that job advertised, did others get the opportunity to apply?  A Special Advisor earns more money than some of the politicians.  That was just a job for a mate.  That self-interest really frustrates people on the ground.  A lot of the women and men I speak to want the bread and butter issues dealt with and we get a lot of lip service from those politicians, but we don’t get a lot of action. We sometimes get asked to give our opinion when they need us then when they don’t need us it’s just see ya later.  I have been bitten more times than I can recall and I’m not going to let it happen again.  I feel that is the sentiment for a lot of people but then what is the alternative? 

You talked about people paying lip service and being bitten more times than you care to remember.  Can you tell me about that experience?

It relates to the media. The media will print what they want whether you engage or not.  They’ve been doing it for years but it’s important that we do take time to speak up and say what we want to say.  The only way you can help change the narrative is to have your voice heard. We, as a community cannot fear how we will be interpreted in the media.

That brings me on to the legitimacy question which I have been asking other interviewees.  I know you aren’t affiliated to any political party, but can I ask you about the appeared legitimacy of Sinn Fein and their links with the IRA and the likes of the PUP and links with the UVF?  Previous interviewees discussed how the PUP are constantly asked about paramilitary links yet Sinn Fein and their links with the IRA less so?

The better rapport we have with the media the more they will recognized that we aren’t interested in talking about links with paramilitaries.  Let me be clear Sinn Fein have those links with the IRA and they brush that under the table because they control that narrative.  However, they didn’t start out like that and if you are going to be in the public eye you expect a bit of flack.  In women’s cases it’s much worse but if you believe in what you are speaking for and believe in what you are saying and you are passionate about making a difference in the country that we call home then why shouldn’t you have your voice heard? Why is your voice any less legitimate? Or why are your views on a policy any less legitimate?

So why shouldn’t we put ourselves out there?  I don’t speak for everyone, but I do have views and I want them to be heard.  Nationalists and Republications don’t have a monopoly on socialism. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, I believe in equal rights, I believe in equal marriage it doesn’t make me feel any less of a person.  If people want to speak Irish then speak Irish but Sinn Fein have weaponized the Irish Language for years, they cannot expect the PUL community to be accepting when they’ve made comments about every word of Irish spoken is like another bullet being fired in the struggle for Irish Freedom.

The PSNI and Garda have both stated that Sinn Fein is still controlled by the IRA Army council but Sinn Fein are experts in manipulating the narrative as they’ve always done.

What are your thoughts on the Irish Language Act? 

That’s what I do have a problem with. The issue I have with it is the amount of money.  Not just the Irish Language Act but Ulster Scots too.  There is already a significant amount of money that has been spent on initiatives.  Then we have money being spent on so many schools, segregated education means we are wasting money.  Also when we talk about integrated or shared education, it is the state schools that are doing it.  I don’t see the Catholic Controlled Maintained Schools changing to integrated.  Again it comes down to power and the Catholic Church not wanting to give up that power.

This country is significantly under resourced, and it’s not just education, there is so much that needs additional funding.  We can’t go throwing money at Ulster Scots and the Irish Language.

I want every child to have a great education, one that will benefit them wherever they want to go next.  We can’t do that if we are dividing the small amount of resources we have.  So the politicians need to concentrate on mental health, our health crisis, poverty, education, the things that really matter to everyone. 

I wanted to ask you about the lack of voices from women in public but especially from the Loyalist community.

I think women in general have a much harder time when it comes to politics. And when it comes to speaking about policies, we are often demeaned, told we’re too aggressive or not aggressive enough.  If we were men then these things wouldn’t be said.

Of course, look at the backlash that the likes of Stacey has endured.  She’s an activist for her community she spoke so well at the Ulster Hall. You can at least control things on Facebook but on Twitter there is no control. It’s awful.  There is so much hatred.  There is so much positive work that can be done within our community but it does put people off all the negative comments.

I was invited to speak to an Irish Senator about research that he had conducted recently and I was shocked that there had been no females consulted in the creation of the document, more women need to be consulted on issues which matter to them, the days of being seen and not heard are over.

You were involved with the bonfire in East Belfast, what are you views on the decisions made by politicians during that time?  Did you feel some were trying to erode your culture and traditions?

It does seem it is being eroded.  You give a little bit but it’s never good enough.  There is always a chip, chip away at our culture and traditions.  The bonfire was reduced, tyres were taken off.  Then a few weeks later there was the bonfire in the New Lodge.  The news cycle only lasted a day even though there was a lot of rioting.  The news cycle relating to the East Belfast bonfire just continued. There is a feeling within the community that no matter what we do its not good enough. It doesn’t help the situation with trolls on social media making comments like “your days are numbered” or younger ones saying things like “lets see how you feel being oppressed” – these comments only add to tensions and go back to what I said earlier, Catholics and Protestants lived together in working class communities until the violence started, protestants were burnt out of their homes but all that history doesn’t appear to be taught – there is no shared historical narrative, so much for Sinn Fein’s narrative of a shared future.

It’s hard to convey to people how we are feeling.  People within our community are angry, they are angry at the erosion of their culture, their identiy, they are angry at being targeted by Republican violence.  They are hurt. Hurt that their neighbours they once lived with feel this amount of hatred towards them.  That amount of hurt, anger, sense of loss is a real mourning.  A mourning that you are no longer wanted and no longer accepted as a person. 

In this country we are divined by being Orange and Green and to be honest I don’t agree with Alliance that there is another way.  People identify as one or the other. The question is very simple do you believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or do you believe NI belongs to Ireland?  It’s a simple question and you can’t get away with that core tenant of the argument. People may try and dress it up, but it is that simple.

The way to move forward though is around social policies such as healthcare, poverty, education.  Protecting the most vulnerable within society. 

You decided to speak at the Ulster Hall Rally, what was your reason for doing that and how did you feel about it?

I was so nervous.  I received a call asking if I would speak as they were looking for a voice to represent East Belfast and they would very much like a woman to do it.  There was a meeting to discuss what everyone would say. My narrative was very much around the importance of education and the importance of voting, about being engaged within your community and being politically active.  The thing is that many people are already doing this but none of that good work is seen.  We’re continuing to be called knuckle draggers or worse, and if those with a past engage in restorative work then it gets negative press.

The hardest part was writing a short speech to be honest but I also felt a real sense of pride because I felt that this was a really important task and people from my community trusted  me to speak my mind and get up and talk.  I was really nervous but I got a really good pep talk.  I was there to speak from my heart, and I believed in what I was saying.

It was a positive experience because it was then that I realized that we can come together as a community to talk about the issues which are important to us.  But we also have to be consistent. There was recognition from everyone to have new people speaking and I was so proud to be there speaking.

There has been a lot of calls for political parties joining together, for people to come together in some form to address the issues, what are your views on that?

I don’t think that will happen because the main Unionist parties are so different and there’s certainly no room for a new political party.  I think we need to work with what we have now because why would we want to dilute the vote any more than is already the case?  The best way we can show our feelings is to show with our feet.  To either join a political party or support one and I think that is the strongest thing we can do to exercise our democratic right to vote.  Make sure we are heard.  If those people within the political parties don’t recognize that then there are democratic structures in place to remove them and new people can come in behind.

Do you think the Unionist politicians are listening to working class Loyalist communities?

I don’t believe they are listening.  The DUP – especially senior leadership – are only interested in their own self-interest.  How will they be in power, how can they hold on to power.

Politicians don’t want to engage and that’s a problem.  In East Belfast, there was a lot of people that don’t normally support the DUP but they came out and supported them as they  recognized the DUP was in the strongest position to go back to Westminster with a strong voice to say we weren’t happy with this deal.  That was a strategic vote. 

I also believe Steve Aiken did the wrong thing by running so many candidates against other Unionist parties.  But then on the other hand if you don’t agree with the DUP message you can understand that’s the alternative.  The thing is that sometimes our politicians are very near sighted and only think about the immediate and don’t think about the longer term such as what do we need to do where do we need to go?  They promise you the world and their policies don’t back it up.

So did the politicians promise the world and not deliver?

When I say promised the world it was very much we hear what you are saying and we know you are not happy with the deal and we will oppose it and we’ll never speak to Sinn Fein etc.  It was all this bravado such as they are the enemy and then of course as soon the Secretary of State says you have a deadline they went straight back in to power and put aside so many issues.  That really was the final nail in the coffin for a lot of people I know.

Were the concerns of working class Loyalists put to one side after they lent their vote?

Yes that was the case.  I get really frustrated because we want to see a better Northern Ireland for working class people.  We want to see social housing, affordable housing, schools being repaired and that’s the same on both sides of the community.  It’s not just the DUP, it’s Sinn Fein too.  We must make Northern Ireland work for all if we are to secure the Union, we need middle class voters to be voting too for parties that are about making Northern Ireland work for everyone.  Alliance may say they are neutral but they aren’t.

There has been a lot of talk about a United Ireland, a border poll and a shared future.  How would you convince people to believe in Northern Ireland staying within the United Kindgom?

By making it work, good jobs, a good level of education. But not just basic wages but a living wage, we support and take care of the vulnerable in our society, we look after the environment, be the best country we can be.  Only by doing that can we have a good economy.  If a border poll does come along then people won’t want to change and they will want to stay part of the UK.  We need everyone to support this vision and to be comfortable with it.

We also need to feel proud of our story, of our culture.  We can’t allow a re-writing of any narrative and for it to be one-sided.  There was atrocities committed on both sides we need to accept that and acknowledge that.  The thing is Sinn Fein never acknowledge that or acknowledge there was any wrong-doing on their side, they just see it as part of a war. 

The Loyalist community have had so much negative press, so many negative experiences it gets harder and harder. 

How does the Loyalist community get their message out then?

Our voices need to be heard.  I want to see more books being written, more poems, cultural music being heard.  We need to accept that it is part of our culture and showcasing it.  Republicanism hasn’t shunned away from their culture so why should we?

Our identity is so woven in to our DNA, it is something we hold so dear, it’s important we acknowledge that and speak about and promote it.

You’re a student at Queens, there has been a lot in the press around St Patrick’s Day and more recently on wearing GAA tops and the perception that there is an atmosphere within the University where Unionists and Loyalists are not welcome.  What has been your experience?

It can be very intimidating at first because everyone is running around in their GAA tops.  I have spoken with senior members of staff. I’ve voiced my concerns.  We had people campaign against the selling of poppies yet we have a strong Irish language activist.  It can be so intimidating.  I sometimes feel excluded but as a mature student I’m a bit more resilient. My concern is that while I’m busy promoting higher education to young people in my community the University is becoming a place where people from my community don’t feel welcome. At the last Freshers Fayre the Young Sinn Fein movement had posters on their stall saying “Brits Out”, this is incredibly insensitive and the University staff should have had these removed.

What are your views on the New Deal, New Approach document?

I think in some aspects it didn’t go far enough. And then other aspects went too far. What about the issues around hospitals, mental health, education? We need policies that move us all forward.  Looking at the educational element a lot of our young people aren’t having positive experiences. The schooling system in Northern Ireland is fundamentally flawed. It is segregated. The Roman Catholic church has no inclination to relinquish power or integrate.  They have their own agenda.  We need to completely overhaul our education system. We need to get away from exams, and look at a more holistic approach so that every child receives an education that prepares them for whatever path they choose to take in life.

We very much need to look after the people within the country. We can only do that by making sure everybody has a safe place to live, a good well paid job a good social security system so we can support people so they don’t fall through the cracks. We can move forward but we must move forward with everyone on board.

What do you want Northern Ireland to look like in 10 years time?

I want to see our economy and our citizens doing well. I think in order to make NI work we need more access to social and affordable housing, and good, well-paid jobs. The housing situation is something that politicians should address immediately. I know local councils have made plans for shared social housing but we know that at the moment this doesn’t work, you cannot force people to live together so yes this will mean building new houses in certain areas that may be deemed as loyalist or republican but as I said earlier, healing takes time, you cannot force communities together until they are ready.

Good jobs will follow on from top class education, sitting in a classroom all day doesn’t suit all children/young people, does that mean they should receive a subpar education? No it does not. There has been a lot of work done on education policy within the NI context, especially by Professor Tony Gallagher at Queen’s University. But the same issue arises, it is only some of the community that are willing to participate in shared education – this is mainly the state schools and largely due to pressure from the Education Authority. Education must be more flexible in its approach, if everyone receives a good education then it will be easier to access a good job, that works for everyone involved.

I would like to see acknowledgement that Loyalists aren’t the big bad wolf that they’ve been portrayed – we are a community that has been vilified, hurt and near damned but we will not be broken.

11 thoughts on “In Conversation with Emma Shaw”

  • An interesting read – particularly for me, someone who lives in Inner East Belfast but doesn’t identify as loyalist or even unionist, despite growing up in the tradition elsewhere in NI.

    I sympathise with Emma, but also feel there are clear demonstrations to the contrary in East Belfast. There are streets not far from me around the Holywood Arches which are still bedecked in UVF flags. In areas they weren’t before. I think people who aren’t loyalists would understand the union flag and ulster standard during the summer months as is traditional; but these are still flying (what’s left of them after weathering) and its February. I know people in one of the streets concerned; they weren’t asked and they want them gone.

    It’s activity like this which fuels a narrative that loyalists are inconsiderate of their own neighbours and talking out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to outreaching to others; many of whom are of varying hues of a unionist disposition; but have scant regard for flags of paramilitary organisations flying all year round. We don’t buy the narrative its historical whatsoever – if this is what a positive manifestation of loyalist culture is, you’re going to struggle to struggle to get positive recognition with large swathes of your own community and neighbourhood, never mind those of a nationalist persuasion.

  • This is a thoughtful overview of the loyalist position and perceptions of it. The differing treatments of the two bonfires neatly sums up why loyalists have every right to complain .

  • Fantastic interview Emma. Whilst I disagree with some of your views we have definitely more things in common. Im delighted to see and hear Loyalists women standing up and representing their communities. You have my best wishes and solidarity.

  • A refreshing read, well thought out and based mostly on research and personal experience. I am glad to hear our loyalist politicians being challenged in a positive way because that is needed more for sure. I also believe in education and was the only loyalist in my class of 23… Thankfully as a mature Student I also was more resilient However this I feel is an issue but is slowly changing very slowly.
    Well done you 👍

  • A fantastic article, concise and to the point. Emma is 100% correct when she says, we have more in common than most people realise.
    With regard to Irish language and Ulster Scots, I agree that this is a
    complete waste of money, if they want to spend money on a language,
    what about sign language, this is something that should be mandatory
    in all our schools especially when you consider the number of children who are excluded from basic everyday activities because they don’t
    have a voice. It’s disgraceful that in the year 2020 so many children feel
    Isolated. All politicians need to take this onboard and run with it and forget about the bickering over the other languages. Emma is also right when she says Sinn Fein are pushing their own agenda and refuse to accept loyalist traditions, we are supposed to live in a shared society but
    I don’t see much sign of that. Loyalists have a voice and they need to shout louder.

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