Interviews

In Conversation with Gwen Ferguson

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Her Loyal Voice is a passion project of mine. I’ve tried to understand where that passion comes from and work out why I feel so strongly about providing a platform for the voices of Loyalist women. I’ve managed to consolidate it in to three words. Sex. Religion. Class. Where these three intersect they combine to create a unique and quite frankly terrifying discrimination.  I see that discrimination day in and day out and as a feminist I want to take a sledgehammer to it.  My sledgehammer is this blog, Her Loyal Voice.

I had the absolute pleasure and delight of sitting down with Gwen Ferguson and listening to her views and thoughts on many issues.  I asked Gwen how she would like to be introduced and she gave me 6 words…

Gwen Ferguson is a proud Loyalist.

I hope you enjoy the interview.  I will continue to let the stories be told.

What does being a loyalist mean to you?

Being a Loyalist means everything to me.  It’s me.  I don’t know any different.  I was born in 1961, in 1969 when I was 8 years old when the worst of the Troubles started.  I was born and raised in Rathcoole and I can remember the TV, black and white TV and the TV being on showing Bank Buildings with Bernadette McAliskey and I can remember my dad being so annoyed calling her all the names.  As an eight your old I wondered what was going on.

When the news came on we were all told to be quiet, it was always like that and then as time went on you seen the Troubles progressing and then the British Army was brought in and  for Republicans the British were the enemy.  As I was growing up I was watching it and I remember when I was 13 a young Linfield lad was chased by Catholics down Smithfield Market where he was going for a bus, he ended up falling and his head went under a bus.  No-one was ever caught for that.  That was the first instance of really having an impact on me.

The other thing that had an impact on me was the bombs going off in the town and getting searched.  At Christmas was always a lot of incendiary devices too.  There were Republicans taking the incendiary devices in prams.  They always did it at times where there were a lot of people about.  Even at this young age I knew something wasn’t right.

Of course the next thing was tit for tatt.  The Loyalists had to protect their communities so we had the UDA and the UVF.  If your back is against the wall then you can understand why people joined to defend themselves, their families and their communities. I believe a lot of young men and women were involved in organizations that really wouldn’t have normally been only for what Republicans were bringing to Northern Ireland.  To me they were our protectors.  I really believed it then and I believe it now that at the height of the Troubles – I would not call it a war it was never a war because life went on – they protected us. I also want to thank and pay tribute to the women who held families together, who just got on with things while their husbands and partners were serving time. 

I recall when I was 16 and working in a stitching factory I was coming home one evening and I heard a bomb going off.  Never thought anything off it because that was life back then.  I remember hiding in a doorway, I then seen a solider shouting to me to follow him.  I went over and he was shouting for me to run.  I ran as fast as I could along Bridge Street, that night on the news I seen that the building where I was standing in the doorway was in rubble.  It was away.  Only for that solider, I could have died.  The next day I was up and on my way to work.

I am proud to be British, I’m a Loyalist and I am also a Royalist.  I always remember at the height of the troubles that some of the best times were the 11th and 12th July.  Even now anyone who knows me knows that I live and breath the 11th and 12th July.

Tell me about your experience of the 11th and 12th July?

I remember you always got your new clothes, and I always remember the 11th night and going to the bonfire.  Every street had their own bonfire.  I remember my mom would have put party food on and my wee Granny would have come down, it was a party.  I don’t mean they were drunk, they were just happy.  Even thinking about it my whole face lights up.

And then the next morning we would have our brand new clothes on and gone down to the City Hall with our picnic and sat and watched the bands. I just loved it, everything about it.  As a family we enjoyed it together.  It was a celebration.  In fact there wasn’t even any bombs during it. Even thinking back on it now, it’s strange that there were no bombs during the parade considering Republicans were against the British – with us being British.  I always wondered why they didn’t attack it but then again there may have been such a backlash they thought better of it.  Every year though it was just the best time.

Was it the case that people from both religions went to the parade years ago?

Yes Catholics would have stood and watched the parade years ago.  Our next door neighbours were Catholic, they were very good neighbours.  Something happened in Rathcoole and people were getting bricks through their windows.  I remember by Daddy standing with a brush telling others to leave our neighbours alone.  They were good people, they were good neighbours.  Eventually they decided themselves to move away.

I remember the Ulster Workers Strike.  It was my 13th birthday and I didn’t even get a birthday card.  My Daddy worked in the Shipyard and he brought home this large funnel where you had to boil milk as it wasn’t pasterised and shops only opened for about 30 minutes so people could get the essentials before closing again.  The thing I remember about the strike was the community aspect of it, everyone got together out the back and there was a fire lit in a big oil drum. We all sat round it making toast and they all started singing happy birthday to me.  While that was nice, I was raging I didn’t get a birthday card!

Would you say that working class life was hard during those times?

It was very hard as I’ve described above but there were times when there was a sense of joy and that was when we came together as a community for the likes of the 11th and 12th July.

I’m seen here as the Bonny Woman. I would organize the parties, the food, the music.  When the kids are collecting I keep an eye on them to make sure they are ok.  The Council did have a fund for bonfire celebrations but we decided to not take any money from them.

Can I ask why you didn’t want to take a grant from the Council any more?

The Councillors have too much of a say.  They make decisions about an area when they aren’t even from that area or they aren’t even working class.  When we went in to Belfast City Council it was awful, we waited a year to be paid.  In fact it wasn’t even us it was our suppliers.  I mean how can you treat people like that? 

Also, things happen at bonfires that are beyond my control.  I can’t stop everything that happens, I can’t climb the bonfire to take off flags that are put there. 

I just decided enough was enough.  This past couple of years we collect around the estate instead and people are more than willing to contribute to the cost of running a party for the kids such as bouncy castles, animal farms, food and party bags and a tea for the pensioners.  Everyone is accommodated in the estate as well as others from other areas who come round because it’s a good family day.  This is all paid for by the community because we live here and this is our bonfire – it’s not mine – this belongs to the community and the community pay for it and they can see what they are getting for their contribution.

What did you think about the bonfire at Avoneill Leisure Centre and Belfast City Council’s response to it?

I was one of those who went and linked arms around it to support them.  I was disgusted because the bonfire organisers accommodated the Council.  They made it smaller, they removed tyres.  They did all that and it still wasn’t good enough.  The amount of Police that went in during that time was excessive.  Also the media didn’t help. 

What is interesting about the media is what happened back in the 1980s.  I worked with a lot of Catholics and all you heard was about their children all going to media studies.  I often wondered why on earth so many of them were going to do media studies.  Now I understand why.  You look at how the media is with the PUL community and the bias is unreal. 

There is another issue with the Police.  Since changing from the RUC to the PSNI, there has been a real difference in how the PUL community is treated by the police.  Just looking at the flag protests and the parades and how the police have dealt with these, it’s certainly something I have noticed. 

I have watched all the resident’s associations come up over the years and I have watched what they have done, trying to change the narrative.  Like I said previously Catholics would have watched the parades but then when the resident’s associations started suddenly they didn’t like them?  The orange parades have changed routes but what about having a country of equals because you have Republican parades? 

Can you tell me a bit more about your thinking regarding the media bias you talked about?

If you look back to the eighties, they were going to University then whereas the Loyalist community are only catching up to the importance of education.  It’s now that I understand they were getting involved in media so the narrative could be controlled. 

Tell me about your involvement with the flag protests and how you felt when the decision was made to reduce the number of days the flag would fly from Belfast City Hall?

I went nuts.  My job for the 11th an 12th is to purchase all the flags and put them up for the celebration.  I can remember getting them and they were up around the estate.  I needed to do something so I got the flags put up.

The thing is I believe Alliance is a Republican party.  They want to talk about Irish unity so how can they not be a Republican party?  Irish unity is what Republicans want. I don’t trust the Alliance Party and I wouldn’t trust the SDLP either.

I was devastated when the decision was made.  I actually cried.  I remember being at the back of the City Hall the night of the decision.  I got to meet and know a lot of good Loyalist women from all over the country.  It was raining that night.  I can remember thinking to myself, who are these people who are making this decision.  There are people in there that are linked to a party that is the political wing of a terrorist organization who bombed their way to the negotiating table.  And now they are making the decision to pull the flag of our country down.  

You go anywhere across the UK and you will see in the cities the Union flag is flying.  We are part of the UK whether Nationalists and Republicans like it or not. 

I was so devastated.  Then we started the protests in nearly every estate.  I would have walked from the Newtownards Road to the City Hall every Saturday – I was in my high heels!  The problem with the protests was the amount of police that was there. 

What impact did the amount of police have on what was happening during the flag protests?

I can remember we were coming from town to get back on to the Newtownards Road but the bridge was blocked by the Police.  That meant that the protestors were forced to walk past the Short Strand and the Markets.  This made it extremely difficult because the barrage of bricks and bottles was awful with a lot of people getting hit. I got hit with a stone on the top of my head.  They attacked us coming along the road so the problem was blocking route so we had to go along that way in the first place.

Obviously that led to young people who were protesting at the flag protest felt under treat so they started defending themselves.  It was then the young ones who were trying to get home who were arrested, some were put in jail, some even lost their job.  Yet the ones who started it, not a thing was done to them.

Would you say politicians are doing enough for the Loyalist community?

I remember politics years ago with Paisley, Jim Molyneaux and Gerry Fit.  Those politicians were all men and I can’t remember a woman at all from that time.  When I was growing up I felt that they knew what they were talking about, they knew about politics and what was best.  You followed their lead.  I remember the rallies Paisley held and going to them. 

To me the politicians led the people up the hill and left them. They didn’t care.  They would all get the people fired up and then the politicians turned their back on them.  Politicians now they are even worse, they just don’t care.  It really annoys and upsets me.  I feel the politicians have left us, they have abandoned us and I wonder where do we go from here.  I feel that we don’t have anyone who talks for us or who understands us.  There isn’t anyone with a pair of balls that will stand up and support us or talk for us.   There is nobody.  Not in the Council and not in Stormont.  I feel all they are interested in is the money at Stormont. 

What would you like the politicians to do Gwen?

To start listening to us, listening to our needs, listening to what we want and to stand up and support us.  I don’t understand why they are turning their backs on us.  They want us when it’s time to vote then they just disappear.  I feel our culture is being eroded and they just won’t stand up and acknowledge that and listen to us.

I am on many groups and I sit and listen and watch what is going on.  For example the shared housing projects.  Most of the shared housing projects are located within PUL communities and areas.  I don’t see many in Nationalist/Republican areas.  I have asked for figures of the shared housing in East Belfast and the shared housing in West Belfast.  I’m still waiting on those figures, probably because I know what they will show.  This all contributes to changing the dynamics of voting.

Are you saying that shared housing is a way of impacting upon the voting patterns within Belfast?

Yes, I believe that and I see it all the time.  I volunteer with Dr Kyle and a majority of queries would be around housing.  There are young mums here who just can’t get houses.  The problem being is that you have those with addiction issues etc. from West Belfast who are put out of those areas and then they are re-housed in estates like this, those flats are full of them.  That means that those young mums have no chance of getting a place of their own and have to stay with their mum in a crowded house with a young baby.

Another issue is with the Housing Executive, for every hundred houses they have knocked down over the years they only build a small amount back up.  This has a huge impact on those within Loyalist areas.  If you look at the Nationalist areas, it’s completely different for every 100 houses they knock down there’s about 200 built.  You can see a difference.  It is those facts and figures I want to interrogate more.

The boundaries in terms of elections have changed too.  That has been progressive and the last boundary change was carved up between the DUP and Sinn Fein and it’s backfired big time on the DUP.  It’s worked well for Sinn Fein.

Why are all these boundaries changing why is this shared housing happening when it’s not shared housing equally between Catholics and Protestants?  Of course people think I’m wired up when I talk about this but the figures tell the truth.  People are using what has happened in the past to change the dynamics of where the PUL community live.

Are you in a political party Gwen?

Yes, I joined the PUP.  It was during the flag protests that I wanted to become more politically active.   Of course there are people that think PUP and UVF.  That is not the case.  I’m not the UVF and I’m not in the UVF.  Yes there were the political voice of the UVF but they have moved on.  David Ervine was a visionary. 

I do get upset with everything that has gone on since the Good Friday Agreement.  Just thinking of the “On the Run” letters for a start.  Nobody knew about them within the PUL community and there are times I often wonder, if we didn’t know about the letters, what else didn’t we know about?

I said no to the Good Friday Agreement. The majority of people I have spoke to also said no.

Why did you say no to the Good Friday Agreement?

I didn’t believe in it.  There was too many concessions.  I seen through the years that politics have changed over the years.  Of course the prisoners did get released under it.  There was a difference though.  The Nationalist/Republican community welcomed their prisoners home.  The PUL community did not.  They weren’t as welcoming as much. 

What really annoys me about this is that those men served time for protecting their community.  Those communities though to me seemed to turn their backs on them and that’s really upsetting to me and it’s maddening to me.

A lot of people got involved in things that they maybe wouldn’t have done, if it weren’t for the IRA bombing and trying to kill people within our community.  They had to protect our communities from the IRA walking in to areas with guns shooting people.  People were scared for their lives, people were getting blown up, just look at the carnage from that bomb on the Shankill and a child was blown to bits.  Those men and women were protecting their communities.  That’s what we must remember in all this.

What do you think is the perception if you refer to yourself as a Loyalist?

We’re not seen in a good light that’s for sure and I would say the media have a lot to answer for in this.  I’ve always said that language is the essence of change.  If you say something often enough it becomes fact.  I’ve watched through the years and all you hear in the media and from Republicians is “Orange sectarian marches”.  Now even in mainland news outlets they refer to them as sectarian Orangemen or Orange sectarian marches.  Of course we also have the language of North of Ireland and everyone seems to be saying it even though it’s Northern Ireland.

There has been a slow progression with the language and it’s unbelievable how they are doing it.  It is awful.  I’ve even notice people in the shop round there saying North of Ireland and I’m having to correct them saying this is Northern Ireland.  It’s because they are hearing it constantly in the media. 

We all see that Republicans are controlling the language, they are glorifying and romanticizing their past and they are rewriting history.  Then when it comes to Loyalists, well you only have to listen to the names I get called when I’m on the Nolan Show calling me a bigot, a fish-wife, foul-mouthed, it’s unbelievable the names I get called.  I tell them to work away because I know in my heart I’m none of those things. 

Wait until you see the response to me doing this interview.  The thing is I no longer care what others think of me.  It makes no difference at all now.  I’m not long out of hospital and at one stage I really did think that it was the end.  I thought I was away.  I now think differently because it is what it is.  At the end of the day no matter what I’m going to die British and I’m going to die a Loyalist.  That is something that no-one will take away from me.  No-one. 

How can the Loyalist community make the case for remaining part of the UK?

I honestly believe it lies with the younger generation, those who are confident in their identity and see what’s going on.  The likes of Stacey Graham, Emma Shaw and Julie-Anne Corr Johnnston.  However, like a lot of young people these days they want to just get on with their life and they are struggling to make ends meet so they don’t have time to be out protesting.

You can understand people not having time or the inclination because they have their own problems, they have bills to pay, they have to look after their children.  That’s ok but if we are to move forward we need everyone to do their bit. 

I want to raise the issue of voting here.  I have seen a lot of people over the past while who have come to me and said they have been taken off the register and wondering why.  Catholics that I know said they had got five electoral cards.  People also told me that they got voting cards for their loved ones who had passed away.  Also how does Sinn Fein know who has voted or who hasn’t?  So why is that happening in Nationalist and Republican areas, why isn’t it being looked at? 

What about education in terms of voting and preferences when it comes to Loyalist and Unionist areas, would you say more education is needed?

Yes we do need this but who is going to do it because there is a lot of mistrust with politicians now.   The RHI report is due out any day now and then you think about the MLAs who got paid for 3  years without sitting in the Assembly and as soon as they go back they get a pay rise.  It’s disgraceful.  To me they are all in it for themselves.  If you are in it for the people then speak for the people.  At the end of the day it’s the people who put you there so speak up for them but also listen to what they have to say too.  I believe that if you’re not up for that job then the people should say right get out I don’t want you in that job.

There should be more accountability for politicians but there just isn’t.  Just look at RHI, and it wasn’t just the DUP, Sinn Fein had their hands all over it too pushing the scheme and sending emails to the office in Dublin.  The thing is that people have been taken in, especially young people who vote for Sinn Fein that they don’t understand how Sinn Fein is run. 

They also jump on many band wagons in an attempt to get votes such as minority ethnic people, those within the LGBT community and those who are pro-choice.  Whatever the band wagon Sinn Fein jump on it for votes.  They go from one minority group to another, dump them and then go on to the next.

Do you support equal marriage and are you pro-choice?

I support equal marriage no problem.  I have mixed feelings regarding pro-choice due to personal circumstances within my family but I would say that under certain circumstances I agree the woman has a right to choose such as if there is a risk to her life or if she has been sexually abused or raped.

I do think there needs to be a balance and we should talk about it openly and honestly and we shouldn’t be judging women.

What are your thoughts on Integrated education?

Integrated education is part of the agreed PUP policies.  I do though have a question about why it’s always state schools that are moving to integrated where the Catholic Maintained Schools don’t.  It all comes down to power and who has it.

There has also been a rise in shared schools.  That’s not integrated because they go in the front door and go their separate ways.  Again, it’s about the Catholic Maintained Schools keeping controlled. 

There you go again with language which is the essence of change and if you say it often enough it becomes fact. 

What would you say is the biggest concern within the Loyalist community?

I think the biggest concern at the moment is the border poll.  Why are we talking about it, we are part of the UK.  From people I have spoken to and what I hear even people who would vote Alliance are against a United Ireland. 

What is annoying me that so many people are voting Sinn Fein in the Republic of Ireland.  They seem to be believing what Sinn Fein say about getting them houses and supporting them.  However if you look at West Belfast or indeed any working class areas where Sinn Fein topped the polls in Northern Ireland you will see they have high levels of poverty and deprivation.  They aren’t going to do much for those who voted for them.

Another issue is with the Good Friday Agreement – it’s something that I read all the time by the way.  In the Agreement where the constitutional issue is concerned, it talks about the Irish Government and the British Government working together on issues.  Then you have Stormont Executive which is Sinn Fein and the DUP.  My question is this, what happens if Sinn Fein are the Government in the Republic of Ireland and they are in Government in Northern Ireland, where is the equal footing then?  That just won’t work it’s not equal.  Not to mention the fact it was the IRA and Sinn Fein who brought the bombing to Britain and Northern Ireland.

What are your views on the New Deal New Approach which got the Assembly back up and running again?

I thought it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.  Of course there was a deal done between the DUP and Sinn Fein.  And probably jobs in it for the DUP.  Just look at some of them that walked in to jobs.  It’s disgusting. 

In terms of the Irish Language Act, I believe sign language is more commonly used than Irish Language.  It’s not commonly used in the Republic of Ireland so why is it being pushed here?  There has been millions spent on Irish Language schools and Irish Language Centres, that money needs to be used elsewhere.   Sign language is more important so let’s start there.  Remember Northern Ireland is part of Britain and we speak English here.

Again it comes down to jobs for the girls and boys, interpreters in court, no matter where you go they will need interpreters.  Big, big money that could be spent elsewhere.  I believe that Sinn Fein is bleeding this country dry economically.  It is crazy and wasteful.

Where would you like to see the Loyalist community in ten years?

Still part of Britain.  With a vision that politicians are going to listen to the Loyalist community and speak for us and not line their own pockets. 

For my children and grandchildren to have a positive future, where their culture and heritage is respected, where they are able to enjoy it without fear.  For people to see they can be a Loyalist, they can be a Unionist, they can be a Protestant, they can be part of a band, they can join the Orange Order.  And others respect their decision and realise that these are part and parcel of our culture, our tradition and they aren’t bad words or something that needs to be shunned away from.  I would also like everyone, including the media to stop portraying us as bad people.  We’re not.  We are just like everyone else, we have our lives to live, we have our illness, we have hopes and dreams for our children and our grandchildren.  The future Loyalist generations need something to look forward to and if our politicians can’t deliver it then they need to go, we need politicians who will deliver for us.

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