In Conversation with Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston
Her Loyal Voice has come about because in my quest to learn more about my identity I have found an uneven narrative. The voices of women are often missing or forgotten, and more than that the voices of women from the Loyalist and Unionist community are often silent.
It is precisely by listening to and giving voice to Loyalist and Unionist women that we can begin to appreciate their remarkable stories.
Let their stories be told!
I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston. It was one of the richest, thought-provoking chats I have had in some time. We laughed and we cried. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Julie-Anne Corr Johnston is a former Belfast City Councillor and fledgling political analyst. Her election in 2014 broke new ground, not just for the Oldpark constituency – where she became the first female Unionist to represent the area in Local Government – but also for Political Unionism, having been its first openly lesbian designate. Her time in public office had been synonymous with progress and pragmatism however her hard work and impressive portfolio of local successes were not enough to secure her tenure in the 2019 election. Despite the loss of her seat, Julie-Anne has continued to work to improve the quality of life for those most vulnerable in our communities and is currently working with young people who have disabilities and/or ill mental health.
What do you class yourself as Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist?
Where do I begin? First I don’t like the idea of being placed in a box. Labels are for filing and in this place we tick boxes to mark what separates us. And secondly I find it rather bizarre that Unionism is lumped in with Protestantism and Loyalism in the PUL acronym but not in CNR [Catholic, Nationalist, Republican]. It implies they are inextricably linked and excludes the very real possibility that there exists a Catholic Unionist or Protestant Nationalist. Shock, horror, they do. The truth is it has no religious ideology. To be a Unionist is to recognise the benefits of our union with Great Britain above any suggested alternatives, enjoy them and want to maintain them.
By definition I am a Unionist. But more than that I am a Loyalist which is arguably a subset of Unionism but for me there is a distinction. I am unequivocally loyal to preserving that Union and at the risk of sounding like the late Reverent Ian Paisley, I am also loyal the political ideology that was outlined in the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant. Minus the violence of course. I’m of the pro-peace/anti-violence variety.
And yes I was stamped at birth as a Protestant and I was brought up in a household that practiced its faith but as I grew older my views were – and in particular my sexual orientation was – at odds with the religious teachings. That being said I do enjoy the customs and cultural traditions associated with my heritage. I have many fond memories of lining the Lisburn Road with my family waving on my Granda, uncles, cousins and neighbours who filled the ranks of the lodges and bands. As silly as it may sound it was two days of the year – the 11th and 12th – that I could escape the feeling of not belonging, of being different – those everyday challenges that many LGBT people experience growing up in the church. Now of course, that I am out and experience the unconditional love that so many don’t, the tradition starts over with my own wee family.
Would you say the term Loyalist is considered a dirty word?
If you pop the word into your search engine it’ll return images of masked gunmen and armed police pushing back protestors or news articles with headlines linking Loyalism to crime and chaos. It’s sad really. Knuckle draggers, bigots and fleggers are common descriptions on social media too. It’s almost as if our determination to make this place better, when contributing to the Good Friday Agreement, has been forgotten. Once part of the solution now more frequently referenced as a problem. But we aren’t – a problem – we are a community with problems. If only our detractors would take the time to scratch beneath the surface rather than form preconceived opinions based on a excerpt off the internet.
Are you confident in your identity?
My national and political identity? Yes! Absolutely. Have I confidence in those charged with representing that identity? No! They have made a mess of Brexit and more locally they have neglected to deliver on the material well-being and equal citizenship our forefathers pledged in the Covenant. Our representatives are so blinded by the ‘cultural war’ as it’s been described that they fail to recognise the greatest threat to our Union is not Irish Republicanism and it’s demands but rather socioeconomic deprivation.
You were involved in the flag protests. What would have been the outcome you would have wanted?
I’d prefer it hadn’t happened at all. I grew up pretty sheltered from Northern Ireland’s complex circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, I had Bebo and the world at my fingertips as a teenager but the flag dispute was my first real encounter of our deep-seated division. I felt then, as I do now, that the manoeuvre is typical of the political immaturity in this place – too often cementing a divided society rather than promoting tolerance for a diverse one.
You decided to join the Progressive Unionist Party, can you describe your time at the party and your first party meeting?
When my application to join was accepted I had expected that the politicking would go over my head and that I would perhaps take a feet on the streets type of role. Distributing leaflets at election time for example or helping with voter registrations. That kind of thing. Never in a million years would I have foreseen that I would, a short time later, be a candidate in that forthcoming election never mind subsequently elected to public office.
If memory serves me, I was too busy drinking in my surroundings and those sat opposite me to appreciate the discussion at my first meeting. It was only after my second or third meeting that two things came to light: that I had joined a diverse group of like-minded people from all walks of life – from low pay, zero hours health care workers through to successful business people – in a social justice movement and secondly that I had a lot more to contribute than I originally thought. You see you don’t need a degree in political science or practice to be a politician you just need lived experience, an opinion and a voice like a fog horn.
My time with the PUP was well spent, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure political activists that have been or are members of political parties would agree that it’s a lot like your every day family, it’s not always rosey and there are fall outs, heated exchanges and subject disputes particularly when you are as passionate as we were. I had more than my fair share but largely my experience was positive and I’ll treasure the privilege I had of representing the area I grew up in.
When you were asked to join the PUP did you consider that they were formed out of the UVF?
Of course I did, particularly with having been so sheltered. To have listened to my family and friends you would have thought I was coming home with a balaclava and a red hand of Ulster tattoo. However, with a practicing GP as it’s deputy leader and a whole host of socially progressive policies, a woman’s right to chose for example, the book didn’t fit the description on the cover. So I scratched beneath the surface.
In terms of the media and the public’s view would you say it’s the case that Sinn Fein is more accepted than the PUP?
Sinn Fein are the second largest party in Northern Ireland with something like one hundred and thirty elected representatives whereas the PUP have only three. The statistics speak for themselves.
There are any amount of reasons why that might be and I don’t profess to know them all but I did find that the media were relatively unfair when covering the party on the rare occasion it had a platform. For example in 2014, when the deputy presiding officer had just declared my shock election, I left the count to be greeted by a waiting press. “Julie-Anne from flag protestor to Belfast City Council, what brought you to the PUP, the political wing of the UVF?”. A fair question, deserving of an answer no doubt but given that I just broke new ground (being the first lesbian Unionist elected) it was apparent that I was to be profiled as a conflict politician rather than evidence of an emerging change in political Unionism. And more than that – something to contribute to making this place a better one to live in. I’ve countless other examples that give weight to that. It has been my experience, particularly in pre-election debates, that most other parties have ample opportunity to set out their stall, their manifesto, whereas PUP is bounced into answering the same old questions about its roots.
Why do you think there are so few women entering politics still?
This is a question that keeps popping up but I think things need to be viewed in context. I don’t believe it’s a case that women aren’t interested or that they feel inferior.
I can already hear the grunts of disagreement from those who have perhaps researched the topic and hold different views but understand that the women I speak to and engage with everyday are strong, confident and politically vocal. And for those women I believe it’s a logistical issue, particularly for those that have small children. Most political parties hold their branch meetings in the evening which is ideal for those working 9-5 but for the woman that has kids to put down to bed, uniforms to iron and lunches to make, it can be a challenge crossing the door. Being a political activist can be quite demanding. It’s more than just turning up to a meeting to express an opinion or cast a vote – more often than not you leave with extra responsibilities that require you to put your shoulder to the wheel, advocate for those that need advocacy and promote the brand so to speak.
In my own experience it was a financial challenge being a public rep. You’re paid £14,200 as a councillor. It’s not a full time wage but three out of five years it was my full time job. How can I say this without causing upset? Residents in the leafy suburbs, well they’re not going to be on to their politicians every day needing Housing Executive repairs or whatever. So you are not going to have the same level of constituency work are you? I simply couldn’t hold down two jobs and manage the casework I was receiving. And even then, with it being my full time (round the clock) job, I was working for somewhere in the region of £4 an hour net. I’m not complaining mind, I loved my job and I do miss it, but unless you have corporate sponsors or assembly expenses – as some of the larger parties do – to have paid support sharing the workload then you find yourself racing the clock day and daily to be a wife, mother, daughter and so on. The sacrifices you make are significant and I have no doubt in my mind that’s a contributing factor for many women when considering whether to put themselves forward or not. Especially for those women who are members of political parties and have first hand knowledge of all it entails.
What do you see as the major concerns in Loyalist and Unionist communities at the moment?
How long have we got? This may take a while but I will try to keep it brief. In no particular order there’s Brexit and the Irish Sea Border, Political Unionism’s decline and the new agreement reached to get Stormont up and running again.
The anxiety felt by the uncertainty of Brexit isn’t unique to Unionism but it is exacerbated by Boris Johnson’s shock ‘betrayal’ as it’s being dubbed. Johnson was a vocal opponent of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement which had garnered him support within grassroots Unionism when it came to replacing her as the Prime Minister. Ironically May’s agreement would have only been temporary whereas Johnson’s is permanent. His actions are thought to have undermined the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom and of course that doesn’t sit well within Unionism.
On political Unionism’s decline – at the last council election Unionism lost a total of 32 elected representatives. Not to each other, as so often had been the case, but rather to parties that are not defined by the constitutional question. Parties that designate as other. The middle ground. Now it’s far from circling the drain but they do say that once is chance, twice a coincidence but three times a pattern. And there is an emerging pattern. The U.K General Election marked the third consecutive election that Unionism has lost its majority. And it is likely that in the event of another election anytime soon the parties would face more of the same.
Which I guess brings me on to the recent political settlement – New Decade – New Approach. The anger within grassroots Unionism is palpable. Many feel that their political leaders gave in to Sinn Féin’s demands to save their own skin in light of those recent voting patterns.
Do you think Sinn Fein did get what they wanted?
The deal is socioeconomically ambitious, a wet dream for Unionists that measure the strength of the Union by the social well-being and economic wealth of its citizens – but it is otherwise ambiguous – which of course has been the subject of heated debate across social media. Did DUP capitulate or did SF adulterate?
Owing to that ambiguity these questions are likely to remain unanswered until the what’s in the deal come in to practice.
If we have a society that is free from poverty, that is prospering, that is well educated –then in your view the union is secure – is that what you are saying?
Why risk a good thing for a new thing? That’s the question people should be asking themselves in the event of a border poll rather than what have I got to lose? The latter may, one day, just tip those scales.
What is your view on how the Executive and power-sharing is working?
This is a bone of contention for me. What we have is neither power-sharing or workable. It’s the splitting of power. A chuckle brothers complex.
Let’s be honest. The institutions envisaged back in 1998 were a compromise, agreed at a time when an honourable outcome and stability were desperately needed. However, those structures were not designed to last forever. They were specific to their context and, just like the devolution of justice or an extension of fiscal responsibility, the institutions grow and change as the political landscape does. We desperately need reform.
I’m not buttoned up the back, I know that a voluntary coalition, in light of our complex tapestry, would likely be as dysfunctional and myopic, as such I won’t advocate for it. But I do think there is a workable solution to be found in adopting the system of government employed by our local councils. A tried and tested system of governance that despite the occasional controversy has weathered each political storm without the threat of collapse. A system were those elected to it not only share power but responsibility too.
I wanted to ask you about the responses from some Alliance Party Councillor’s during the bonfire season in 2019. From looking at social media and news coverage, it appeared that the Loyalist and Unionist community felt hurt. What are your thoughts on what happened?
Many within my community believe there is a concerted campaign against traditional Protestant customs and culture. And some statements and remarks that were made at the time coupled with the councils course of action gives weight to that.
We don’t help ourselves mind. Just like the Orange Order and Twaddell and Woodvale Residents Association, who actually burn a traditional bonfire on Belfast City Council property – the use of an asset for both public and private events requires permission. It’s my understanding that in this instance that permission wasn’t sought. That in itself is a problem that needs addressing if we are to avoid the same thing from happening this year.
What’s interesting however is that the hurt and anger expressed at the time didn’t translate in the most recent election. In fact the Alliance surge is predominately in what has often been regarded as largely Unionist areas.
Do you think the DUP and Sinn Fein have delivered for their communities?
Having spent seven years supporting people under their government, their leadership, their legacy, I can’t say that they have. I don’t want to go in to the detail about the sights that I have seen or the experiences of those who sought my help. There are people behind them with very real suffering that don’t need to read or hear their stories retold. It’s theirs to tell. But no, no I can’t say that they have.
And look, in the interests of being fair and measured – I’m certain that if we were to canvas opinion locally that we’d find a handful of people that would speak highly of a particular politician be they a Councillor, MLA or MP from either party. Because they’ve helped them with an issue personally or perhaps know them in a personal capacity – let’s not forget that most of them live in or come from the communities they represent.
Corporately however, I’d say public confidence in either party is increasingly diminishing. Multiple deprivation statistics, which evidence unmet need in the areas the big two parties dominate show that. And a dander down the likes of the Shankill Road or Falls Road would give weight to that.
What does the Sinn Fein electoral success in Ireland mean for Unionists and the Union?
Very little to be honest. Sinn Fein will have the tall task of righting the socioeconomic injustices in the South and growing the economy to the point it becomes an appealing alternative to a Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. More than that mind they also have the added challenge of convincing their electorate that by bringing the Northern Ireland population into their fold, with say its 11’000+ homeless persons in tow, that they won’t end up back where they started – reversing the change they had voted for in this election.
That being said, whilst a United Ireland isn’t as close as some pundits would have you believe, a border poll may well be closer. Unionists shouldn’t become complacent and as I said before it’s imperative that the question people ask themselves in that event is why risk a good thing for a new thing? Rather than what have I got to lose?
Where do you see the Loyalist and Unionist community in 10 years’ time?
I want to believe it will be in a better place. That people will experience and enjoy the material well-being and equal citizenship outlined in the Covenant but unless there is a significant shift from the politics of fear and division to that of hope and ambition then I fear it will be subject to more of the same.