In Conversation with Kellie Anne Fulton
The first recorded example of men telling a woman to “shut up”, that her voice was not to be heard in public dates back almost 3000 years. Today not much has changed. Where gender, class and religion intersect I have found a deeply disturbing inequality. The simple fact is that we need more female working class loyalist voices to be heard. There is no tidying them away. I will continue to let the stories be told.
Kellie-Anne Fulton better known as Kells, is a 38 year old separated mum of 3 girls aged 18, 15 & 9 from the Cregagh estate. She works full time as an office manager. Kells joined South Belfast Branch of the PUP 3 years ago. She is currently a member of the Party Executive as Membership Officer and Party Organiser. She is the first point of contact with members in Scotland. When she’s not being an activist or at work, Kells loves spending time with her kids and caring for her elderly grandmother.
What does being a Loyalist mean to you?
It’s who I am, it’s my identity and it’s my culture. Growing up watching the bands, Loyal Orders and bonfires, it’s my memories, my traditions and my community. My mum always raves on about me being on TV on the Twelfth of July at three months old in my Union Jack hat. So it’s fair to say that for me part of it is meeting up with family and friends and having a sense of belonging. But as well as that, my principles are based on the fact that I believe our citizenship in the United Kingdom needs to be protected. I am loyal to preserving the Union, loyal to the Queen, Country and Community. I believe in principled Loyalism that has its roots in the Solemn League and Covenant with a lot to offer the people of Ulster.
Are you confident in your identity?
Yes, it would be fair to say that I don’t shout and scream about being a Loyalist, but that’s because I’m confident in my own Loyalism and Unionism. I’m British, I always will be. As Billy said I’m not one of 1.8 million I am one of 66 million, and proud to be so. For me I wasn’t aware that some people didn’t go to bonfires or watch Bands until my teens. I’ll be clear that growing up I did not know any bigotry or sectarianism that gets levelled by some at those aspects of my identity. It was the fun factor I remember, it was summer, having parties and spending time with families and friends, the music, the dancing the bright colours and being impressed by the uniforms. I loved growing up in East Belfast despite being the odd one out and supporting Linfield and not Glentoran. I was born in 1981 and I grew up in Castlereagh and all we knew was expect to be searched going into town and what to do in the event of a bombs scare. I wouldn’t say it intimidated me as it was all I knew. Having said that, I as a parent would hate for my own children to go through that now given the level of change in current times.
Do you think others in the Loyalist community are confident in their identity?
Yes I do, however my fear is that the generations coming up are being lulled by a whitewashing of history in Northern Ireland. I fear an attempt to re-write history is beginning to take hold and we as Loyalists need to call that out. To me that’s part of a long term strategy, part of the Trojan Horse strategy. We need to ensure future generations enjoy the celebrations but also educate the kids on why we celebrate. Take my own kids for example if I wasn’t a Loyalist they wouldn’t know half as much about why the traditions take place. This is where education is key. Its not enough to turn up at a bonfire because it’s the eleventh of July. We have to share the history and reasons behind our traditions and culture. Understanding why we celebrate is the base of that confidence, you can’t argue with facts and those facts are what makes us who we are.
How do you feel about the perception of what a Loyalist is?
I would say there is an unfair perception that all Loyalists are some sort of Neanderthals up to their eyes in criminality. Let’s be honest, there is criminality on all sides, in every section of society. It’s sad really because I personally know of the good work that is being carried out by Loyalists that goes unreported because it doesn’t fit in with the media agenda. I am a Unionist but also a Loyalist, unfortunately I have found that by describing myself as a Loyalist I am stereotyped and discriminated against, that doesn’t happen just as much when describing myself a Unionist. Let me give you an example of that distancing between Unionist and Loyalist since the height of the conflict; You see it in media reports like when a protest is Peaceful is a Unionist protest but if a protest becomes violent it’s reported as a Loyalist protest, and of course now we have further distancing with this new label ‘Pro Union’ Some people are now saying they are Pro Union but not a Unionist, I think quite a bit of it reeks of snobbery to be honest.
What do you believe women in the Loyalist community feel about what is happening to their cultural identity and traditions?
I believe, they feel like there is a cultural war upon us, myself included. It’s as if we are being forced out whether we like it or not, as if we are big bad Protestants who should keep our mouths shut about being Loyal. The media and in particular social media are largely behind that. However, groups like the Greater Shankill Women’s ACT Initiative are doing a wonderful job in pressing back. It’s a great project and watching how they have went from strength to strength is so inspirational. From crafts to learning to play musical instruments, the way those women have come together to encourage community spirit while maintaining who they are and where they come from is a programme I would love to see put into practise in communities across Northern Ireland.
Can you tell me a bit about your political activism, when you started and why?
I joined South Belfast Progressive Unionist Party in 2017. I knew some people who were members and I was invited along. I had no idea how political parties worked but I just wanted to help people who struggled to help themselves. I read up on PUP policies and they appealed to me. My first meeting was the Constituency Association AGM so I was lucky at that point to be given a lot of information. At my day job I am an Office Manager so it was an easy move into the Branch Secretary role which I’ve been in ever since. I then joined the Party Standing Orders Committee organising Conferences amongst other things, then nearly two years ago I was voted onto the Party Executive as Party Organiser and Membership Officer and currently I am acting Party Officer in the Training and Development role. If you had told me five -ten years ago this is how I would be spending my spare time I would say you were mad. But from the second I joined the party I just want to help people. I’m not interested in being in the public eye I just want to stand up and voice an opinion from a Loyalist perspective, unfortunately I usually get an immediate backlash, it doesn’t shut me up but I am an ordinary activist and I want to help the most vulnerable in our society, the PUP policies currently in place help me to do that.
What did you think of the New Deal New Approach document?
I think it’s a cop out if that’s the result of three years of total collapse of Government. My personal opinion is the two largest parties were so desperate to remain in power that they accepted this deal. With services suffering the pressure to reform Government from the public was immense and something had to give. The outcome is a deal which is a concession. I think we can see that the DUP and Sinn Fein are tolerating each other solely to remain in control. I think also its fair to say that Michelle O’Neill’s conduct recently at the Pandemic press conferences highlights the folly of returning to Government with a party whose aim is the destruction of Northern Ireland.
The perception now is that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are only working ‘together’ because the only alternative was yet another election which potentially could of led to supposedly neutral parties like Alliance taking a bigger role and diminishing their upper hand.
I feel its becoming more obvious to the public when you have instances in the midst of this devastating coronavirus when we see broadcasts from The First Minister and deputy First Minister which superbly is supported by sign language advocates, however I am personally interested to see the statistics that prove we need a second sign language advocate specialising in Irish. I am interested to know the appropriated costs for that role in comparison to the need for it in Northern Ireland. I think that its regrettable that money is thrown at unnecessary provisions while essential services like Education, mental health and hospitals suffer. Another example is when people from my community see that during a lockdown period that Mid Ulster Council decide that erecting dual language signage is an essential service the people become incensed and rightly so, it comes across as sneakily furthering an agenda regardless of a global pandemic taking place. I think it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing comes crashing down around us against again.
What are your views on equal marriage and a woman’s right to choose in relation to abortion?
I personally don’t have an issue with equal marriage. My feelings are of a practitioner of faith, if a Minister has no issue performing the ceremony then there should be no legal impediment on them, but likewise, there should be no legal impediment towards a Minister of a church who feels they can’t carry out the ceremony due to her/his religious beliefs. I mean, surely there is room to accommodate all, isn’t that what equality is about?
My thoughts on abortion are I support a women’s right to choose. I do have concerns though that the 28 weeks point is far, far too long. That being said I can understand the trauma involved when a women who has made a difficult decision to have a termination is then traumatised further by anxiously travelling into the unknown, like so many women have had to do over the years, making that long voyage across to the mainland to get abortions carried out in a strange and often lonely place.
You have seen the negative and trolling comments that were and continue to be directed towards Stacey Graham after she was interviewed. Do you think it’s because she’s a women or a Loyalist or both that she gets so much hate over social media?
Stacey is a good friend of mine. I thought her interview itself was fantastic and obviously we share the same beliefs but my heart broke for her having to endure such vile, defamatory and downright toxic abuse. What I found interesting was that the majority of that Twitter lynch mob were Republican trolls, all faceless and nameless, people quite content to hide their identities attacking us for publicly voicing opinions.
I have been on the receiving end of abusive tweets where I have been attacked because of my religion, my cultural identity, my appearance and because I’m a woman. I can only describe it as overwhelming. I have got quite used to it and it takes something particularly nasty or something about my kids to really upset me. I believe it is totally down to us being female Loyalists. They want to silence us because with more and more female loyalist voices emerging, it debunks the contrived Republican/Nationalist stereotype which has become an accepted view that there are no strong, confident and (especially when you read Stacey, Emma and Julie-Anne’s interviews) articulate female loyalists, it confounds this nonsense notion that we somehow only exist in kitchens with the sole purpose of making tray-bakes and sandwiches for the men.
The only conclusion I can come to is, this so often pushed ‘equality agenda’ is nothing more than window dressing in reality and further highlights the need for Nationalism/Republicanism to internally address the issues of toxic masculinity, sexism and sectarianism. This is an issue that needs to be addressed holistically on a societal level, but do you know what? In those terms, I feel Loyalism is a lot further ahead in those terms of equality, I really do. But, I’m sure you know yourself that doesn’t quite fit with accepted stereotypes of our community.
How do you think more Loyalist women could be encouraged to enter become politically active?
As I said before if you had told me five years ago I’d be interested in Politics I would not have believed you so I can completely understand where this question comes from. For me, Its not that I wasn’t interested it was more that I had other priorities, I’ve always worked full time and with a young family back then I just always put my family first. As times went on and my children are up a bit I had more time on my hands that I wanted to put to good use. That started off volunteering but it changed to political activism when I saw how the system let people down and no one was held to account. I think part of the answer to encouraging more women to enter the political arena is to boost their confidence with education. The women I know are aware of their history but are reluctant to put themselves forward for fear of being picked apart. Which unfortunately does happen especially across social media forums.
What I see and what the statistics tell me is that in many Loyalist areas there is poverty, educational underachievement and poor health and housing. What do you think needs to happen to address these issues?
Daily I try to tackle these issues at a ground level and I am exasperated, take for example we talk about educational underachievement at post Primary level what chance do the kids have, when under John O’Dowd the secondary schools in South and East Belfast have been obliterated. This has led to over seven hundred children attending Breda Academy since the amalgamation of Knockbreda and Newtownbreda High Schools. These pupils for the last five years are spending half the school day in mobile classrooms waiting for a new school building, during this time there has been nine Irish-medium schools set up across Belfast. From the reports I have read they say some of the appeal is the small class numbers, well I say what about the class numbers for children in schools like Breda? Where is the equality? If you don’t want to learn Irish and are instead learning French, Spanish or German languages then you are inflicted for the rest of your life with your education suffering in overcrowded under-facilitated schools. Its not fair on our children.
Its my opinion that The New Deal, New Approach document didn’t go far enough on the issues surrounding the hospitals and poverty for any of the communities in NI and it’s the people of this country that are suffering at the hands of our politicians. We have to look at what really matters to people.
Are Unionist politicians doing enough to help Loyalist communities?
No, don’t get me wrong I have met some decent individuals from the bigger parties, but I feel as a whole they don’t represent me or the working class communities I know. I feel they are reluctant to relinquish any amount of power they share and in my eyes the Loyalist people are constantly being asked to compromise. Make no mistake my Loyalism is not for sale. After lending my vote to the DUP for the recent elections I will think long and hard before doing it again. I attended many of the rallies prior to the elections and the tension in the air was palpable, but to be honest I don’t think the DUP were fully understanding just how angry and anxious the Loyalist community are. The unwillingness of the other parties to get involved in the calls for Unionist Unity says everything to me. But where does my vote go then? It won’t be Alliance – they are no friend to Unionism, it won’t be TUV – they are no friend to women or Loyalists, it won’t be UUP – they would rather Loyalists did not exist. I get irritated because I want a better Northern Ireland for all working class communities with better access to social and affordable housing.
Where do you see the Unionist and Loyalist community in 10 years’ time?
No-one is certain where we will be after this Pandemic is over and Brexit is settled but there’s a serious opportunity to further politicise people in a positive way especially our youth. I want my kids to grow up in an equal society that doesn’t discriminate. If we are to keep the Union secure we have to make Northern Ireland work for all. I want to see Northern Ireland flourishing. Next year its our 100th Birthday and despite all that’s been thrown at us here we are, a unique group of people who have lived through some appalling atrocities but came out the other end, that’s a fantastic reason to celebrate.