Loyalist women aren’t an homogenous group, they have different views and ideas but there is one thing that they do have in common, they are passionate, sincere and very open to share their views, they just have to be asked! I want to thank Leanne for taking the time to chat to me, I hope you enjoy this interview.
Leanne, tell me a little bit about yourself, where were you born and raised?
I was born in 1979 spent my first 2 years in Moygashel before moving to Cabragh/Killymaddy which is outside Dungannon, Co. Tyrone but also not far from Aughnacloy and the Emyvale Border. I had a very happy childhood, there was my mum, dad, granny, myself, my brother and we had plenty of cousins close by. I went to Walker Memorial Primary School in Castlecaulfield followed by Royal School Dungannon. Our extended family would all have been really close and because our granny lived with us, we always had family coming and going.
I now live in Bushmills, Co. Antrim with my three children.
What was it like growing up there?
Everything felt normal back then but looking back now, especially when I have my own family, you realise that our ‘norm’ isn’t what should have been normal. We knew there were certain areas you didn’t go to if at all possible. In school uniform, you most certainly did not walk down certain streets in Dungannon. I grew up in the Country and at age 12 we moved to a farm so your neighbour wasn’t that close to you. I suppose when at primary school we were in a bubble, we mixed with our friends at school, went to Brownies but they were the same girls from school and then spent home time with family. It wasn’t until I went to Grammar School that things changed as we shared the Ulster Bus with St. Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon and I got to know people from ‘the other side’.
Don’t get me wrong, I had mixed with Catholics previously but they weren’t considered Catholic, they were just friends of my parents and people we knew so religion wasn’t discussed.
The area I grew up in had (quite) Republican elements within it. A protestant shop near us was bombed frequently, it didn’t scare us as we were used to it and it was normal life, however it eventually changed to Catholic ownership and was never bombed again. In 1989 we were at home, I was 10 years old and we heard a massive explosion and could see flames down the road a little bit, it turned out the IRA had put a car bomb under the car of Robert Glover as he was a contractor for the RUC/Army. A 76 year old woman, Roseanne Mallon, was murdered in her sister in Law’s home a mile from us in 1994, it was claimed by Loyalist paramilitaries but she was not the intended target. The case of Roseanne’s murder has led to claims of collusion with the security forces but an inquest found no evidence of this. But again, this was part of everyday life, paramilitary attacks were always on the news and we were used to this so it became a part of life.
It was normal to have helicopters land in the fields around our house and for the army to jump out of them and disappear into the night. My dad used to complain as sometimes they would break the locks on the gates and then the cattle would get out, but it happened often enough that it didn’t feel out of place rather it was just annoying.
I remember when my aunt used to look after us during the summer holidays as mum was working, we would go to play at the grounds of the Primary School next door to her, sometimes the Army were there hidden in the hedges and we weren’t one bit afraid, we would go over and they would show us their guns and let us look through the viewfinder. Some others would tell us to clear off!
Do you refer to yourself as a unionist or a loyalist? Why?
I would call myself a Loyalist but answer to Protestant or Unionist also. This is a topic which sparks debate amongst the Unionist/Loyalist community and what I have noticed is that people tend to class Loyalism as working class Protestants who support the actions of paramilitary organisations to keep Northern Ireland British. Unionists are then seen as the more middle- and upper-class Protestant.
Definitions suggest that Unionists support the Union and Loyalists are loyal to the Monarchy and to Ulster, which might not necessarily mean the rest of the UK!
To me, Loyalism is my identity and captures who I am. I am loyal to the Crown, I’m loyal to our community, I’m loyal to Ulster, I’m loyal to our culture and heritage, I’m loyal to Northern Ireland and the progression of our people in such a way that we aren’t left behind and in making sure our voices are heard.
Are you confident in your identity?
I am confident in my identity but it did take me a long time to get to this point. I felt judged but now I am more informed and confident to be able to challenge negative comments.
Do you think other women in the loyalist/unionist community are confident in their identity?
Some are but not all. It’s got to the stage that some women feel judged when they explain who they are, to the point that they don’t speak up and keep aspects of their lives hidden for fear of being judged both by the Nationalist community and people within their own community. To be part of a band, attend parades and bonfire celebrations, walk for their Lodges is seen as something that is frowned upon by certain groupings and individuals.
Do you think that the Loyalist traditions, culture and identity is being eroded? If so what aspects are being eroded and why do you think that is happening?
Very much so and I think this pandemic hasn’t helped much as restrictions have meant our traditions and culture haven’t been celebrated the way it normally would.
It feels that Nationalists are allowed to celebrate their past but as Loyalists we can’t in case we offend. We are made to feel embarrassed to celebrate who we are and judged by being proud of who we are.
There are times, when I speak up for our culture and heritage when I am made to feel like a bigot for doing so. I am viewed negatively and judged as being against the Nationalist community.
I am a believer in raising our community up, informing and educating them on their identity, working single identity to make sure they feel confident to speak up, know their history and can have constructive discussions. Unfortunately, many funders do not like single identity projects and will not fund them, or our community assume they won’t so don’t apply for the funding unless they build the cross-community aspect into it.
Schools do not teach our young people about their traditions, history, culture and heritage so we need to look at different ways of educating them. I speak to many young people who call themselves Unionists/Loyalists but when questioned they don’t know their history. It is being eroded and diluted due to lack of knowledge.
Unfortunately some band parades, and the method in which they are organised, attract a different group of people who are not there to celebrate their identity but to drink and cause mayhem. This is then portrayed by the media as the ‘norm’ and damages our community.
We don’t often see loyalist women enter politics; what do you think we need to do to encourage more loyalist women to enter politics?
Speaking from a personal experience, I find Politics very frustrating. I know there are women in Politics and doing a great job but this is very different from the Political arena I have engaged in.
I see women in Politics who should not be there. They are there as a tokenistic gesture by their Party but are controlled by the hierarchy. If asked a question, they cannot answer unless they go and ‘speak to someone’. I actually find that offensive to women.
I have always had a desire to join politics but unfortunately I was not deemed suitable to stand for election. My view is that it could be because I will challenge, I am informed and I won’t be controlled. The real reason why I wasn’t picked could be completely different but despite asking for feedback from the Party on numerous occasions, I’m still waiting.
I have also found that women don’t necessarily support women, I know of at least two different times when women have blocked my desire to progress within Politics instead of all working together.
Tell me a bit about your political activism, when you started and why? You are a member of the DUP, why did you decide to get involved in politics and why did you choose the DUP?
I decided to join the DUP after considering each of the Unionist Party’s carefully. I had a meeting with the mla for one party who told me I need not think I could join the party and do nothing because I am a woman! I don’t think I need to say this but I never went back near them.
I don’t agree with all the DUP stand for but I felt they had something to offer me and I had something to offer them, and ultimately all this would benefit the community. I originally joined in 2013 but we had a parting of ways with a lot of resentment and ill feeling on both sides in 2014. I then joined again a few years ago but the Party did not make it easy for me and if I wasn’t so stubborn, I would have given up.
I’m a firm believer that, instead of complaining about what is wrong, roll up your sleeves and be part of the solution. Unionism is against each other’s throats and the only people we are harming are ourselves. I felt I could make a difference and I have worked within the Loyalist working class community of Causeway Coast and Glens for over 12 years so a natural progression was to get involved in Politics. Usually as a community representative, you end up having to go to a Councillor to get support with certain issues or projects so by being more internally involved it makes it easier.
I put my name forward for the 2019 Local Government Elections but was not picked. I instead was the Election Agent for Alderman George Duddy.
I am still a member of the DUP, but I will make my voice heard within them and in the public domain if the need arises.
What social issues are of concern to you right now?
The main concern within the community I work within at the minute is a lack of confidence in Police and this is having a major impact on the community. There has been a massive rise in shootings in the Causeway Coast and Glens area, mainly due to people’s reluctance to pass information to the police and going to ‘others’ instead. The community were passing information on drug dealing and anti social behaviour to police but nothing was being done.
While this critical incident of lack of confidence in policing is hanging over the community, it is difficult to move on and deal with other issues. Everyone being able to work together for the good of the community is vital and when there is a link that is weakened, it can have devastating effects that may take years to repair.
Getting Northern Ireland back to some normality post Covid 19 restrictions. Kids need their education, there are serious mental health concerns, businesses need to get back to normal. We have to be aware of Covid 19 and keeping people as safe as we can but in a sensible way. Continuing to shut certain businesses down is not productive and pushing people in the businesses that are open and therefore making people more at risk.
I have been part of a coronavirus support group since March last year and I’m concerned that the funding pots, while very useful to many people have created a culture of need in some areas and communities. By continually giving people packages for free, we aren’t tackling the issues of why they were needed in the first place and rectifying that. Government need to look at what they have done and are continuing to do and come up with a sustainable plan to get people back into jobs and getting the economy back up and running.
What political issues are of concern to you right now?
From a Loyalist perspective, I don’t see any Political Parties engaging with the community. They are making assumptions and then decisions, without consultation. Then when it all goes wrong, they try to engage with the community to fix it but it’s too late.
The community are fed up with not being listened to and I really fear in the next elections as to what will happen. People say they won’t vote which will then leave a Nationalist led Political system, others want a new Party set up or are refusing to vote DUP, by diluting the Unionist vote like this, we will again let Nationalists take the lead. But, if people vote DUP again to ensure we have the largest Party, the DUP forget they represent the people and go off and do their own things. The DUP are pompous and don’t realise they should be raising their game instead of the Party of last hope. It’s disappointing and the Unionist/Loyalist community deserve better.
The NI Protocol is a massive issue but again, we aren’t being spoken to. The DUP signed off on whatever it is they signed off on, realised they didn’t represent the feelings of their constituents and are now trying to fight it. But, most people I speak to know we don’t want the NI Protocol but don’t know much about it. The Political Parties have a responsibility to inform their constituents.
New Decade, New Approach; another document launched without consultation and without the Political parties explaining it to the people.
Do you think politicians understand the issues faced by the loyalist/unionist community?
We have some very good Local Councillors in this area who are trying their best, listen to their community and try to make change, the rest don’t have a clue and don’t have a grip on issues faced by the very communities they are meant to represent.
I once complained to a Councillor that I never seen them from one Election to the next and it was put back to me “Have you ever picked up the phone and told me the issues?”. I took that piece of advice and have built up a good relationship with some Elected Representatives however, because I call myself a Loyalist and speak up on working class Loyalist issues then I am not the kind of person some want to associate with.
Politicians need to engage and speak to their communities, they need to take on board what is being said and listen to solutions they might come up with. There is a massive divide between the political parties and their constituents and the parties need to address this and work with the community, not for them, or in some cases, against them.
Do you think that politicians are doing enough for working class loyalists in terms of education, poverty, housing etc.?
I think that some Councillors are excellent at what they do and are trying their best at their level to make change but I don’t feel at Stormont level that our Politicians are effective in making change and acting in the best interests of their constituents. I may be wrong, but then my challenge to them is to make sure the communities are kept up to date with what is happening and being consulted every step of the way.
I won’t name a Politician but he is told what is wrong in his community and then he releases statements which is totally against everything he has been told is the problem. It’s hard to have trust in a politician who is acting on his own (or Party) agenda and not those he is supposed to represent.
Do you think politicians have done enough during this Covid-19 crisis to help communities?
Again, this depends on how you look at it. At a local level I have seen many Councillors out helping and doing great work trying to make a difference, others have gone to ground and are yet to resurface.
Everyone has their own personal set of circumstances so it is unfair to judge but it has been difficult for us all.
I don’t think Stormont made the correct decisions all the time but it’s easy in hindsight to say that. I’m disappointed when, at a time people need support, a number of constituency offices closed and are still closed. I understand they are working from home but I don’t believe this provides the service needed by the community at such a time of uncertainty.
It’s how we come out of this all and the future decisions which will be key. If there is a sound rationale, most people can accept it but when decisions don’t make sense that’s when it becomes a real problem.
Supermarkets can stay open and sell clothes but small clothes retailers can’t. Flowers can also be bought at these supermarkets but flower shops had to close. Hairdressers had all the safety measures put in place but then had to close. It feels as if the small independents that make towns and Villages unique were the hardest hit and that is and was unfair. These decisions should have reviewed.
What is your view on the talk of a shared island and discussing the mechanisms that would be needed for voting in a referendum on a united Ireland?
While Unionism/Loyalism has been turning on each other this talk of a shared Island and the benefits of staying in the EU for the sake of customs trade has sneaked in. People are being sold that economically it makes sense. I don’t care if it makes sense, we are Northern Ireland and we fought to be Northern Ireland and remain a part of the UK. Many of our loved ones died to ensure we kept our identity and while we have been ripping each other to shreds we are quietly being moved towards the idea of a shared Island, then a United Ireland and then will come the ethnic cleansing of Protestants. I have heard that we don’t need to worry as we will have a place in a United Ireland, I watch social media and media reports and the conclusion I have reached is that a United Ireland will most definitely not be a welcoming place for us. We will not be afforded the same luxury Nationalists get in Northern Ireland, being allowed to express themselves freely and live in Peace.
As Unionists/Loyalists we need to raise our game, teach our young people our history, be proud of who we are and challenge all those who try to belittle or minimise our culture.
Do you think devolution is working?
To a point. I hear people saying that we should collapse Stormont and go back to direct rule from Westminster but Westminster is not a friend of ours.
It’s a strange time for the loyalist community as we are fighting to stay part of the UK, when it’s clear that England do not want us.
What we need is our Political Parties to work in our best interests and change from within. We need them to represent the people who want to trust them, to put their internal squabbling to one side and do what is right for Northern Ireland.
Would you say you are a feminist?
I would not call myself a feminist, I feel we need the best people for the job doing the job, chosen on merit. I see some people putting men down as a way of raising the female agenda, I do not agree with this at all. I believe we need all Unionists and Loyalists to work together to make a difference and this means men and women. As a woman, I am confident enough in my own ability to be able to sit at the table and get my point across. I want all women to be able to do the same.
Westminster had to legislate for same sex marriage and abortion here in Northern Ireland so women could have the same access as their counterparts in mainland GB. What are your views on these two issues?
These are very personal opinions and I feel that people should be able to make their own decisions.
In regard to abortion, I think the person has to think hard and carefully about the termination and the impact it could have on them physically, emotionally or mentally in later years. It is not a decision to be taken lightly and by making it readily available it can make it an easy option rather than the right option.
I personally would not have voted in favour of either but that does not mean I am against it and each situation is different with a different set of circumstances. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and must not be berated for it.
You work for Ulidia Training, tell me about your role there and the aims of the organisation?
I have worked for Ulidian Training and AIMS Project which are both based in Ulidian Centre, Ballymoney. I have worked here for the last 6 years for both.
AIMS Project is our community based Restorative Practices project which has a main focus of preventing harm within communities through a number of different avenues such as mediation, signposting and support to deal with contentious issues which can prevent harm and bad feeling within the community.
Ulidia Training works within the Loyalist working class community to ensure their voices are heard, raise community confidence and capacity and keep our Culture, heritage and traditions alive. We also deliver a range of workshops, training and educational programmes to upskill the community.
I work as a Restorative Practitioner so am constantly monitoring the community, seeing what could be impacting negatively on it and what can be done to minimise these. These could be anything from neighbourhood issues to paramilitary threats to Political decisions. I am heavily involved in bonfire issues and trying to make sure culture can be celebrated but not in a way that harms our own community.
Tell me about the Herstory: Women in Loyalism Project?
I have found in our area, there is a lack of women sitting in meetings that are at a strategic community level from the Loyalist community. People talk about it being a man’s world, I disagree and would say we operate in a world that requires knowledge, an understanding of the issues and the confidence to speak up. A lot of women I have spoken to are keen to develop their skills and knowledge but their confidence is low because the workshops and training we host, although fantastic, are usually attended by people who already have a knowledge and who can speak out. This means at times, women can feel as if they aren’t equal, need to sit quietly or can’t challenge what is said as they don’t know enough about the subject.
Women also have stories to tell, stories that we can archive for the future on how life was for them growing up. I have spoken to women who say their life was boring and nothing really ever happened but when they start talking, their stories are amazing and give a true look into Loyalism, not the narrative media wish us to see. Women were and are the backbone of our communities and we need to support them to walk whichever path they desire with our support.
I started up HERstory: Women in Loyalism facebook page, and shortly a website to engage with Loyalist women to celebrate women and women’s contributions in society no matter what their role was. This will then develop in the next few months to a 2 year programme. There will be workshops and educational programmes for women with the main focus on raising confidence, learning how to understand Government Policy, Lobbying, and any other learning that the women want. The 2yr programme will be aimed mainly at rural Loyalist women within North Antrim, Londonderry and East Tyrone but if other women wish to join the programme they will be more than welcome.
As well as the above, we want to record women’s stories for the future. We have decided to do this in a few different ways:
1.We can do a small interview for facebook which will be a snapshot of the woman and a few short questions. A getting to know you type interview.
2.A longer interview which will be anonymous and used for research and educational purposes, this will delve into the past, present and future.
3.A longer interview which can potentially be used as part of an educational learning video and resource material and archived for the future. This will be the same format as interview 2 but not anonymised.
The women can decide which they would like to do, if any and can decide what we do with their story.
It is so important we get a wide range of stories and I would love women to get in touch with me if they wish to take part.
At the end of the project I would love to see more women taking an active role in Loyalism and using their voice to effect change.
Do you think there are enough voices of Loyalist women being heard? If not, how can we get to hear more Loyalist women’s voices?
Not nearly enough and I hope my project mentioned above will help make that difference. I’m continually learning and I do this through taking part in discussions, reading, listening, pushing myself forward and making myself heard but it took years of raising my own confidence to get me here. I want to be able to help others to get to the same position where they can make a positive impact and can challenge, constructively criticise and offer solutions to some of the issues we as Loyalists face.
I used to go to meetings, and I am confident, but there was a certain man in the room who would speak down to me and rip my arguments to shreds. This happened to the point I was afraid to speak for fear of being made to look stupid. I realised after a while that instead of being silent, my course of action was to research my topic well and be ready for any comments and questions that were directed to me so I could answer them to the best of my ability. Once I realised knowledge was power, the World became a less scary place and that man is now a good friend, in fact, I challenge him frequently on his statements now. I realised it wasn’t personal but it was to get me to ‘up my game’ and come with facts and figures rather than a valid point but nothing of real substance to back up my claims. That scenario helped make me a better person to speak out for the community although uncomfortable at the time.
If all Loyalists/Unionists supported each other and helped raise each other up, then we could all move on in a more positive society where every Unionist/Loyalist is proud to say who they are.