In Conversation with Shirley McMichael
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my Dad. Since starting Her Loyal Voice it seems to have amplified. My Dad and I didn’t always see eye to eye. He would have said white, I would have said black. You see I was angry. I was angry that most of his life he dedicated to not just protecting us but protecting the whole community. That meant there were times when other things had to be put first.
It wasn’t until he died that I realised the full extent of what he did for me, his family and his community. During my journey from starting Her Loyal Voice I have come in to contact with some amazing people. One such person is Shirley McMichael. Not only has Shirley been extremely supportive of what I’m doing, she has kindly shared her stories with me. By doing this she has also given me a connection back to my Dad. I find it hard to explain how much Shirley has helped me connect with my Dad and how much she has helped me on my journey. I am forever grateful to her for this and for taking the time to be part of Her Loyal Voice. I hope you enjoy this interview.
Shirley, tell me a little bit about John, what was he like?
When I think back to my time with John, I first and foremost think of his sons, Saul and Gary and how much he loved them. He would be so proud of the men they have become. He was very much a family man and loved things like family get-togethers and days out with friends. Although, family will remember how he got the loan of a mini bus on a couple of occasions and drove us half way around the countryside only to end up back at home to have our BBQ there! You never knew where you would end up once you got in the car with him.
He had very few really close friends that he could relax with. A good night in was plenty of good food, a few drinks and a board game and a movie (or two)!
John and I were both married before and unfortunately we only had 7 years together. No one will ever replace him and I still miss him everyday, but smile when I think of how he changed my life for the better. It means so much to myself and John’s family that people still remember him fondly. I know that if he had lived he would have been a major figure in Northern Ireland politics.
What is your background Shirley?
I am 67 years old and I grew up in a row of Mill houses called Canal Street in Lisburn. I was no better off than my Catholic neighbours; we had a family of five in a two bedroom small terrace house, no hot water, no central heating, and an outside toilet, etc. It was a happy childhood. We went about our business with no bitterness or hate for anyone. I was British and never thought any more about it, that was just who I was.
However, when I was 17, the ‘Troubles’ began and I found that there were some who blamed me and others of my community for every British action throughout history, rewritten or otherwise. I was told that I didn’t belong in this land of my ancestors and I was supposed to have guilt for the occupation of my land, for inequality, for the famine and deeds further afield!
We experienced the fear and murder inflicted on our communities and to protect our areas, Grandfathers, Fathers and Sons joined together to walk around their streets to protect their families. As the Troubles progressed it was understandable that the Loyalist paramilitaries came into being and they were welcomed by the community.
However, as a young woman, I was always interested in politics but it was difficult to be taken seriously. I and my boyfriend at the time joined the Vanguard Party in the early 70’s and I vividly remember the first meeting in Lisburn. I was very excited as both Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux were coming to speak. As, we arrived my boyfriend was called over and given a seat while I was directed into the kitchen to help make the tea. I will be honest the cake was nearly thrown at them! I did get a little of my own back though as I set out all the cakes and didn’t slice them or supply any cutlery!!
Eventually, through the support of George Morrison who was a local Councillor and the Lisburn Vanguard Chairperson, I became one of the Press Officers but I think I told it too much the way it was and I was not the diplomatic soul I am today! I think I raised his blood pressure on one or two occasions! Bless him, he was always so patient and took time to nurture us “young’uns”.
I started my working life as a Lab Assistant, first of all in Barbour Threads, Hilden and then Gallahers. However, after John’s death, I changed my focus to Community Engagement and spent many happy years with Lisburn Safer Neighbourhoods and then the Policing Board. This brought me into contact with so many people and I am glad to say, I am still in touch with many of them.
Now, in my Crone years, I can look back and acknowledge the hurt and loss that has been inflicted by both sides during our “Troubles”. I was a member of the Northern Ireland Victim’s Forum and had the privilege to share stories with others who had been injured or bereaved. It gave me a unique insight into people’s lives from all sectors of this community. We shed tears together and came out the other side with a better understanding and the knowledge that we weren’t so different!
However, it was very upsetting that my membership of the Forum received so much negative publicity and because of the upset to my family I had no alternative other than to resign. What was most upsetting is that it was so called ‘Unionists’ that gave me all the grief. A couple actually turned their back on me at the first meeting. Unfortunately, it was hard for some to believe that this ‘Terror Boss’s Widow’ (as I was called) may have had something to add to the debate through my 30 years in community engagement in Northern Ireland communities and the UK.
Political Big House Unionism has never embraced their working class ex-combatants, unlike Sinn Fein ….who not only embrace their ex-combatants but raise them up to the highest echelons of their party!
There is a class system within unionism with this false mantle of respectability, thankfully it’s not as bad these days but I most certainly have felt it on many occasions. The families of ex combatants are labelled and are considered through a social justice lens. I was looking at some research about the stigma surrounding the families of ex prisoners and there are some interesting findings.
“An emerging body of research in the UK and the US has sought to uncover the collateral consequences of imprisonment for prisoners’ families. It has found that these consequences are serious and predominantly negative and include financial difficulties, social stigma and emotional hardships. Prisoners’ families are seen as somehow tainted by their association with the prisoner (who is seen as evil and monstrous). Existing research (see Condry 2007) also indicates that prisoners’ families are ‘othered’ in that they are seen as tainted by their relationship with the prisoner and thus somehow separate from the law abiding community. If social justice is about the elimination of domination and oppression, then this is certainly a group whose needs ought to be recognised and engaged with.”
Unfortunately, I tried to organise a support group for Loyalist Victim’s families when I was on the Victim’s Forum and sent a draft proposal to quite a few people but I had no interest. We badly need organisations like ‘Relatives for Justice’ who work in Republican/Nationalist areas. When I had problems in the Victim’s Forum they were the first organisation to offer me help.
I’m sure there were difficult times being around during the “Troubles”, can you talk about your experience of that time, the raids and how you coped with your children and how you kept the household going?
In those days police raids were common enough. They always came just after 6:00 am. I live in a small cul-de-sac and you could hear the police land rover from a good distance away. Around the same time the milkman would be doing his deliveries and sounded the same as the police.
On this one occasion I remember lying in bed wishing with all my heart that I wouldn’t hear the sound of the police radio as that signalled the start of banging on the door and heavy boots running up the side of the house. They afforded you no dignity and came into your bedroom. One time, our son was only about 10 months old and his cot was in the corner of the bedroom, a policeman came in and pointed his sub-machine gun at me in the bed while they dragged John out. Saul started to cry and he had a cold and I can still see his wee face all flushed and trying to pull himself up by the side of the cot with his arms outstretched to me. I just looked at the police officer and got out of bed and pushed his sub-machine gun to the side and lifted Saul out of the cot. No one was going to stop me! To be honest, as I looked into the young policeman’s eyes, I could tell he had no stomach to be pointing a gun at us.
Of course being a Brigadier in the UDA brought big security issues. You were always on your guard and the weeks before John’s murder we regularly stayed overnight with a friend or with John’s Mum and Dad.
In the nights we stayed at home, we had wonderful people who came and stayed overnight to protect us. Saul loved to see them and bonded with the wonderful Jim Guiney who many will remember was murdered at his business in Dunmurry. Jim used to play with Saul and told him his name was ‘Rambo’ and gave him a cap which he loved…..however, to a young child the best pronunciation he could manage was ‘Wambo’!!
Jim was married to my cousin Joanne and it was heart breaking when another good man was gone. I remember at his funeral giving his son the precious ‘Wambo hat’.
How did you feel about John being a UDA brigadier?
John was already a Brigadier when I met him and he wasn’t what I expected at all. He was intelligent, kind, courteous and a total softie! The amount of times he put a little job someone’s way if he knew they were having financial difficulties. Which was very good from my point of view as John, to be honest never finished a household task that he started….wallpapering, flat-packing, etc.
However, I have never met someone with such determination and a love for his community. He was keen to get people interested in their history and enhance their knowledge and sense of belonging. He helped me reignite my passion for ancient history and folklore and I dearly thank him for that.
At this point he was really honing his thoughts on the ‘Common Sense’ document and along with others spent many hours consulting with UDA members and further afield. I went with him on a few occasions when he spoke to Church, Business and Community Representatives. I am glad to see, especially in recent years that so many of our community people are engaging widely. At the moment, with the Corona Virus Lockdown, they have really stepped up to the mark and are giving wonderful support to their communities.
John was passionate to have proper politics in Northern Ireland. He was not a fan of Direct Rule. He felt that to have Westminster politicians appointed by a Westminster Government to administer the social and economic lives of the Northern Ireland electorate was not acceptable. No doffing the cap to London!
Anytime when John and I were out shopping, we were always stopped and people said how glad they were to see him on TV and as one wee woman said,
“Jeezus, big lad! Great to see a Loyalist on TV that we can be proud of! You are always well turned out with lovely pressed shirts and a tie”!
As she left, I got a nod of approval for the pressed shirts! Lol
However, instead of embracing this good press, I found to my dismay that jealously reared its ugly head and then John came in one day and said that the police had been to see him. They said that there were threats from the ‘Loyalist’ side. I just broke down and cried, saying, No…No, why? …..a few days later he was dead…
I wonder how I got through that time as we had also lost a baby girl who was born sleeping a few months before John. Thank goodness for my family and friends.
Shirley, would you like to share your personal thoughts on the situation in Northern Ireland?
Like many, I would wish to see a united Unionist Party. It has been tried with some success before. I previously mentioned the Vanguard Party and in 1974, a coalition of political parties was formed and known as the United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC). It was organised by Harry West and constituted a formal electoral pact between his Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party.
The UUUC first tested its political credentials in the 1974 general election and the party captured 11 out of 12 Northern Irish seats (7 UUP, 3 VUPP, 1 DUP). This worked for awhile until Bill Craig suggested working in a potential coalition government with the nationalist SDLP. When it became clear that Craig’s ideas were not in keeping with those of his partners, Vanguard split from the UUUC. The UUUC thereafter consisted of the UUP, DUP and UUUP.
Unionism has to move forward if it is to succeed. I personally do not vote for the DUP as I disagree with their stance on woman’s rights and equal marriage. Also, as a Pagan I do not feel welcome. Unionism needs to embrace the diversity of people in Northern Ireland who support the union, no matter what their faith or sexual orientation. I have friends who are Catholic who are unionist. We need to have a limited number of well thought out Aims and Objectives that everyone who supports the union can sign up to and take that to an election.
As a unionist, it is clear that there is not a lot of interest from Westminster for the working class PUL community and we have to stop kidding ourselves that we matter! For example, no politician from Northern Ireland will ever be in the Cabinet as the main political parties do not stand for election here. We also still aren’t sure how Brexit will affect us in the long run. However, I do acknowledge the specific groups and individuals in the rest of the UK who have always been, and still are, supportive of our situation and we thank them dearly.
Westminster is too London-centric; London is a global financial power with property prices to match. Its top ten boroughs alone are worth more, in real estate terms, than all the property of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, added together! The divide between London and the rest of the UK continues to grow. Is it really the right location to host the Mother Parliament? (My thoughts on that for another day! Lol!)
Anyhow, just some personal thoughts, as like many I am concerned for the future of my homeland. We need to get out of this cycle. Imagine how wonderful it would be for a peaceful, shared and respectful future for coming generations.
Just to end….a memory of a holiday in the USA that I had posted on Facebook at the time the flag over the City Hall came down. This was brought back to mind by the pride I felt flying my flag on VE day recently and seeing the respectful commemoration in my neighbourhood and other locations.
“When I saw the footage of the union flag being taken down after over a century of flying over the City Hall……I felt a great sadness! I believe in equality and that we should be on a level footing with others, although, as a working class unionist – I definitely have not had it any better than others in this province.
I am proud to be British and part of these islands. We are a unique people in Northern Ireland with a wonderful history. I have embraced my “Irishness” as it is part of me. I can relate to the old folklore of Cuchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhail who without a doubt built the Giant’s Causeway!
However, it is a hurtful truth in Northern Ireland that when you say the phrase “I am proud to be British” that you can be labelled a “bigot”.
I remember when I was in the USA visiting friends in Baltimore. One of the days we went to Fort McHenry which is famous for being the first place in the USA to fly their flag. We went in to watch the information film about the battle that took place and at the end of the presentation the screen was lifted to show the outside panorama with the “Stars and Stripes” flying from the Fort which could be seen all around the Baltimore Bay. It was amazing to see the pride and emotion displayed by ALL the diverse audience….both black and white, young and old: I was in tears…..partly because of the moment but also because I know that it could never happen here.”
Bright Blessings Everyone! X