Interviews

In Conversation with Stacey Graham

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On the news, on the bookshelves, on social media there is often an uneven narrative. I have found that voices, particularly women’s voices, from the Loyalist community have been thrown to one side, silenced, demeaned, ridiculed. I want those voices to have a platform. I want those voices to be heard. Welcome to Her Loyal Voice.

Let the stories be told!

Stacey Graham, is a 30 year old North Belfast native, married, and mummy of two. She joined the Progressive Unionist Party in 2012. Since joining Stacey has twice served as an election agent, volunteered as constituency support worker and more recently has become the party’s Equality Officer. Outside of her party activism role, Stacey was a prominent member of the Unite for the Union movement that facilitated a series of public meetings prior to the 2019 General Election.

Stacey perhaps exemplifies what Her Loyal Voice intends to do – shine a light on and give a voice to the often unheard voices of Loyalist women in the community. The voice of the mother. The wife. The community worker, the activist and the political activist. Stacey is every single one of these rolled into one! I sat down to chat to her about her activism, her identity and the horrific abuse she received after speaking at the Ulster Hall event.

What do you class yourself as Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist?

All three I suppose, but I would say Loyalist first and foremost.  I am loyal to Northern Ireland staying in the United Kingdom, I’m loyal to the Crown and I’m loyal to my community. Not so much Protestant in the religious sense. I would say I’m definitely not loyal to the government, because they don’t seem to have a real interest in helping people.

Would you say the term Loyalist is considered a dirty word?

Yes. Society would normally see those who call themselves Loyalists as knuckle dragging far right thugs. It annoys me so much. In my eyes being a Loyalist means not only do I support the preservation of the union, but also the material wellbeing of citizens of Northern Ireland is very important to me. I am progressive, I believe in a woman’s right to choose and I believe in equal marriage.

It does annoy me that some Loyalists think, because Sinn Fein claim to hold socialist views then we can’t when it comes to bread and butter issues. That is not the case, if we want what’s best for our community then we need to address these issues.

So would you say you are a feminist?

Yeah. A woman’s body is her own body. No one else should be able to tell her what she can or can’t do with that body. I very much believe that it can be difficult though, because not everyone in Loyalism has that view.

In fact it can be difficult in my own family because there are different views there too. Having said that I am very lucky, in the sense that I do come from a strong Loyalist family, where there are strong women. They have helped me especially when I decided to become more involved as a political activist and I do have that support as it’s difficult being a Mum and finding the time to be involved in the community. That’s not to say we don’t clash heads at times around progressive ideas such as equal marriage or a woman’s right to choose but we work through it and respect each other’s views.

That’s a very progressive view you hold.  It is often the perception that the views within the Loyalist community certainly wouldn’t be that progressive?

I think other Unionist parties have a lot the answer for, they have Christian values and perpetuate this view that if you’re a Protestant, that if you’re a Unionist, you must think they way they do. But there are so many different shades of Unionism that not everyone thinks like they do.

Would you say that you are confident in your identity?

Absolutely. Yeah, I am. It’s important that we have a voice. It’s important that local people get the chance to talk. I was involved in setting up a meeting on the Shankill to talk to Nigel Dodds and other political parties about the Withdrawal Agreement so people could share their views and talk about the issues which are important to them. I have been vocal in saying that we can’t allow ourselves to get drawn into things that might not happen.

For example, the whole Irish Language Act thing, I know for the genuine Irish Language enthusiasts it’s not about diluting our culture.  It’s not going to affect my identity or how British I feel. I know people who are learning Irish. That’s great, although having said that I don’t think an Irish Language Act is needed.  There are other more important things we need such as housing and mental health facilities.  That’s where money needs to be spent.

You were saying that you’re confident in your identity. Do you think that other Loyalists are confident in their identity?

They’re proud of their heritage and their culture and traditions, But I feel that more education is needed. Education means they can become more politicised and more knowledgeable and make up their own minds about things. Rather than just accepting what is said by a particular party which may not necessarily be the truth.

Why did you decide to join the PUP?

I joined the PUP in 2012.  I had been involved in the flag protests. I have come from a strong Loyalist family.  I can remember going to protests with my Mummy, aunts and my Granny.  I can remember Drumcree.  I wasn’t there but I remember it. 

I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t walk where we wanted to walk. Those protests had a massive impact on me. As I got older, I seen things happening in my community that I wanted to do something about.  I wanted – and still want – to be a part of changing this place. I got involved in community work when I was about 14 and am lucky to still be working in the community doing something I love. I joined the PUP because of their policies. I never considered other parties because they weren’t progressive. They didn’t have the specific stance I have on things. I feel that I’m really lucky because the PUP represent everything that I feel that I am. We are from the unionist working class, we are of the unionist working class.

Before you joined the PUP did you consider that they were formed out of the UVF?

I’ve always been aware of it. Like I said, I do come from a strong Loyalist family and I’m married in to a strong Loyalist family. They were formed out of the UVF but that was the past and it was never an issue for me because I always felt that those people have a right to have a say in their community as well. No matter what their past.

Many of those involved in the past have completely transformed their lives and transformed their communities, and they’re still doing that. And it brings me on to another point. Yes there was links between the PUP and the UVF, but what about the links between Sinn Fein and the IRA?  It’s hard seeing how the media treat the PUP.  There shouldn’t be a legitimacy issue at all but sadly there is. 

So why does that legitimacy question come about?

I think the difference could be that big Unionism – the big parties – have never accepted that some people have a past.  Whereas it’s not an issue in Republican areas. Ex-combatants are accepted within those communities whereas for Unionism they are seen as terrorists who have nothing to offer.

Around November 2019 the PUP called for a unity of purpose which has been our party position since October 2013. Its not a knee jerk or populist reaction on our part. The thing is there are all different types of Unionism, different views and beliefs but the one thing we all have in common is Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. So the unity of purpose is about us all coming together to move forward together around this issue. 

I believe that there should be room at the table for everybody, whether or not I agree with all those views from the big parties to the small parties. For example, while I’m not a fan of the TUV, they still have a mandate and should be around the table.  Same goes for those who are ex-combatants, those who are pro-choice, those who support equal marriage, we should all be accepting of each other within Unionism and if we work together then we can achieve what we want, a prosperous Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

What do you think are the concerns within Unionist and Loyalist communities at the moment?

That their cultural identity is being taken away. Of course we had the flag protests, then the Boris Johnston agreement.  The community is angry.  It can be difficult to control that anger.  But again, it’s about educating people and teaching them how to express their views in a good way. For example, if you have something that you’re not happy about, then speak out and do it in the right way rather than civil disorder.

It can be difficult because many feel that their cultural identity and their traditions are being eroded. Looking at the evidence they are right.  That is a fact and not perception.

What did you think of the New Deal New Approach agreement?

There are definitely some positive elements of the agreement. But I think in the long run, it’s not going to be ideal for Unionism.  As I’ve mentioned the Irish Language Act is an issue.  The Irish Language has been politicised. If it hadn’t been then I don’t think people would have batted an eyelid.  Also, perception is everything. People within the Unionist and Loyalist community are seeing this is as another one up Manship or we’ve got one over these ones again. And that’s the feeling on the ground.

We don’t really know how some of the things in the deal would work out.  The Ulster British Commissioner for example, will our community cultural expression be protected and enhanced as well?

What are your views on the talk about a border poll and a United Ireland?

I think it’s people feeding in to the fears.  Obviously it is a real possibility and I think Unionism has to come together to see how we are going to address this and how are we going to show people the middle ground that we are better off being part of the UK.  It’s not about waving a flag or parading down the street – which yes I’m extremely proud of– but that’s not going to give my kids a good education.  Let’s get our priorities right and then wave a flag and be happy about it.

Do you think the DUP have delivered for working class communities?

Looking at the statistics for multiple deprivation I would say no they haven’t delivered. The DUP had an MP in north Belfast for a long time yet the problems still exist. There is a lot of poverty and educational underachievement especially for Protestant working class boys. It’s not just in Unionist areas, Sinn Fein are the same. Just look at the statistics for West Belfast, they are just as bad. They are arguing over the silliest of things when people on the ground are suffering. I just don’t get it. I’ve no doubt there are a lot of people who work hard on the ground but not much has changed.

We all have to look at what really matters to people and while there are issues around the Irish Language Act and the flag these things are not going to put food on your table. Of course those issues are important but it comes down to educating people to be champions of their own community. We need to stop listening to the garbage that some politicians feed us.

We have had to work really hard to get politicians to come along to meetings. Some attended, most didn’t. What does that say to the people?  The thing is they say one thing to your face and do another thing behind your back. People find it hard to trust them.

The real issues for people are mental health, poverty, welfare rights. The Ulster Scots issue isn’t a priority for people. We want to see mental health facilities, we want to see schools getting money pumped in to them, we want to see education reform, academic selection needs to go. We want to see our communities thriving and they aren’t doing that.

You decided to speak at the Loyalist conference in the Ulster Hall. I noticed on your Twitter feed that you received a lot of abuse for that.  How are you coping with the bullying and misogynistic comments?

Do you know what, it hasn’t even phased me or annoyed me at all because I just know they’re faceless trolls but just because I don’t let it get to me doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be stopped. There should be legislation put in place to tackle this kind of abuse. The trolls have nothing to offer. They leave their comments and go. They can’t even have a constructive argument even if they argued against what I was saying, but they can’t.

The abuse as well from posting the picture of the Union Jack upside down.  People just didn’t get it – it was intentional. We knew it would grab everyone’s attention and it did so I guess it did the job it was supposed to. But yes, that was lost on some people. I do think me speaking up at the Ulster Hall really hit a nerve with some people. It just completely smashed the stereotype that most people view a Loyalist to be.

Do you think the bullying was because you are a woman or because you’re a Loyalist or both?

I think it was both. The perception of Loyalists is that they are just these old men with old fashioned views, which is really not the case. People can be afraid of Loyalist women because we actually have something to offer.

I got to meet the Secretary of State recently because he wanted to know what Loyalists thought about the deal.  The delegation included two women. The decision was made that women needed to be there, it’s important that there is female representation.

Of course, the rest of the room was full of men with the male bravado but we spoke up, we had something to say and we said it. Women must be at the table. We have to voice our views.

At the Ulster Hall event, I noticed that there were no journalists invited, was there a reason for that?

Some of us had wanted journalists there but on the night it just didn’t work out.  I know some people spoke outside the event at the end but I just wanted to go home.  I’m quite a shy and anxious person. I do lack a lot of confidence but I just run with it. I needed to say what I had to say and afterwards I could have done it again! It’s about building my own confidence and self esteem and getting out there. If nobody else is going to do it then why should I not and give us a voice.

Do you think there are enough women with Loyalist views coming forward to have their voice heard?

You saw it on Twitter.  Loyalists get hassle but also being a woman in general is so much more difficult in life but when you are a female Loyalist you are the lowest of the low. I don’t think people are confident enough and don’t have the self esteem to put themselves out there especially if they are going to get abuse. 

They could be encouraged though with people like myself, Julie Anne Corr Johnston and even what you are doing here, listening to us and giving people a voice, leading the way showing people this is where we can go, so come along with us and speak out. 

You were an election agent for Julie Anne Corr Johnston, what was the response like when you were campaigning?

It was really positive and that’s what perplexed Julie Anne and I. It didn’t reflect at the polls and I don’t know why because Julie Anne worked really hard for the people she represented. 

It seems that in Republican areas Sinn Fein are legitimate but it isn’t the same in Unionist and Loyalist areas, why do you think that is the case?

I don’t understand that to be honest. Of course Sinn Fein are a well oiled machine, they have been doing it for so long whereas we are fighting to be heard when you’ve got the likes of the DUP and the UUP there. If the DUP and UUP are not accepting us, how then can others accept us?

In the last election we seen an increase in the Alliance Party vote, what are your thoughts on that?

Obviously it is Unionism that is losing out to that because of parties again perpetuating the politics of fear and the negative views they portray that they aren’t welcoming to women, LGBT, ethnic minorities etc. That is not the case though on the ground, we are lovely people. The vast majority of people on the Shankill haven’t a racist bone in their body. There is racism and xenophobia in all communities and must be condemned. This perception that Loyalists aren’t welcoming is just not true. 

Does this media help or hinder this view?

No it doesn’t but we also have to take some of the responsibility.  If we are asked to go talk on a show or give an interview and we don’t accept. Then that gives them the right to go and print what they want.  So it’s important that we are given the opportunity to get our point across but also we need to accept that opportunity.

We touched on culture and identity, what kind of Northern Ireland would you like your children to grow up in?

I want my children to thrive, I want my community to thrive and I want Northern Ireland to thrive. I want to see a just and equal society in which all citizens regardless of gender, colour, race, religion, political opinion, marital status, sexual orientation, age, disability, or social background be treated with equality, dignity and justice. I want civil and religious liberties for all.

What is next for you Stacey, what do you want to do?

I’ve just recently been given a new role within the PUP as Equality Officer.  It’s something I feel really strongly about.  Equality for Loyalists, equality for Unionists, equality for women.  People who are on the margins. Equality for people who don’t have a voice so that’s something I really want to run with and explore.

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