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Eileen Evason: The woman tasked with solving welfare reform impasse

Eileen Evason has been a familiar voice on Radio Ulster's On Your Behalf for two decades and was recently handed the thorny task of resolving the DUP/Sinn Fein impasse over welfare reform. Just don't ask her to talk about herself, says Alex Kane

Published 23/01/2016

Eileen Evason
Eileen Evason

For someone who has spent her life talking - 30 years as a lecturer in social administration, her role as the "benefits expert" on Radio Ulster's On Your Behalf for over 20 years, and as a member of various commissions and public bodies - Professor Eileen Evason doesn't talk very much about herself.

"It's just the way I am. I am very much a backroom person. I do the arguments and write the reports, but I just like to sit and think the situation out rather than be at the forefront. So, yes, I am a private person - it's the way I am. I'm from an earlier era when we didn't share everything with everybody when we were younger.

"We lived in a different society: and this idea that a trouble shared is a trouble halved is wrong - it's a trouble doubled. You just make somebody else miserable."

It's that straightforward approach to getting the job done, while avoiding self-promotion, which made her the obvious choice as lead author of a report to help resolve the DUP/Sinn Fein impasse on welfare reform. There are still potential hurdles and potholes ahead, but the report, published earlier this week, should make it easier to implement the Fresh Start Agreement and make progress in other areas, too.

Eileen Evason was born in 1947, in Birmingham. Her father was a bus driver and her mother stayed at home to look after Eileen's disabled brother. "Before that my mother was a nurse with the forces during the Second World War and she went into Belsen. She was a strong supporter of Labour and of course it was the forces' vote that delivered a Labour government in 1945. It was sad that we had to have a war to realise what matters."

Evason admits to having been " ... political from the start. We had friends in Birmingham who were Labour councillors and I was out with leaflets when I was still at primary school, knocking on doors and reminding people to vote.

"And it was always going to be Labour for me. I have always had this very strong sense of fairness and social justice. But the Conservative Party was a different animal back then and even though I could say I supported Labour, I never loathed Conservatives. There were good people - like McMillan and Butler - and the party, then, was actually a very good party.

"But I was always aware that had it not been for the NHS and welfare state then many working-class families like mine would have been reduced to pauperism. So, it was clear at that stage that some things were working very well for working-class people like me.

"I was the first member of my family, for instance, to go to university (she read social administration at Hull). But before that I'd won a scholarship from Birmingham City Council to go to an independent school, which was actually a convent and didn't entirely suit me, because I had no religious beliefs.

"But I also realised that while I had to work very hard for that scholarship, there were people at the school who were only there because their parents had paid for them - and I didn't think that was fair."

Given that she benefited from academic selection, I wonder how she views the continuing stalemate on the issue here. "I wouldn't have started with the transfer issue. The real problem is young Protestant males underachieving, so I would have started at the other end and said let's tackle the schools and provisions in those areas and try and get improvement there and then tackle the transfer issue later."

Surprisingly, she never joined the Labour Party at university, saying that she was more interested in discos, having a good time and coming out with something that would get her a job fairly quickly.

She graduated in 1968 and a year later applied for a temporary assistant lecturer post at Queen's University, Belfast. She stayed there for a couple of years and then took another post at the Ulster University in Coleraine.

"I was happy enough to go there, because by that stage the bombing was getting pretty severe in Belfast."

Having lived here since 1969 I wonder if she thinks Northern Ireland is now a better place: "People are more likely to work together, but less likely to live together and I do have a sense that the communities have grown further apart. In fact, I sometimes think that we're going towards something like Belgium.

"I think some people could have been more gracious since the Belfast Agreement and that has soured the process for a lot of people.

"Whether it can be fixed or not depends on the next generation of politicians and voters.

"I think most people just want to get on with their lives and they're tired to death of all this stuff that's constantly flying around them.

"We've still too many people with too much baggage - and they need to move on before we see what the next ones are like. Endless squabbling and nitpicking wears people down.

"We just need to get on and do things. Politicians need to accept that they really are in charge together."

A self-confessed Guardian reader, she is worried that we are drifting away from being a truly democratic state.

On Jeremy Corbyn, she notes that all Labour leaders since the Sixties - apart from Tony Blair - have been vilified, but adds that "old Labour" may now look fresh to a new generation - although Corbyn is probably the wrong champion. She views today's Conservatives as the "nasty party", unlike when she was growing up: "Cameron has no idea of the real world.

"Had we had politics of Left and Right in Northern Ireland we would not have got into the same mess, I think. I'd like to see a strong, vibrant Labour party here, but I don't think its possible at the moment. What I do see, though, is a lot of very good people in the voluntary sector and public sector, some of whom, in other places, would be in politics. It would be good if they got involved, but I won't hold my breath."

I wonder if her experience as the "benefits expert" on a range of programmes - she used to have a national show before On Your Behalf - has given her an insight into people here: "When you get down below the nonsense we are not a nation of scroungers. I talk to a lot of elderly, vulnerable people, people with disabilities and carers and people who find it hard to make ends meet. But the vast majority are decent, fair-minded people. I do like the people here."

Was she reluctant to accept the offer to address the welfare impasse? "Yes. I nearly fled from the room. People have been trying to do it for so long and then it goes pear-shaped. But I was confident unless I got something completely wrong they would implement it."

And, yes, she has been disappointed by some of the response. "It's part and parcel of what I do dislike here. When I was involved in academia and first went into broadcasting you had to be able to stand over what you said. Now people, without reading, pronounce on things. I was expecting it, but it's still disappointing."

I ask her why she stayed in Northern Ireland: "There was so much needed to be done that it was possible to have three careers at once - and that suited me. I might have drifted into politics in England, but I was never approached here and anyway I have a very low boredom threshold.

"And, to be honest, it's easier to get things done through voluntary and public bodies here.

"I think we're finally on the right path. But we need everyone to buckle down on the economy, health, skills, training and education and politicians need to lift their heads."

For all of her lack of self-promotion, Eileen Evason is frank and engaging and a very shrewd observer of people and politicians. Exactly the sort of person the Assembly need.

A life so far

She was born in Birmingham in 1947

She came to work in Northern Ireland in 1969 - and stayed

She canvassed for Labour candidates while still at primary school

She likes to think while swimming

She has a passion for Spain and Spanish history

She really doesn't like talking about herself

Belfast Telegraph

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