Belfast Telegraph

As a woman in the public eye, I get an awful lot of sleazy people contacting me. Men try to hit on me all the time. It's sad... what are they expecting me to do?

The most personal and probing interviews: Paula Bradshaw on the sexism that saw her quit the Ulster Unionists, and why she hasn't seen her young son in years

By Claire McNeilly

Q. You're married to former Deputy Mayor of North Down Ian Parsley (40). Love at first sight?

A. We became friends through politics a good number of years ago. I was an Ulster Unionist then, he was Alliance. We struck up a friendship first.

Q. You live in Jordanstown. Where and when did you get married?

A. We got married six years ago, on June 3, 2011. It was a fabulously warm day, so warm that I actually had to go out in the morning and buy a second dress.

We got married in a very simple service for immediate family at 9am at Ian's church in Groomsport and then we had a blessing with friends and family in The Merchant Hotel.

I wore the proper wedding dress for the service at 2pm and then I got changed straight away into what I'd been wearing that morning.

Q. This is your second marriage. What happened to the first?

A. I got married to Martin (43) when I was 26 and we were together for seven years. It was an acrimonious split.

I had my first child at 27 and my second at 30. Thomas (17) is in the RAF and Rebecca, who's 14, is at school.

Thomas is based over in England where his dad lives... I haven't seen him for years. Rebecca lives with me.

Ian and I don't have children, but we have a cat called Bella.

Q. Why did you keep your maiden name? 'Paula Parsley' has such a nice ring to it...

A. I'm very much a feminist. I believe marriage is a partnership and I just think when you're giving up your name you're giving up your identity.

I don't think Ian has a problem with it and I wouldn't really care if he did, but I don't think it's necessarily a weakness in women to give up their maiden name. I think it's a personal choice.

Q. Where did you go to school and university? Were you popular?

A. Whiteabbey Primary School and then Belfast High. I then went to Ulster University in Coleraine to do an initial degree in European Business Studies and then I went back part-time to study law and government in Jordanstown.

It was a five-year course and during that time I had both my children, moved house and held down a full-time job.

Even so, I actually did better in that degree than I did in my first one. I wouldn't say I was popular at school but I was very much into hockey, cross-country running and swimming so I was always surrounded by people. I still have close friends from my teenage years.

Q. What made you to decided to go into politics?

A. After spending a year doing two different jobs in Sheffield (market research, The Gadget Shop), I volunteered with the Traders Association in the Ormeau Road area. Then I moved to the South Belfast Traders Association, acting on behalf of small businesses and retailers.

I found there were problems within public service delivery and I got involved in politics because I wanted to help people and fix the system. In this country things can be over-bureaucratic and I'm a problem-solver by nature.

Q. Briefly talk us through your career to date.

A. I worked as a deputy manager for Lifestyle Sports after leaving university and before going to England. After three years at the South Belfast Traders Association, I then spent another three at the South Belfast Partnership Board as an economic development officer, prior to working as director of Greater Village Regeneration Trust for 13 years.

I was Belfast City Councillor for Balmoral during the last two years of that (2014 to 2016) and became an MLA in 2016.

Q. Do you get a lot of online abuse?

A. All the time. It's vicious. The worst time was during the Westminster election. The trolls were harping back to the time that I stood for the Unionists on the Conservative ticket and saying 'Don't trust a yellow Tory'.

But I've spent 19 years helping people, working in a very deprived community.

Since becoming an MLA I've done a lot of work supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

I'm a very compassionate politician, but they were painting me as a very cold-hearted Tory who'd take all your benefits and move you out of your house, but that's absolutely not who I am.

Q. What about personal abuse?

A. Sometimes when people start, I'll hand my phone to Ian and say 'deal with that' so I don't see the half of them. The other thing you also get as a woman is an awful lot of sleazy people contacting you.

Men try to hit on me all the time. It's sad. What do they expect me to do?

Q. You used to be in the UUP, where you came "face to face with sexism". Tell us about that.

A. I'd polled well in the 2010 general election but when it came to the selection meeting I was asked how I would cope with being a mother of children. I was the only female candidate and therefore the only one who was asked this question.

It was the same weekend that Tom Elliott, the then leader, said he would never go to a Pride parade or a GAA match.

I thought it was so far from my principles as a feminist, as somebody from a mixed marriage and somebody whose constituency workers advocate in the LGBT community.

I just couldn't stay in a party that's sexist, homophobic and sectarian so I resigned in the autumn of 2010.

It was a good few months before I joined Alliance because I seriously considered leaving politics for good.

Q. Your car was attacked because of your stance on flags. What exactly happened?

A. When I was a councillor in the Village area (of Belfast), I shared a post on my Facebook page saying communities should be consulted before flags are put up.

Ten walls in the area were then daubed with spray paint telling me to stay out to f*** and calling me a c*** in a bid to intimidate me out of my job. My wing mirror was smashed and there was a deep scrape across two car doors. But prior to that, I had death threats in 2013 and 2015.

Q. Do you believe in God and religion?

A. I don't believe in God. I was brought up in the Church of Ireland. I do respect other people's right to religious freedom but I don't have a faith.

Q. When you get the opportunity, how do you relax?

A I like to socialise with friends, eat out with Ian, gardening, jigsaw puzzles and building Lego. We also enjoy going to Italy every year.

I don't take my phone with me on holiday.

Q. Do people sometimes confuse you with the DUP's Paula Bradley?

A. I get her emails all the time. We do get mixed up but we take it in good humour. I recently met Paula and she was wearing a dress similar to one I have so we're quite alike in our style and we've both got longish brown hair. I can understand why people could get confused.

Q. And do people confuse your husband with Ian Paisley?

A. At first, I couldn't understand why he always wrote his name as 'Ian James Parsley' but then he explained why... he looks nothing like Ian Paisley Jnr, though.

Q Which politician - local, national or global - do you admire most?

A. Vince Cable (MP for Twickenham who has launched a bid to become leader of the Liberal Democrats).

He's his own man, he has his own ideas and it's admirable that he wants to stay very close to his political beliefs.

Vince cares about the Lib Dems so much that he will sacrifice his own family life to try and rebuild the party.

Q. If you were in trouble, who's the one person you'd turn to?

A. My dad, Jim (73). He's a very practical thinker, very resourceful and a real no-nonsense sort of man. He was on the board of directors at Bombardier and an engineer by trade.

Q. What about the rest of your family?

A. My mum, Susan (69), worked in the Royal College of Nursing as a PA to one of the directors. I have a sister Karen (47), who's a maths teacher. She has three boys (aged 17, 15 and 13).

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. Cliodhna Craig (43) from Lisburn. We met on a study visit to America seven years ago and stayed very good friends. She was the chief executive of the Titanic Foundation but she's now training to become a teacher.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Mum had bowel cancer three years ago. There were some complications around the surgery, which landed her back in hospital six months ago and we thought the cancer had come back. Walking in and seeing my mother look so frail, with tubes coming out everywhere was very traumatic. Thankfully she's fine now.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world?

A. Newcastle, Co Down. I love it. There's so much to do. We rent a cottage there every summer.

Q. What would describe as your greatest achievement to date?

A. Becoming an MLA for a second time when my vote had gone up. I like to think it was in recognition of the work I've been doing in terms of cancer drugs, refugees, the LGBT community and special educational needs.

Q. Does the thought of death frighten you?

A. It doesn't really scare me but as a mother I want to make sure my children will be fine. I'm more scared about the way in which I die. I don't want to be caught in a car accident.

Q. What's your ultimate goal career-wise?

A. I would love to be the Assembly's Health Minister.

Q. What's the biggest problem in Northern Ireland?

A. There's no accountability in public office. There have been breaches in the code of conduct but when a sanction is proposed it's vetoed in the Assembly. People aren't held to account.

If the same mistakes were made by ministers in England they'd have to resign. There are also people in the civil service who just get moved somewhere else.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. You have to bite your tongue, accept it and learn to live with it.

Q. You've spoken out about abortion, saying you're disappointed with the recent ruling in England. Have you had any personal experience in this regard?

A. No, but I think it should be the woman's decision. I support a change in law around fatal foetal abnormality.

I have a close friend whose daughter has spina bifida and she was encouraged by her doctor to abort. She chose not to, and her daughter is the most delightful child. But I think Northern Ireland's laws are outdated.

Q. How much longer can Northern Ireland maintain its stance on abortion and same-sex marriage?

A. Abortion won't happen soon but, if we could get the amendment to the petition of concern, same-sex marriage could be legal here within six months.

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