Bernie Smyth: 'Ian Paisley told me he would march with the Pope to stop abortions'
The pro-life campaigner and mother-of-four (52) talks to Claire McNeilly about her political aspirations, her friendship with the late Ian Paisley and how her relief at successfully appealing a harassment conviction took a distant second place to a health scare involving a close family member that same day.
Q: You come across as a woman of strong faith. How much has that faith influenced your work?
A: It's an important part of who I am. I would class myself as an evangelical Catholic, but that doesn't mean that I don't associate with other churches or other evangelical-type people. I work very closely with the DUP. The late Ian Paisley snr said that this is one of the issues that crosses the divide, and he'd walk in a march with the Pope if need be. I don't see what I do in a religious context - I see it as the greatest human rights issue of this generation.
Q: Did you know the former DUP leader well?
A: Yes. Some years ago, I was bold enough to contact Mr Paisley, and he invited me round to his house. He talked about how far he would go to stop abortion here and said that it was the one thing the Pope had in common with him. I've worked very closely with Ian Paisley jr as well.
Q: You're very articulate at getting your message across. Have you ever considered a career in politics?
A: I am considering running in the 2016 Stormont election as an independent candidate on a pro-life ticket. I feel it might be a necessity for the future generation of unborn children that a pro-life party is set up to defend them and to support women. I also believe there should be more women in politics.
Q: It was a double celebration of sorts for you last week as the court verdict coincided with positive and welcome news about a close family member's health. Surely that was a fraught day?
A: I've had a lot of tragedies in the past. My mother Mary (Dowds) died of breast cancer when she was 59. I was only 19, and it was a very difficult time for me. Last week, a very close family member was in hospital on the morning of my case. I wanted to be there but couldn't attend because I had to be in court. Thank God, just before the case started I got a text saying: "Don't worry, it's all clear, everything is fine." So that ended up being a very good day.
Q: You were cleared of harassment. Have you yourself been harassed or attacked by people who disagree with your views?
A: Some people are aggressive. I've been attacked. I was punched by a young woman in Belfast city centre five years ago. I was campaigning, and she just got very angry. She didn't like our display. She wrecked the table, then ran off.
Q: Did you see your court case as a duel between two powerful and influential women? Dawn Purvis is, after all, a former leader of a political party and an ex-MLA... hardly a shrinking violet.
A: My focus was never on Dawn. My whole focus in life is on providing help and support for women in crisis pregnancy. I saved twins on January 19, the very day Dawn reported me to the police. A woman had come out of the Marie Stopes clinic three times because she wanted to speak to me. I gave her my helpline number. She'd been considering travelling to England. Two days later, she called to say she was keeping her babies. Saving those babies outweighs everything else.
Q: Had things gone the other way and you'd lost your appeal, what would your next course of action have been? Would you have considered giving up?
A: I would have taken it to the Supreme Court. I would never consider giving up. Just because I wasn't able to go to Marie Stopes for a while, that didn't prevent me from carrying on with my crusade.
Q: How did it feel when you were eventually cleared of harassment?
A: Since last November, I've had to live with a court process hanging over me. Throughout the whole ordeal, two of my daughters were pregnant, and that was difficult. I feel a great deal of relief, as though a great burden had been lifted off me and my husband. We now have a freedom that we can appreciate. It's a chapter that I now want to close because I want to open another chapter.
Q: We know your views on abortion, but what about contraception and family planning. Is that wrong?
A: When contraception fails, we see an increase in abortion. We need to change the culture for young people because that's where I can see us running into danger in Northern Ireland. When there is an increase in the provision of contraception, there is an increase in abortion. Personally, I don't believe in the use of contraceptives because they are dangerous for women. I believe in natural family planning. I've got four children and I'm married 31 years, so I think it works.
Q: Can you understand why a rape victim might want to have a termination?
A: I have helped rape victims through pregnancies. I couldn't support a termination because there are two people involved.
Taking the life of an unborn child won't undo the rape. A very good American friend of mine, Rebecca Kissling, runs an organisation called Save the One. But she's the 'One' - she was conceived by rape.
Q: Can you give an example of a woman you have helped following a rape?
A: About 10 years ago, a women contacted me in hysterics after finding out she was pregnant after being raped. I made time to meet her on a Sunday. I didn't counsel her about the abortion, I just listened.
We met again the following week, and she decided not to have the abortion. I helped her get rehoused, I got her financial support. I was there when her daughter was born and I attended the christening. Six years later, I came across that same wee girl, singing at a school festival.
Q: Clearly, many people believe Northern Ireland's law on abortion is restrictive and antiquated. Presumably you believe every other Western country is out of touch and we've got it right?
A: We've got it right, and I think that the rest of the UK needs to look to Northern Ireland to see what we're doing. By protecting our unborn children, we're protecting women in Northern Ireland. There are two pieces of strong legislation in place, which means we should rarely have an abortion performed in Northern Ireland.
Q: You're from a relatively large family. Were your parents devout?
A: There are eight of us - six girls, two boys. I'm a middle child. My mother and father were devout and very pro-life. My father, Francis, once helped save a baby. He was on a boat to Liverpool, and he met a young girl who shared her crisis with him. He offered her help and support. She went to the abortion clinic, but when he met her again on the journey back she told him she hadn't gone through with it. Dad died five years ago, aged 87.
Q: The Belfast Telegraph brought the abortion tablets scandal to your attention. Presumably, now that the court case is over, you will be turning your attention towards this?
A: I'm concerned we have a group of people who are willing to undermine the law. They want to medicalise a crime by offering the abortion pill illegally. But even in the UK, where abortion is available on demand to a certain extent, it still wouldn't be legal for anyone to give the pill out over the internet. I have been communicating with legal representatives here and in the UK. We're looking at a UK approach to this because they are in breach of the law in England as well. I'm reporting it to the police, and I'll be speaking to the Health Minister. It disappointed me that Mumsnet supported this campaign. I'm concerned about the young people who log onto Mumsnet who could be influenced by the website.
Q: The growing influence of social media, easy-access to pornography, a hunting ground for sinister people preying on young girls... is the internet an enemy?
A: As a mother, I'm concerned about the effects and influence of social media. I'm concerned about what the future holds for the next generation. I check my teenage daughter's Facebook account.
Q: Is everyone in your family fully supportive of what you do?
A: Absolutely. All the children fully support and agree with what I do. Just like the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland.
Q: When did you realise that this was a vocation you simply had to answer? Did a particular incident trigger it all off?
A: I've always been pro-life. It's an instinct. Two of my friends had abortions when they were 17 or 18, and I was aware of the effects it had on their lives in terms of depression and over-indulging in alcohol. They both regretted what they did. That was my first experience of abortion but it wasn't a trigger - that was me becoming aware of the effects it had on women. I didn't see it in the context of the child until I had a very sick baby. My first daughter was very ill when she was born. She had a bowel obstruction and was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. She was very ill afterwards but, thank God, she survived. The trigger came after I had my third baby - a wee boy. I was at a pro-family orientated conference in Dublin, and I picked up literature about abortion. That was the first time I saw what abortion was, and it traumatised me. I couldn't get my head round how this could be happening to vulnerable unborn children. I knew then that I had to do something. I didn't want to be part of a society that stands by and allows innocent children to be violently destroyed through abortion.
Q: How do you think your life would have panned out otherwise? What job would you have?
A: I was a part-time retail manager for a fashion store. I was considering taking up beauty, and I applied for a position in Boots. But I gave up my job and I set the beauty idea aside after talking to my husband Derek (52). He gave up his job as a shift manager in Michelin 10 years ago to work with me, but he stays very much in the background. That was a complete transformation of my life. I didn't chose to do this. I think if I had known what was ahead of me, I might have made a different choice, but I don't regret it. It's not an easy life, though.
Q: You're very high-profile these days. Has that had an effect on your loved ones? Do they enjoy seeing their mum on TV, or the opposite?
A: They've had to get used to it. They know I couldn't do anything else. But, again, it's not easy for them, especially when they see their mother being attacked, criticised and in many ways persecuted for what I do. But they are equally pro-life. I've been involved in this for 18 years, and my children have played a big part in the background.
Q: Do you actually enjoy the limelight?
A: It's a natural consequence of what I do. I can't honestly say that I enjoy it. I like that space when I can just get on with what I'm good at. I like doing normal things. I like going to the gym and socialising. I like a glass of wine and a good laugh. Retail therapy is my favourite thing in the whole world. People don't see that side of me.
Q: Do you get recognised when you're out?
A: I do. People often come up and ask if I'm "that girl", and most of the time they say they admire what I do. It's happened much more over the recent year because of the court case. More and more, people stop me in the street. Just after I was convicted in December, two elderly women gave me the thumbs-up in a department store. That was very encouraging.
Q: Could you see, some time down the line, one of your family taking over from you and continuing the work?
A I can see one of my five grandchildren taking over from me. I believe I'm handing the baton on. I'm already handing it on to a younger generation within Precious Life who are as passionate as I am.
Q: Have you lost any friends because of your unwavering anti-abortion stance?
A: No, people take me as they find me. Even if I had a friend who disagreed with my views, that's still fine. Obviously, I've have been challenged by people socially, but I've learned not to mix business with pleasure.
Q: What other sacrifices do you feel you've made in pursuit of your vocation?
A: I don't see my life as a sacrifice, but I have given up normality. I see what my husband and children have done as a bigger sacrifice because they have blessed what I do and have allowed me to work full-time. My husband ga ve up his job to enable me to do this. I admire him for doing that.
Q: Your work divides opinion but also attracts cross-community support. Do you ever get messages of encouragement from, say, DUP voters?
A: Yes I do.
Q: Have you tried to bring your message into schools?
A: We've been running the Life is Precious schools campaign for five years. We talk to secondary and grammar pupils in fifth year, and lower and upper-sixth. After one of my presentations, every student is pro-life.
Q: Most recent figures say that teenage pregnancies in Northern Ireland have fallen to a new low. What do you put that down to?
A: Abstinence is a vitally important part of reducing teenage pregnancies. I think young people are getting wiser and making decisions that are good for their future. I don't believe the provision of contraception leads to a lower rate of teenage pregnancies.
Q: The Precious Life website is always appealing for funds. How exactly is it funded?
A: By donations from the public. Someone just bought an ultrasound scanner for us worth around £10,000.
I pay for women to have private ultrasounds as part of the crisis pregnancy service we offer, and that's costly as it's £80 to refer one woman.
The rent on this office is also paid for by a donor.
Q: How is your proposed new clinic being funded?
A: I will have to apply for government funding. (This new clinic will be Stanton Healthcare, and it will replace the Women's Network.)
Q: You are never going to stop women travelling across the water for abortions, are you?
A: It's doubtful. The only way that you can stop women from travelling is to offer them help and support. But there has been a steady decrease - when I started out there were 2,000 women travelling per year. It's now 800.