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MLA Clare Bailey: I know what it's like to be homeless single mum on benefits

'A homeless, single mother with two  young mouths to feed? I can certainly empathise... because that woman was me' 

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Clare Bailey, Green Party, on performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival... and waiting on the Duchess of Argyll.

Q. Tell us about your parents and your siblings.

A. My dad John died suddenly from a massive heart attack last year. He was 69. We're still trying to deal with it. He lived alone. My sister Elaine is still traumatised because she found him.

My mum Eleanor (67) and him split up when I was a teenager but they lived fairly close together in Antrim. She retired from Antrim Council last year.

Elaine, 11 months older than me, works at Quaker Cottage in Belfast and has two children - Conor (27) and Coleen (18). My brother Sean-Paul (40) looks after health and safety on Game of Thrones.

Like my dad, he was a fireman. When the film City of Ember was being shot in Belfast he got the health and safety contract and it took off from there. He's met loads of famous people - like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks - but refuses to introduce me to any of them. He has two sons - Tiernnan (19) and Oliver (seven). None of us are married.

Q. You're 47, a single mum of son Brien (21), who's an IT student at Belfast Metropolitan College, and daughter Jude (20), who studies Textiles at Ulster University. Are you and their father in touch?

A. Their dad and I were together for seven years before we split up when the kids were four and five. We have very little contact now but the kids see him a few times a week; they're close.

Q. Did you find it difficult bringing up two kids alone?

A. When they were small I spent a lot of time on benefits. Being a lone parent is full-time work. We lived on around £700 a month. It was very tough. I went back into education in 2003 because I felt I needed to create options and choices for us in life.

Q. How did you end up becoming homeless?

A. I'd signed a year's lease on a house. When that was up, in 2008, they asked me to sign for another year but I asked for a month by month contract and they refused, giving me 28 days' notice.

It happened around the time we were about to leave on our first ever package holiday, to Crete, at the end of June. I had declared myself as homeless to the Housing Executive and they took all the furniture away and put it into storage.

I vividly remember myself and the kids left sitting in an empty house on a suitcase before going to Crete the next morning. We flew back into Belfast International Airport on July 12 with nowhere to go.

Q. And what happened then?

A. We stayed with friends and family for a while. It was traumatic. I've never been through anything as horrendous. We ended up in a hostel on the Ormeau Road for five months. Finally we got the house we're living in now in Newtownbreda. My daughter was doing her transfer test, my son was starting first year and I was in my final year at Queen's. But we got through it.

Q. You attended two primary schools - St Vincent's in Belfast and St Joseph's in Antrim - and then you were a founder pupil of Lagan College, Northern Ireland's first integrated school. You were in the same year as your older sister. Was that a bit strange?

A. We knew we were a wee bit different because of all the visitors coming to Lagan, but it was just a school to us. Looking back now, when I realise what we were part of, it gives me the 'wow'.

There were 28 pupils. It was at Ardnavalley Scout Hall at Shaw's Bridge because the school had no official premises. On the first day we went in the back entrance because there were protests at the front.

Elaine and I were always in the same year; it's the Irish twin thing - she was born in July and would've been the eldest in the year; I was born in June so I'd have been the youngest.

Q. You were born in Clonard on the Lower Falls and moved to Antrim in 1977. At Lagan College you stayed at home for part of the week and with friends the rest of the time. Tell us about that.

A. I was a wee alley cat. My best friend was the playwright Christina Reid's daughter Heidi and I became the unofficially adopted extra daughter. It was a very bohemian household in the Holylands.

Q. You completed a BA in Politics with Cultural and Media Studies at Queen's University, but that was as a mature student. Tell us about drama school (Rupert Stanley) and your original career plan.

A. I left school in 1986 and I did personal development through drama at a small studio in Willowfield. It was definitely one of the best years of my life. There was a huge amount of street performance, and at the end of it we played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At 17 I'm not sure I had a plan for myself.

Q. You worked as a live-in chambermaid at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane in London for six months when you were 18. What was that like?

A. One of the people I looked after was Margaret Campbell, the famous Duchess of Argyll. She was very much a Barbara Cartland figure; all silk and satin, but she was very nice.

Q. How come that you can speak Dutch?

A. In the '70s and the '80s, my mum organised holidays putting Catholic and Protestant kids with Dutch families via a programme called Help Northern Ireland. Mum and Dad both worked so Elaine and I were fostered to Dutch families every Easter, summer and Christmas until we were seven or eight.

Q. You have worked in the community sector for years, including in the Suffolk/Lenadoon interface area, serving as a community development worker in 2010/2011. Give me a brief resume of your career to date.

A. I came back from London when I was 22, worked in Vision Express in Belfast for four years, then I had children.

I signed up for A-levels but didn't finish them. In 2003 I did a two-year part-time access course ran by Belfast Met. After that I went to Queen's, aged 35.

It was a three-year course but I ended up homeless and it took me four as I had to do the final year over two years. I graduated in 2009.

Q. What made you enter into politics?

A. I was an angry woman by that stage. I finished with a politics degree so I thought I'd dip my toe in and see what happened. I went for the Greens because I felt that I could be me without being too curtailed within party structures or policy. My politics are very much feminist.

Q. As a volunteer escort at Marie Stopes you're on the record as having either bought abortion pills online or helped others procure them. Are you happy about the recent ruling in England?

A. It's a good step forward. It will relieve the financial burden for women who do travel but there are still a lot of women here who don't have the luxury of being able to travel. We need to sort it out here.

Q. You're obviously in favour of abortion reform - when do you see it being legal here?

A. A few years ago I'd have said not in my lifetime, but the speed of change in the public debate and understanding of the issue has accelerated in a short space of time. Since Marie Stopes opened in Belfast a new conversation happened. Hopefully we'll see it in the next decade.

Q. You are deputy leader of the Green Party - another fine example of a woman rising high in politics. Was that position hard to come by?

A. Not at all. The support that I got was overwhelming. I've always been very encouraged. It was them who came to me with that offer.

Q. Do you come across misogyny on the Hill?

A. I find misogyny everywhere, even on social media. If you're going to put yourself above the parapet you're going to take a lot of flak. It doesn't get me down but it's good to call it out. I take screen shots and keep them for when I'm ready...

Q. You're a proud feminist. Is is still something you have to fight hard for?

A. Yeah, feminism is a dirty word although I don't know why. Most people misunderstand what it's really all about - for me, it's equality of access to opportunity and choices in life.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. Don't be putting barriers up for yourself, there are enough of them out there already.

Q. Do you believe in God and religion?

A. No. My family is Catholic but faith isn't present in my life.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. Death frightens me the older I get because I need to make sure that my children will be okay. I don't think you really understand death and grief until it happens to you. I can deal with the physical aspect of my dad being gone, but psychologically he's still there. I still have a chat and a laugh with him, but he's just not physically there.

Q. How do you relax outside of politics?

A. Good food, good wine, good coffee. I like spending a weekend cooking in the kitchen. My Bolognese sauce is very popular. For 15 years I was a volunteer for a vegetarian drop-in centre; that's when I got the cooking buzz. My chocolate mousse cake was the big one there. For peace and quiet I like to climb a mountain for the sense of isolation and calm.

Q. If you were in trouble who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. Jan Melia, director of the Women's Aid Federation. We've been friends for nearly 20 years. She doesn't think like everybody else.

Q. Who's your best Protestant friend?

A. I don't ask the interdenominational status of anyone.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life.

A. The day that I got the keys to our house in Newtownbreda after being homeless. I'd rented since I was 18 so I could never decorate the kids' bedrooms. That was the first time we had somewhere we could call home.

Q. And what was the worst day of your life?

A. That day sitting on a suitcase in an empty house thinking that I'd failed on every level. That trauma stays with you for a long time.

Q. To date what is your greatest achievement?

A. Getting elected, and raising two happy, healthy kids.

Q. Do you have any bad habits that you don't like?

A.I bite my nails and I smoke. I need to stop.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. Jan talked me into doing a stand-up night in Dublin. It was for Channel 4's 'So You think You're Funny'. I was her sidekick. We didn't win.

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