Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

NI21's Tina McKenzie: My politics are very different to my IRA terrorist dad's

NI21 party chairwoman Tina McKenzie with Basil McCrea and John McAllister
NI21 party chairwoman Tina McKenzie with Basil McCrea and John McAllister
Former IRA prisoner and business tycoon, Harry Fitzsimons. He is currently held in Italy's highest security prison in Rome on money laundering charges.
NI21 party chairwoman Tina McKenzie has revealed her father is a former IRA bomber, currently held in Italy's highest security prison in Rome on money laundering charges.

Tina McKenzie acknowledges she has very different politics from her father – but does not deny the staunch republican background she comes from.

The chairperson of the province's newest pro-union party has spoken publicly for the first time about her father, the millionaire ex-IRA prisoner Harry Fitzsimons.

Mr Fitzsimons is currently on remand in Italy, charged with money laundering linked to the Ndrangheta, a Mafia-style crime syndicate based in Calabria, accusations which he strenuously denied in a Belfast Telegraph interview in March.

Ms McKenzie, a top-tier executive, hopes her story would help spread the message that young people should not be labelled by their family or community background.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, she revealed that she had first left Northern Ireland when she failed security vetting for a job with the Probation Service.

She has since passed high-level vetting for work as a staff consultant to government departments, including the Ministry of Defence. She feels that, if she had stayed in Northern Ireland after the setback, the experience might have blighted her career and embittered her.

Although her career soared and she is now UK and Irish national director for Staffline Recruitment Group, she came up the hard way from a Housing Executive home in west Belfast's Lenadoon estate.

"My mother was pregnant with me when my father was sent to Long Kesh (on bombing offences). He got out when I was about nine, so I was a child of the Troubles.

"I don't need a tour of the Maze to know where it is. Back then I thought it was normal to go on prison visits; it was part of life in west Belfast at that time and I wouldn't say it adversely affected me," said Ms McKenzie, who is now 40.

She added: "None of us children knew why my dad was in jail; my mother brought us up on her own in poverty in a rented house.

"Shortly after he got out he was arrested again and spent a year-and-a-half on remand in Crumlin Road. When he was released I was 13, so we didn't see much of him at all as children."

Not long after Harry Fitzsimons got out of jail in 1981, he split up from his wife Deirdre and later remarried, starting a new family.

It was then that he built up a business and property empire, which he eventually sold for £2.5m. His first family remained in Housing Executive accommodation.

Ms McKenzie, who now has several qualifications, initially studied at the University of Ulster in Coleraine.

"I met people, some of whose fathers were either in the forces or were prison officers or policemen, some from backgrounds like my own, and my mind was opened by the experience," she said.

Later she got a masters degree and was formally offered promotion in the project she was working on.

"Then my boss called me in one day. He told me straight, 'we have to retract your promotion but it is nothing you have done. You didn't pass the security clearance because of who you are related to'."

She added: "That was a turning point for me because I resigned from that job and moved to London. I felt, 'I am going to be discriminated against in Northern Ireland because of my background, that is the sort of place this is,' but immediately I went to London I earned double the money.

"I was one of the youngest people on the board of a recruitment company.

"After that I worked very, very hard to ensure I was judged on my merits and nothing else. That is what young people deserve."

She returned to Northern Ireland to take up her current post in August of last year, thinking it would be a good place to bring up her three children.

"The kids were in a good school and everything seemed great, but then the flags protests happened," she said.

She went on: "I thought, 'Oh my God, I have brought my children back and the place actually hasn't changed, it hasn't moved on.

"Here I am sitting here very comfortably with a good lifestyle but wondering what sort of society these children will grow up in."

That was when she decided to play a role in politics and eventually to join NI21, which she hopes can prove a catalyst for change. The businesswoman, who favours remaining in the UK and describes herself as Northern Irish rather than Irish or British, was never attracted by either of the main unionist parties.

"I heard Mike Nesbitt say he had Irish in him. I heard Peter Robinson say he would like to attract Catholics, but neither of their parties will ever attract Catholics, because they are both seen by Catholics as bigoted prejudiced parties," she said.

Of her own background she says: "I have very different politics to my father, but none of us should deny where we come from."

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