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Ruth Patterson: 'I earned my stripes but Emma Pengelly is a blow-in... I might join TUV and contest her seat'

Outspoken DUP councillor reveals her 'soft as putty' side

By Suzanne Breen

Published 18/11/2015

Ruth Patterson at home in east Belfast with her pet dog Paisley
Ruth Patterson at home in east Belfast with her pet dog Paisley
Ruth with her old UDR beret and medal
Ruth Patterson showing her support for the flag protesters in 2014
Ruth Patterson at the opening of the new Titanic Belfast

A loyalist flag protest, addressing the diehards at Camp Twaddell, or marching with an Orange band parade - these are the typical events with which Ruth Patterson is associated. But sometimes she shows up in the most unexpected places.

"I was in town shopping as the gay pride parade was taking place," she says. "And there was Baroness Titti von Tramp half naked and tottering along Royal Avenue in high heels with legs I'd die for, right up to his armpits. "Well, he spotted me in the crowd, pointed and shouted 'Mother!' then came rushing over and gave me a big kiss. It was lovely."

This is not the Ruth Patterson we think we know - the hard-faced, pugnacious politician against everything progressive.

"So long as nobody is hurt, 'live and let live' is my motto, and that applies to gay, lesbian and transgender people as much as everybody else," she says.

"I raised four children as a single parent without a car, and it was my good fortune to live beside two gay men. They were the best neighbours.

"Any time of the day or night I needed help, or to go somewhere, they'd be there for me."

Sitting in her cosy, terraced home in the Ravenhill area of south Belfast, the DUP councillor is very different to the cheap caricatures we are used to. Her little dog, Paisley, born on the Twelfth of July, curls up beside her. "He's due for the snip soon," she confides.

Patterson is a woman of uncompromising opinions on the IRA, flags, and the Union. But the real Ruth is also warm, witty, and far more complex than her public image implies.

Younger DUP women, like Emma Pengelly and Arlene Foster, are hailed as the future faces of the party. Yet on social and moral issues, Patterson is more progressive.

Pengelly has not uttered a word of criticism of her party's views on homosexuality, and Foster recently declined to say if she would go to a gay wedding, even if it was one of her children's.

Patterson has no such qualms. "I don't share my party's views on homosexuality," she says. "If any of my children said, 'Mum, I'm gay or lesbian', I wouldn't love them less. They're my flesh and blood and I'd do everything in my power to help them.

"If one of my children said, 'Mum, I'm in love with someone of the same sex and we're getting married', I'd feel it would be right for me to attend that wedding."

Patterson (60) has four grown-up children and six grand-children, "my be all and end all". She's "very happily divorced" but adds: "That's not to say if the right person came along, I wouldn't be interested. He wouldn't have to share my politics, but it might help if he did!"

She grew up in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, the daughter of a lorry driver and a shop assistant.

"I have a twin, Shirley," she says, "although we're total opposites. She's not political and she's a lot quieter!"

Patterson's parents were founding members of the local Presbyterian Church, but that religion was "too formal and intense for me", she says. "I believe in God but I'm not a church-going Christian."

When it came to loyalism, she followed in her father's footsteps: "Daddy played the big drum in the Sergeant White Memorial Flute Band. I started off with the cymbals and progressed to the flute. I was so proud walking alongside him."

However, this was not her only childhood cultural experience. "Shirley and I were best friends with two Catholic girls, Anne and Roisin. They taught us Irish dancing. We had great fun holding mini-ceilis. But I remember when the Troubles started calling at their door to be told, 'We're not allowed to play with you any more'."

Patterson came to Belfast to nurse in the Royal Victoria Hospital aged 17. It was 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, when 472 people were killed.

"I saw a lot of horrific things and it angers me when the government makes light of what people went through," she says.

"I remember a soldier blown up in a bomb coming into casualty. He was more dead than alive, but we got him stabilised and into theatre. The military police asked for his clothing. When I picked up his boot, his foot was still in it."

But had an IRA man, injured by his own bomb, been brought into the RVH, would Patterson have been comfortable treating him? "I wouldn't have hesitated," she says. "As a nurse or doctor, you leave your politics at the hospital door."

She left nursing after getting married and, when she decided to return to work in the 1980s, it was in the UDR.

Ruth still has her service medal, beret and number two dress uniform worn on official social occasions. "It's a size six," she laughs, "it would barely go over one leg now!!

She was three years in the UDR but left when her marriage broke up. "The night shifts weren't compatible with small children," she says. "But the sense of loyalty to Queen and country that made me join is still what motivates me, and it comes before my political party."

Patterson joined the DUP in 1998 when she saw party members putting up anti-Good Friday Agreement posters: "I stopped the car, I wanted to be part of it."

In 2013, she was famously arrested for sending a "grossly offensive communication" when she responded to a Facebook post about an imaginary attack on a republican parade in which Sinn Fein figures were killed. She said "getting rid" of them would be "a great service to Northern Ireland".

The charges were withdrawn after she accepted an informal warning from police. At the time, she apologised for her remarks. She now thinks she maybe shouldn't have.

"An apology was suggested by the DUP press office and I went along with that," Ruth tells me. "I was in panic mode, thinking of the repercussions for the party."

Her views will be anathema to most people, but she defends them: "Some Sinn Fein leaders were involved in bombing and killing. Pussyfooting around that isn't for me."

Patterson was sacked from the charity Cancer Focus, where she'd been a receptionist, for her comments. "What broke my heart was that I'd worked with 70 people there from all backgrounds for nine years," she says.

"I'd been with them on hen nights, on birthdays, as they got married and had babies. I didn't care about their religion or politics - they were my work family.

"I didn't expect them to support me for what I wrote, but I thought somebody would lift the phone to see how I was after I was sacked. Nobody did. I thought I had friends there, and it turned out I had none."

Despite her militant loyalism, Patterson is the first DUP politician to speak Irish in public: "I was representing the council at a reception for the World Irish Dancing Championship.

"I phoned a Dublin government office in advance to help me pronounce the words I was saying correctly. I didn't want to cause offence by getting them wrong. It doesn't hurt to be respectful. Republicans in the audience were stunned when I spoke in Irish."

Some of Patterson's reading material would surprise them too. "Fifty Shades of Grey, I read all the books and learnt a lot!" she laughs. "Though I was disappointed with Jamie Dornan. In my head, Mr Grey would be a taller, dark-haired figure, more muscular and authoritarian."

The DUP councillor's chill-out time comes courtesy of a sun-bed once a week "where I've a good natter with a friend and we put the world to rights". She also writes poetry.

For a serial flags protester, her home is surprisingly free of political emblems. There's not even a flagpole outside. Inside, it's a mellow, soft space with hearts and butterflies on the walls and fairy-lights illuminating an old oak sideboard.

Ruth Patterson is a woman of many contradictions. "I can come across as hard, aggressive and angry," she says, "But do you know what? I'm as soft as putty inside."

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