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The Big Interview: Clare Bailey deputy leader of the Green Party

Published 29/06/2015

Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey says she is encouraged that the party has seen its vote grow in many areas
Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey says she is encouraged that the party has seen its vote grow in many areas
Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey says she is encouraged that the party has seen its vote grow in many areas

The deputy leader of the Green Party talks to Rebecca Black about signing a controversial letter challenging abortion legislation, modern feminism and how having children finally turned her on to education.

Q. So you are deputy leader of the Green Party but you are not elected; can you hold that sort of position without being elected?

A. Yes. For me it's about introducing conversations, engagements, the messaging, growing the party and I can do that whether I am elected or not. Being elected is a huge responsibility and keeps you very busy. The Green Party has four councillors and one MLA. We need more. We broke through into Belfast City Council with Ross Brown's election, which was an important achievement.

Q. But you didn't manage to get elected to Belfast City Council?

A. I find it hard to be disappointed, because it was such an amazing result for us. Although I am not elected, I still live, work and breathe in south Belfast, so as far as anyone who voted for me or believes in me, they still come to me with local issues. I am still a representative.

Q. So you do much of the work of a councillor, but are not paid for it?

A. Yeah, story of my life, everything is voluntary.

Q. What is your goal for five years' time?

A. Stormont seat, and the privilege to have the mandate to bring forward a piece of legislation because, after all, that is what MLAs are there for.

Q. You were one of the signatories recently to an open letter admitting they've illegally bought abortion pills online, or helped others procure them.

A. Yes I did. I am a volunteer escort at Marie Stopes.

Q. So you have bought abortion pills?

A. I am saying what was stated in the letter. If anyone comes looking for information, we will pass it on, I will pass it on.

Q. But did you buy abortion pills?

A. The letters refers to either buying them passing them on, or putting someone in touch with where they can access them.

Q. So is doing any of those three things illegal?

A. The legislation is a wee bit confused, so that is what the letter is all about. The letter went out three years ago too, when I hadn't signed it, but nothing was ever done. The challenge is to the law; if it is not being implemented, why is it still there?

Q. You'd like to see a change in the law?

A. Yes, I would support the 1967 act being extended to Northern Ireland.

Q. Are you surprised at how many MLAs opposed the extension of that 1967 act to Northern Ireland?

A. Yes, very. It is not reflective of the general population, and it is also not reflective of the need that is out there. We still have women travelling to the rest of the UK and further afield in their thousands every year.

We still have desperate women in desperate situations and charities working to help them; there is still such a taboo that they cannot speak to their families. And unless women have access to money and the opportunity to travel, which means childcare and leaving home for a day or two, then they will continue having babies.

Q. You describe yourself as a feminist. What does that mean these days?

A. Feminism, for me, is about fighting for equal rights and opportunities. It's about challenging the structures we have that restrict them.

The last census showed that women are 51% of the population, so if we have a majority, why do we still not have equal opportunities?

Why do you still have gender under-representation in public life and decision-making roles. There is not a single senior judge in Northern Ireland who is a woman, only 20 MLAs. You see the absence of women everywhere.

Q. Is it exclusion or personal choices?

A. I think it is exclusion; there are active barriers. Women are still judged on their private lives as mothers, as housekeepers and as carers.

Q. Are you in favour of positive discrimination?

A. Yes, not because I think it is a great thing to do, but because all evidence shows we are not going to get there unless we take some sort of positive action.

Q. Is there a danger of doing a disservice to women by promoting some who are not qualified, based on their gender?

A. That's assuming that all men in those jobs are qualified, and that women aren't. Women come with a different set of experiences and often travel a different path to get where they are, because of the active barriers they face.

Q. What are these active barriers?

A. Evidence shows that the girls are outperforming the boys in school, leaving with higher qualifications. If you follow that through the whole of the education process, they are not making it through to the degree level, so where are they going, and why are they disappearing?

Q. Is that a barrier or a personal choice?

A. They choose to step out. I think in some cases there is a barrier. When they are in their mid-20s, maybe settling down and having a family, ending up being pregnant for nine months of their lives and, more often than not, becoming the main carer and going to part-time work. I think it is a cultural expectation that is an active barrier; a woman's working life is judged on reproductive capabilities. I have two children, but I would be judged when I am going for jobs on whether I would be going off on maternity leave or caring for parents or relatives, whereas that is not assumed with men.

Q. Where are you from originally?

A. I was born in Clonard on the lower Falls in 1970, then we moved out to Antrim in 1977, it was one of the new towns at the time, along with Craigavon, that everyone was getting shifted to. My mum, dad and brother still live there, but I didn't last very long there. My sister and I both went to Lagan College in 1981, among the first pupils at the school. So we stayed with friends during the week and went back to Antrim at the weekend. Everyone came from different places, so there were always lots of sleepovers with mates.

Q. How did you come to be one of the first pupils at Lagan College?

A. My mum knew a woman called Mary Connolly who was involved in the All Children Together campaign and told her about it opening, so mum decided to take the opportunity to send my sister and I there. We were actually in the same year in school, even though we are not twins. She's almost a year older, she was the oldest in the year and I was the youngest. There was 28 children, 14 in each class.

Q. It must have been different to the school experiences of your friends?

A. Yes, most of them went to the local comprehensives or grammars. They would be talking about time tables and the science block, economics block etc. Whereas we set our own classroom up when we arrived in the morning, taking the blackboard and desks out of the cupboard. There was a divider across the sports hall and that was two classes. But it was a great experience. I think Lagan was the greatest influence on me in terms of making friends with everyone, even from as far away as Lurgan, Holywood and all over Belfast.

Q. Is it strange to see the big, new buildings it has now?

A. All my family have been through Lagan since then; my kids went there. The new school is not even comparable, it's amazing. I got a tour round the new school building, it is so long overdue, 33 years. Absolutely thrilled for them.

Q. What came after school for you?

A. Well, I wasn't a hard worker at school, I was more of a social butterfly. Took me a while before I got into education and went back as a mature student to do A-levels and ended up at Queen's. Straight after school I did a year of drama at Rupert Stanley before the Belfast Met course. Those are the courses being axed at the minute, and all the drama is being moved to Bangor.

Q. Next you moved to London?

A. I was working in hospitality - another form of performance. I worked at the Grosvenor House Hotel, so Park Lane was my first address! It was live-in accommodation. I have fond memories, but came back after a few years as the pace of London got too frenetic for me. Friends were always on the move and new people coming in, plus my sister had just had a baby, so I came back for a slow-down to see what happened. I worked in retail for a few years, ended up having my own kids and a lot changed in my life.

Q. Is that when you went back to education?

A. Yes, this was around the time of the ceasefires. I was pregnant with my first child when the ceasefires were announced. I remember being in a taxi and we were heading to a friend's house, it was 9pm and the ceasefires were due to start at midnight. In those three hours the whole place went into a lull, we were all wondering what was going to happen in those three hours, but nothing happened and it was great.

Now, my son is 19 and my daughter is 18 and they are both voters, so the timing of that has really started my political engagement. Becoming a mother and seeing that the options and choices for my children were going to be exactly the same as I had, made me start to question what this new Northern Ireland was all about, and what was going to be different.

In many cases they had not only the same choices but the same faces, and I could not see what was going to be new or different for them, apart from the lack of violence. So that led me back to education.

Q. How did you go about getting back into education?

A. I tried a few A-levels to start with, but never really stuck with them. I was picking A-levels for a career in interior design, but then I ended up doing one in women's studies. I didn't know what it was, but it ended up being the one that really engaged me.

I loved it and left with a commendation and acceptance to do a degree at Queen's University. I only realised the purpose of education when I finally connected and found something that I was passionate about. I would have been in my early 30s then. I graduated from Queen's when I was 37.

Q. And that was where you first got involved with the Green Party?

A. Yes, that is when I came across the Greens as an actual political party rather than a lobby group. I hadn't paid attention before that and there had never been space for the Greens to come through before that. I started looking into the Greens, what the founding principles were and what they were all about.

The social justice and grassroots democracy connected with me; they are labelled as the environmentalist party, for me the environmentalism comes in through social justice. They can't be separated and it is all part of the same process.

Q. Did you vote at all before this?

A. I would have been a sporadic voter. I used to always turn up to use my vote, but found I wasn't actually supportive of where my vote was going, I was just voting to use my vote. So around that time, I didn't want to pass that on to my kids, I wanted to see them be more engaged in the process, and I viewed it as a personal responsibility, after saying all these things, to try and stand up to make that change. I had always been an activist in different things that were about, it wasn't as if I had been completely switched off before. I could see more change, people creating space for more conversations to happen and the next generation to believe they have the capability to do something new and not inherit the past.

Q. Yet parties that talk about appealing to the youth vote, such as NI21 and yourselves, are not getting huge numbers of voters. Do you think young people are engaged?

A. I don't think it is because young people are not engaged, I really do believe there is nothing there engaging them. There is still this divorce from formal politics. At every protest and activist event I see young people engaging and increasingly that it is driven by young people. They are there, they are aware, they do want to see it. It is up to us to create the space to create something new for them.

Q. That would be the Green Party, I assume you'd say?

A. Of course. In our political choices, I do believe we are the more radical option. We are the only party whose reason for existence is completely separate from the conflict, whereas every other political party here is rooted in an ideology of conflict, whether they are supporting it or not. We have a different message.

The Green Party has been on the go for 30 years in Northern Ireland, started off as the Ecology Party and progressed into the Green Party in the mid-1980s and then became the Green Party that we know now. But the Greens are part of a global movement, there are Green parties in most countries in the world. The Green Party is the biggest single party elected in the European Parliament.

Q. So why is it not catching on here?

A. Because of the conflict and because of the sectarian nature of our politics. We are still rooted in identity politics, rather than policy politics.

Q. Do you think there is such as thing as a typical Green Party voter?

A. Not in my experience. I don't think there is. There was some research done a few years ago about who votes Green and what showed up most was young mothers with third-level education. What I'm getting on the doors at the minute is a whole swathe of age groups. I think people are voting Green at the minute for change and hoping to allow something new to come through. People are still scared to stray away from the orange and green traditions when voting, it's the challenge for us to give people confidence to step outside that. In the past couple of election cycles in south Belfast we have seen the vote grow and it is really heartening to see and have conversations with people.

Q. You were one of the election candidates featured in a Belfast Telegraph article about how people looked on posters. Some of the other women felt they were focused on, what did you think?

A. Well, there were nine posters featured, five were men and they were in the corner, but the centrefold were the women, that was the message. But being angry doesn't get you far, I took it for what it was, a bit of fun.

Belfast Telegraph

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