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'As far as helping get women into positions of power, our party did nudge it along but it's not nearly as far down the line as it should be by now'

Former Women's Coalition member and European Commission chief in NI Jane Morrice talks about overcoming tragedy, and her fears about Brexit

By Lindy McDowell

A former member of the now defunct Women's Coalition, Jane Morrice (64) has blazed a trail for women in public life in Northern Ireland. She helped shape the Good Friday Agreement and was elected to the inaugural Northern Ireland Assembly where she served as Deputy Speaker. Previously she'd headed up the European Commission in Belfast for five years from 1992. And before that she'd had a highly successful career in journalism - first in Brussels and then later with the BBC in Belfast. But her life has also been touched by great personal tragedy.

Her husband, the much-loved BBC journalist Paul 'Robbo' Robinson, died suddenly at the age of 55 in 2009. Their son Ben was only 17 at the time. Her brother Arthur also died young. Here she talks about coping with loss - and how work helped her through.

And as a self-described "devoted European" strongly opposed to Brexit, she argues the case for Northern Ireland to be made an "honorary" member of the EU. That way, she maintains: "We can have our cake and eat it."

Q. Where were you born and brought up?

A. I was born in Belfast. I spent my childhood in the Upper Malone Road area and then later we moved down the Malone Road, between the Malone Road and the Lisburn Road. My dad Eric was an optician - the best optician in Belfast.

He worked in the business that had been set up by my grandfather, Thomas T. Morrice and Sons, in Cornmarket, slap bang in the centre of Belfast.

As far as I'm aware my dad was the one who introduced contact lenses to Northern Ireland. There's a couple of lovely stories I always tell about my dad. We all had glasses and we often had to put them on when we went out to dinner or if somebody came to the door.

When I went to work at the BBC the nurse checked my eyes and said I had 20/20 vision. My dad said: "Oh no, she's wrong."

And then, being the first to introduce contact lenses here - as I say, as far as I'm aware - he used to jokingly come home on a Wednesday night and wanted to practise putting the contact lenses into our eyes.

In those days they were massive big contact lenses that covered the whole eye.

We hated Wednesday nights in case he'd do that. Somebody has since said to me, though: weren't we lucky our dad wasn't a brain surgeon?

My mother in her younger days had been a model in Robb's department store in Belfast.

She had had a bit of a modelling career then, before she became a stay-at-home mum looking after us. I've an older sister Susan, and we also had a younger brother Arthur, who sadly died in his 30s.

He'd set up an opticians in London, the business was called Arthur Morrice. There are now six or seven branches in London, so in that respect Arthur Morrice still lives on, which is very nice.

Q. You also lost your husband Paul - or Robbo as he was known to everyone - who died suddenly when he was 55. You've had so much tragedy in your life. How do you deal with that?

A. Ben was born in 1991 and in the first 17 years of his life my mum died, then my brother died, then my dad died, then my husband died. And the only way I was able to keep my sanity was Ben. I had to be there for Ben. He was my everything.

I had to just make sure I was always there for him. He's great. He's living in Amsterdam now. It'll be 10 years next year since Paul died. It was so hard. Paul died in the February and then Ben went to university in September. And that was a big wrench - him leaving home. I just buried my head into work, that's how I managed. That's been my way of dealing with it. It's not easy. But in a way I've almost got used to dealing with loss. I'm more used to it than I should be.

A nice wee story, though. When Paul was alive we'd tried to get planning permission for a row of old garages at the bottom of the garden to convert them into a house.

After Paul died Ben and I eventually did manage to get permission and the house is now almost built. I see it every day out through my kitchen window. Ben and I regard it almost as a wee shrine to Robbo. I think he would like that.

Q. The Women's Coalition, of which you were an early member, played a pivotal role in encouraging more women into politics in Northern Ireland. It could be argued that, as a result, women have now found their feet in local politics. The number of female politicians has increased and some, like Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, are party leaders. But they're not exactly making a great job of it. Does that disappoint you?

A. I never like to take too much credit for what we did in the Women's Coalition. That's just not my style. I think this (the increase in women politicians), would have happened anyway although maybe we helped it along a bit faster than it otherwise would have.

So, as far as getting women into positions of power in all walks of life, number one, maybe we did nudge it along. But number two, it's not nearly as far down the line as it should be in terms of women on boards and gender pay gaps and all that sort of thing. We haven't done enough yet.

As for the ones who are in leadership roles... I'm not in the business of bad-mouthing or throwing negativity at anybody. That's just something I've always avoided. The only time I'm critical is when it's constructive. I will criticise though the likes of, say, Margaret Thatcher. Our first woman Prime Minister wasn't exactly brilliant at throwing the ladder down to others.

Q. You are a former head of the European Commission in Belfast and are currently honorary president of the European Movement NI and a member of the European Economic and Social Committee. What sparked your interest in the EU?

A. I was 14 when the Troubles started, and back then in my teenage years in Belfast, in those years before the Troubles, I had a fascination with all things foreign. I know I was in a lucky position.

Our dad used to bundle us into the car and we'd drive to the Continent. So I always had a feel for foreignness. And to me foreignness is something positive. A foreigner is someone to meet and to be interested in and to want to learn from. Not someone to be suspicious of.

So that's what started me wanting to learn more about other places and other people. Then, later, I was one of the first people to do European Studies at the University of Ulster in 1973, the year we joined the European Union. We were a very small cohort; there were about six or seven of us.

I focused on the Common Agricultural Policy. I did a thesis on Corsica, comparing it with Northern Ireland, since Corsica back then was also having its troubles.

So European union is in my DNA - it's been in my blood ever since I was a teenager. After university I lived in Brussels and worked as a journalist there for six years. Then I joined the BBC, did five years with the BBC, and then I got the EC job, the most incredible job I ever had. When I was preparing for my interview for that job I remember thinking: what will I say? And I decided I'll say, if appointed, I will bring the president of the EU to Northern Ireland. Then I thought if I'm going to say that, I'd better check it's actually possible.

So I phoned up Jacques Delors' office and said: "Look, I'm going for this interview. Can I say I'm going to bring the president of the EU to Northern Ireland?" And the man said: "Yes. And if you get the job, we'll get him to come." I got the job. And six months later Jacques Delors came to Northern Ireland. And then he set up the peace programme. And £2 billion later...

Q. Post-Brexit you want to see Northern Ireland get what you describe as "honorary EU status". But this is unlikely to appeal to those people who maintain that Northern Ireland must not be treated differently from the rest of the UK, is it?

A. My argument to that is that Northern Ireland has been treated differently by the EU since we joined. We were called Objective 1. We got more money than anybody else in the UK and we had different regimes.

For example, in dealing with foot and mouth disease and BSE we had to have different sanitary regulations for animals. Look, it's all about terminology. Some people talk about special status. I prefer "honorary status" because our badge of honour is our success in the peace process - though we are by no means there yet.

Also, there's our ability to export, our knowledge and experience there. I've given evidence to the joint parliamentary committee and the two big questions they asked were, first of all, if Northern Ireland gets this honorary status, what if Scotland or Corsica or Catalonia want it?

My answer is: this is not about Brexit, it's about peace. And that's what makes us different from the likes of Scotland. Yes, I feel sorry for Scotland. But we are different.

The other question is, the border, the worry about the border. And my answer to that is that ports and airports are better equipped to deal with immigration and customs than anywhere. What concerns me are the questions about Brexit we don't seem to be asking.

The Government has just announced a great trade agreement with China which will help Northern Ireland with its milk. But I thought we had to wait until we leave the EU before we get the trade agreements?

There have also been reports of draft contingency plans that suggest, in the event of a 'no deal', we may need extra generators in Northern Ireland to ensure sufficient energy capacity.

Why is there so little media coverage of that? It seems to me nobody's asking the right questions.

Q. Would you like to see a further referendum on Brexit then?

A. Yes, I do. My best case scenario is the UK stays in the EU. If there's a vote and we can make that happen, well and good. But my backstop is that if things don't change then, at the very least Northern Ireland needs to stay in the EU. That's what (Michel) Barnier and the EU negotiators have offered Northern Ireland. They've offered us to have our cake and eat it. There are people who will say we can't have our cake and eat it. I say yes, we can, and we deserve it.

Q. But 17.5 million people voted for the UK, the UK as a whole that is, to leave the EU. How do you argue against people who say, whether or not you support Brexit, you've got to respect the referendum result? That's democracy.

A. I know. But there are different and important ways of looking at it. Democracy does not end after a vote. It keeps going.

There is an argument yes, that we went into the EU as the UK and we must therefore come out as the UK.

But since we went in, devolution has happened. We have parliaments now in Scotland, Wales and here in Northern Ireland.

So things have changed since we went in back in 1973. And there has got to be an accommodation for that change. And we are different from Finchley in Northern Ireland.

We have the land border with the EU that has been discussed at length and that has been prioritised by Brussels. And I think it is very important that Brussels is doing that.

Also, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, and thanks to the work the Women's Coalition put in, we in Northern Ireland can be British or Irish or both, which therefore means we are entitled to be European. Every single person in Northern Ireland is entitled to be a European.

So what are they going to do with us? If we've got both passports or just the Irish passport, we're European. I can't work out what they're going to do with us.

And I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion on this point.

Q. The other subject you've been very vocal on is integrated education. Do you feel that politicians have failed to do enough in terms of promoting it?

A. Absolutely, totally and unquestionably. Integrated education is nearly what brought me into politics.

It was something that struck me then, and still does, as so important. When we were drawing up the Good Friday Agreement we in the Women's Coalition had the section inserted about integrated education.

The aim back then was to reach a level of 10% in terms of integrated education in Northern Ireland. And we're still not even there. So, yes, I think it is something that has to be really, really pushed. We still have a long way to go.

Q. You recently wrote an article for this paper supporting the DUP proposal for a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

A. Yes, I do think there should be a feasibility study into the DUP proposal for a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I'm not saying there should be a bridge between Donaghadee and Portpatrick, though. I smiled when I saw the graphic accompanying that article that showed a bridge going into Donaghadee.

I belong to a sea swimming group in Donaghadee. (She laughs) I'm thinking they might throw me out after they've seen that.

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