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Joanne Bunting: I have been called ugly and useless on social media, and have had messages saying that I deserve to be shot... and I am one of the more low-profile politicians

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Joanne Bunting, East Belfast DUP MLA, on coping with abuse on social media, being a woman in politics and her love for homeless dogs.

Q. You are married to Keith Gamble. How and when did you meet?

A  We met in 2000 but bizarrely he just lived around the corner from me and we actually attended Grosvenor High School at the same time.

He was in the year above me but we never met. I started to get involved with politics, and he was involved in political circles too and a mutual friend introduced us.

We were married in 2002, and Ian Paisley married us.

They say that moving house, getting married and starting a new job are among the most stressful things you can do. Well, we got our new house two days before we got married, we went to Edinburgh on honeymoon for five days and I started a new job the day after we got back. It was bonkers.

Q. You don't have any children but what was your own childhood like growing up in east Belfast?

A. I don't have any siblings. I was an only child but my uncle, who was 14 years older than me, lived with us so he was a bit like my older brother.

My mother is Mary, who is now 72, and my father was Fred Bunting.

I had a great childhood, I enjoyed school. I was surrounded by a wider family who supported and encouraged me and who weren't afraid to say "catch yourself on" too, which is important.

I used to go and stay with my grandparents at the weekends and I would have gone on holiday with my aunts and cousins. We are still all very close and it is lovely.

Q. After Grosvenor High School did you go to university?

A. I went to Stirling University to study human resource management and Spanish, but that didn't work out and I left to come home to a job in the Northern Bank.

I later went to work in the Assembly in 1998. I was there from the beginning and remember how hard and how hostile it was, but I wouldn't change it for the world.

Q. As well as working in political administration you also went into frontline politics. What made you decide to do that?

A. I was on Castlereagh Council from 2000 to 2011 but I came out of that because I had changed my job inside the Assembly and was working really long hours and couldn't give the council my full commitment.

I came back in after Peter Robinson stepped down. There was a gap and the party asked me to stand. I thought, 'I don't want to have regrets and if I am ever going to do it now is the time'.

I am in politics because we are a political family and I have strong views on things. I am there because I believe in things. I am a conviction person rather than a career person, so it means something to me.

Q. What was it like stepping into Peter Robinson's shoes?

A. Peter is a colossus, so I wasn't even going to try and fill his shoes. Peter was Peter and I have to be me so I have to go and build relationships on the ground.

I would never try to replicate Peter because he is a giant in Northern Ireland politics. I am just trying to do my own thing and the right thing by my constituents and build my own reputation.

Q. What politicians from the so-called "other side" do you admire?

A. There are a couple of SDLP councillors that I worked with that I think really highly of - John O'Kane and PJ McAvoy.

They are really good men who worked hard for the common good and tried to find solutions to things. Two real gentlemen.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend.

A. I'm not going to name names. I am friends with people because of their character, not because of their religion.

Q. The women in the DUP come across as less hardline than the men. Do you have strong views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion?

A. I do. I am pretty much where the DUP is on those issues but I don't know if I concur that the women in the DUP have less hardline views than the men.

Hardline has become a pejorative term.

People are in politics because they have views and are opinionated, there is no point in coming into politics if you are a bit wishy-washy. You need to know what you think.

I am not an aggressive person. I absolutely respect that others have different views and they are entitled to hold them but I expect, in return, the right to hold mine.

Q. Trolling on social media, especially of female politicians, has been in the news again. Are you very active on social media and have you been a victim of trolls?

A. I absolutely have. I think if you are a politician you will get it, but the women get it in the form of personal abuse.

I have been called "a useless ugly w****" by people who have never met me, know nothing about me but they think they can presume.

I have had messages saying 'You are an Orange B, and I hope you get shot' - and I am one of the low-profile politicians.

I don't know how we got to this situation where it is okay to say whatever you think to someone else, regardless of the impact that it will have.

Q. Do you think tougher action needs to be taken against online bullies?

A. I do. That is not what those forums are for and the platforms need to address that.

There are people on there who just want a fight. I have zero interest in that.

Social media should be a positive thing, it should be about sharing information.

Having a go at someone from behind an avatar and a made-up name is just bullying and that needs to be addressed.

Q. Online bullying can have serious consequences and has led to people taking their own lives. You have had experience of someone dying by suicide during your teenage years for other reasons. That must have been difficult.

A. I was 18 years old at the time, away from home for the first time and there was another girl who took her own life that I had been trying to keep an eye on, and I found her.

It was a long time ago and it had an enormous effect on me. I feel very strongly about mental health issues now.

Men in particular don't seem to want to ask for help but there is no stigma in asking for help.

Everybody in life has something they are struggling with, we are all somewhere along that line at various stages and some people cope better than others, but there is no shame, no stigma in asking for help because the devastation that is left behind is horrendous.

People don't realise how much they mean to their friends and family and nothing that might drive people over the edge is actually insurmountable.

Q. What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

A. I think it was 'Do your best and be yourself'. It was my mum who told me that. Mums are great for advice.

Q. What has been the best day of your life so far?

A. Getting married to Keith is definitely up there. Getting to go to a garden party in Buckingham Palace and see the Queen in 2005 was another good day.

Q. And on the flip side, what was the worst day of your life so far?

A. The worst day was the day my father passed away, which was in 2012, when none of us were expecting it.

He was sent home from the hospital and he was dead within 24 hours. I don't think I have really come to terms with that yet.

I think I rang my husband and told him, I rang a friend and told her and then vomited. It was horrendous.

He was a great man and we were incredibly close. He was relatively young and was in reasonably good health, played golf three or four times a week.

My daddy was an enormous support to me, very wise and very well thought of.

Q. You believe in God, do you have a strong faith?

A. I do. My faith matters to me. I was a member of the Presbyterian Church but I haven't been in a long time and I am sad about that, but I just can't at the minute.

My dad sang in the choir and his voice was immense so now if I hear just three notes of a hymn I am in tears, so I just don't go.

Q. What would you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?

A. I don't think I have done anything great but anything I have achieved has been because of the people who surround me.

Achievements for me are the day to day things. If I can sort someone out with a housing problem, help them deal with their debt then that to me is an achievement because those are the things that drive people down.

Q. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

A. Where to begin … I wish I was more confident. I am prone to over-thinking instead of going with my gut.

Q. What is the craziest thing you have ever done?

A. I'm not that crazy, but since I was no age if I see a wee dog that looks lost, distressed or is running in and out of traffic, without fail that wee dog will be in my car with me so I can get it back to its owners or get it re-homed.

I need to be sure it is alright and I have frequently stopped my car in the middle of traffic and have other motorists beeping their horns at me, but I don't care.

Q. Who inspired you growing up?

A. I don't think I would have been conscious of it at the time but looking back it was my parents.

They instilled in me a sense of being honourable and your word is worth something. They were so well thought of themselves and a real inspiration.

Q. Away from politics, how do you relax?

A. Food is usually at the centre of it. I am a girl who likes her dinner. I like company and I like to travel and to read, as well as some mindless TV.

Q. What are your favourite destinations worldwide and in Northern Ireland?

A. Either Washington DC or Charleston in South Carolina but in Northern Ireland it is home, which is in Newtownards. We've lived in Newtownards since we got married and we love it, although I will always say I am from east Belfast.

Q. Do you think Stormont will ever return or have you lost hope?

A. I think it will, but I am realistic. The trust has broken down and it may take a while for that to be rebuilt.

I am frustrated and fed up and appalled, to be honest.

Northern Ireland needs a government, Northern Ireland needs ministers.

The health service is not functioning well, the education system is teetering on the verge of collapse and we have a limited amount of money, so in those circumstances we need to get the fundamentals that affect everybody's lives right and I cannot figure out in those circumstances how you prioritise minority languages over the fundamentals that affect people every day.

Q. Should MLAs continue to be paid while Stormont is dormant?

A. I am glad you asked that question because there are a number of mixed conceptions around MLAs' pay.

One of them is we are more likely to agree (to a deal) if our pay is cut or reduced.

I think that misunderstands who we are and why we are there.

Most of us are there because of what we believe and I don't and won't give up my principles for money and the idea of that is offensive to me.

Another misconception is that we are not at work. The truth of it is we are at work, we are just not sitting at Stormont or sitting on committees, but we are working every day with our constituents and that work is incredibly important, but so often that work is overlooked.

Q. In the event there is a return to direct rule, are there other career options you are considering?

A. I have worked in the Assembly for 20 years, which is most of my adult life, so I don't know anything else. I was in an administrative role until 2016 so I would probably look for something along those lines.

I did a lot of youth work in the past so I could perhaps go back and upskill and get into teaching, but I might be a bit too old for that now.

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