'It's lovely being in a relationship again and having someone there for me... I'm just living for the moment and enjoying every day'
After almost three years of a very public separation Tina Blackburne (42) says she finally feels like she is standing on her own two feet and in a good place in her life. She describes her east Belfast home as a sanctuary for her and her two children and she feels more content than she has done in years.
Tina remains dignified and silent as to why her relationship of 14 years in total (including 12 years of marriage) with the rugby star Paddy Wallace came to an end. But she freely admits that getting to this place has been a difficult and traumatic journey.
The depression that she suffered following the split has been well-documented but now she believes she really has turned a corner.
"Every six months or so you feel like you are getting there and then something will set you back," reveals Tina.
"But I finally feel like everything is working out and I feel very settled and secure."
The devoted mum-of-two says the most important thing in her life will always be her children, 11-year-old Paddy Jack and Leila (8), and their happiness is paramount to her.
"We recently had to move Leila to a new primary school as she was being badly bullied where she was. As a young child she wasn't able to communicate what was going on in her young life and everyone put her unhappiness and the fact that she had retreated so much down to the divorce."
A mother's instinct, however, kicked in and Tina says: "I knew there was something more going on. Now, she has moved to a new school and she is like a new child. We have finally got the old Leila back after two very difficult years.
"She is happy and content again and that makes me very happy."
Tina has spoken publicly in the past about PJ's autism, ADHD and dyslexia, causes close to both their hearts that she and ex-husband Paddy have worked hard to raise awareness and funds for over the years.
"PJ copes really well with a lot of support from school and hopefully that will continue when he moves to a new school later this year - we have just got the news that he will move to the Priory College in Holywood in September.
"Paddy and I visited the school a few months ago and we were very impressed with it. They have a special unit with just two specialised classes of 10.
"This means that for the things PJ is good at, such as maths, he will go into the mainstream, and for other subjects which he struggles with he will go into the unit and get the support he needs."
Tina describes PJ as having high-functioning autism. He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was just five years old. Two years later his parents found out that he also had dyslexia and autism.
"The autism seems to block whatever area of the brain he needs to read and write," says Tina, who admits that it was heartbreaking when they were confronted with the prospect that PJ may never read or write due to the extent of his dyslexia.
She explains: "It was incredibly upsetting as you just want the best for your children but now I say 'never say never' as there are strides being made and new developments in treatments all the time.
"His primary school has been very good; he has an iPad which reads and writes for him and he gets a lot of support. Over the summer months my parents, Bryan and Elaine Somers, have committed to working with him on a new programme which has been developed.
"It is very intense and requires a lot of work, so that is why the summer holidays are ideal as it will allow us the time to work with him. He is keen to do it, too, as he is going into secondary school and wants to learn to read. He is keen to learn and willing to accept help."
According to Tina, PJ suffers from a lack of confidence; while most of his peers are becoming more independent he still leans on his mother a lot.
"Most children his age are starting to venture out and take small steps on their own," she says. "PJ wouldn't have the confidence to do that just yet. For example, he wouldn't want to go up to the end of the road on his own. He still needs me and relies on me.
"Anyone who is around PJ for long enough would see glimpses of his autism. He is completely obsessed by gaming and wants to do it all the time.
"He can also become fixated by a certain story and will want to hear it several times over and discuss it and talk about it."
Tina says that while both kids have been affected in different ways by the divorce, it is Leila who has been hit the hardest. "PJ deals with things in a very matter-of-fact way and is very accepting. He just gets on with things. As long as he has his home comforts and sees both his mum and dad and is in a good routine he is fine.
"Leila has found it harder to come to terms with but I think that is because little girls tend to be more sensitive and find change difficult.
"However, her dad has moved into his own home, which is just a mile away. She has her own bedroom there and sees him twice a week so she is much more settled now."
Life is clearly busy for Tina who at the moment describes herself as "double-jobbing". As well as running her beauty business, Tina B Beauty, from home, she also works two days a week as an event planner for Table Ten, an events management company.
"I help with quotes and the booking process for clients and I often go out to set-ups and help organise things," she says.
"I love it and I enjoy the balance of getting out a couple of days alongside working from home, where I see clients for everything from nails and waxing to professional make-up and massage."
She reveals that even though she is far removed from it the recent controversy surrounding Ulster rugby rape trial it still impacted her too and, in fact, cost her a job she loved.
"People would come into the shop all the time and try to get my opinions on the trial," she says. "I was hurt and upset and even though I hadn't done anything wrong and kept my opinions to myself I ended up having to leave the job I loved. It was an awful time and had a major impact on me."
Reflecting more generally, she adds: "That's been one of the hardest things about the last couple of years, people think they know me and have a right to judge me."
Now, Tina says she is trying to leave the past where it firmly belongs - in the past - and to enjoy every day.
"I live in the present now. For too long I lived in the shadow of the past and it haunted me.
"Now, I just want to move on and make the most of every day and every opportunity."
After skilfully dodging the question during our interview thus far, Tina eventually confirms that the social media rumblings are in fact true and that one of the reasons she is better placed to embrace the future is all down to a new love interest.
Her reticence is, of course, understandable. Having been in the public eye so much in the past, Tina is wary about revealing too much about her new man.
After some not-so-gentle probing from yours truly, she finally smiles and says: "His name is Stephen Wilson and mutual friends thought we would hit it off and introduced us.
"We were talking through text messages for about a month before we even met so we got to know each other pretty well over that time.
"We then decided to go for a drink to the Harp Bar on a Wednesday night. It was very casual but it was lovely and we just talked for hours.
“He has a young son and is divorced so we have a lot in common. He understood what it is like for me.”
Since that initial meeting, the couple have been spending more and more time together, including trips to the north coast and days away.
“He has met a lot of my friends and gets on great with them, which is important to me,” says Tina.
What is much more important to her, however, is that he has met PJ and Leila. He is the first new partner she has introduced them to since her divorce.
Tina says: “I trust him around my children. They met and got on really well and they are happy with him coming to the house. They have also met his son for a walk in the park and an ice cream and everyone got on great.
“I’m just living for the moment and enjoying every day. It is lovely being in a relationship again and having someone there for me.
“Stephen is a very private and very humble. He is also the kindest person I have ever met.
“He makes an effort to get to know my children and my friends and that’s very important to me.
“He is a true gentleman and has been very well-raised. Finding love again hasn’t been easy and it is especially difficult when you throw children into the mix but I believe they are ready for me to have a partner again now and they are happy for me.
“Stephen is very trustworthy and reliable and I feel very lucky.
“Right now, we are just enjoying getting to know each other. I am ready to take a chance again and to commit to a relationship.”
She also sings for the Belfast Community Gospel Choir and says her friends there also know Stephen “and speak very highly off him”.
“They have all been saying how nice it is to see me happy and in a good place after the difficult time I have had,” she says.
“Sometimes I forget just how low I was at times and then I remember how far I have come and am very thankful. I keep apologising to friends for crying on their shoulders, but they all tell me they understand.”
Despite everything she has been through. Tina says she wishes ex-husband Paddy nothing but happiness.
“We don’t really communicate unless it is about the kids and then we get on fine. I have no desire to know what is going on in his life any more.
“That is none of my business but he was a huge part of my life for so long and he will always be the father of my children so I wish him well. I want to see him happy and do well in life.”
She adds that she doesn’t miss the public eye and being the wife of a rugby star.
“I was never really a rugby wife. I enjoyed the Ireland matches and camps but I stopped going to a lot of matches after PJ was born as he didn’t like the noise, and then when Leila was born I was too busy being a mum.”
Something she will always have time for is her family, her parents and her four brothers. She is especially close to Elaine and Bryan, who live in Holywood, and says she couldn’t survive without their help.
“We are exceptionally close and I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today without the love and support of my parents.
“They took us to Tenerife at Easter and it was lovely to have some time away with the children.”
So, when she is not working hard at one of her two jobs, looking after her children or cooking a delicious meal for her new man, does she get to enjoy any ‘me time’?
Tina says: “I try to have one night a week when I just relax and chill out. If Paddy has the kids during the week I will just come home and cook something for my dinner and then relax and have an early night.
“I’m not into big nights out any more. I just like to have a nice dinner, a few drinks and then home to bed.
“I’m happy with that and for me right now life is about being happy and concentrating on the things which are important to me.”