Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Mum gets our vote: Top politicians and their mothers

First Minister Arlene Foster and SDLP MLA Claire Hanna talk about their special relationships with their mothers and reveal how their views were shaped growing up with these strong women in their lives. By Una Brankin and Karen Ireland.

Women are now playing a bigger part in Northern Ireland  politics than ever before with 20 of our 108 MLAs now female in an Assembly led by First Minister Arlene Foster.

Ahead of Mother's Day tomorrow, we talk to the women who inspired our new wave of politicians to have the confidence and skills to lead the province.

As the first woman to lead the Assembly, First Minister Arlene Foster (46) of the DUP has a deep bond with her mum Georgina Kelly (82). Meanwhile, SDLP stalwart Carmel Hanna (69) says she is happy to see another woman - in the form of daughter Claire (35) - pick up the political baton.

Georgina and Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster is well used to the spotlight, but her mum Georgina is not. But the modest housewife, originally from Sandy Row, and mother of the province's first female First Minister and youngest person ever to have held the post, is rightly proud.

She even travelled up from Co Fermanagh to sit in the public gallery to watch as Arlene was officially installed as First Minister earlier this year.

But Georgina says her daughter exhibited leadership skills at a young age.

"Whether in the Brownies, on the hockey pitch or the badminton court, there were no half measures. If Arlene was competing, it was all or nothing. She didn't go in to make up the numbers. When she was given a job she was very diligent to make sure it was done right."

And like any mother, she says her desire for her children was "to be happy and content".

She adds: "I never pressurised them to be something or do something they didn't want to. Arlene never needed to be pushed. She was always a hard worker at school and wanted to do her best. She talked about being a history teacher when she was younger. To be honest, so long as she was doing something she enjoyed I would be happy. Once she got to university I thought she would go on to have a stable career in law. Politics was a major step into uncertainty and, at that time, was a dangerous world to be in."

Despite her maternal fears for Arlene, Georgina says the political will in her daughter was obvious: "I always knew speaking with her that she felt there was a job to be done. She would say there are too many fireside politicians. They stand on the sidelines and shout but never do anything themselves. I'm not going to be one of them."

While much has been made of Arlene's gender as the first female in the political role, her mum has a more basic take on what she will bring to Stormont.

"I think she will bring a different perspective to things. She's an ordinary person who understands people. As a mother with young children, she understands the pressures of juggling a job and being a parent. I think a lot of people recognise that she's got her feet on the ground. I know she will use her own life experiences to guide her in doing the job."

And when it comes to the 1979 murder attempt on Georgina's late husband, John Kelly, who was a full-time RUC officer, she says: "I think it has shaped Arlene. When a child sees their father crawling on the floor with blood running from him, they never forget that. Then after the bus bomb [as a 16-year-old pupil at Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar School, Arlene's school bus was bombed by the IRA who were targeting the driver, who was in the UDR] I think she realised that it could have been so much worse. Others on the bus sitting near by were so badly injured and Arlene hadn't a scratch. She understands what other victims are still going through."

Arlene's mum says life was never the same after the murder bid: "There was a huge change in our home. We had to move house and the children had to change school. Our whole way of life completely changed. You always feared they would come back. It taught us to be resilient. We weren't going to let the terrorists deprive our children of having a happy childhood.

"I tried to make things as normal as possible but after you've been driven from your home it's pretty difficult to make anything seem normal. It was tough."

Despite everything the Foster family has been through, the fact one of them just happens to be the First Minister doesn't always cut much ice with Georgina, who adds: "I'm close with all the children. I've three daughters, one son, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Arlene comes to see me every week and she's just the same as the others. If I need run to a hospital appointment or to the shops, Arlene is as likely to get a call from me as any of the others. She doesn't have the same time now but if I tell her far enough in advance she will be all too willing to help. We talk about all the same things as any mother and daughter. She loves hearing the news from the locality so I'm always telling her what this one thinks and that one thinks."

She says that Arlene is like her dad, adding she is 'determined and tough'. Despite this confidence in her daughter's undoubted abilities, though, she does have fears.

"Of course I worry about her safety. I don't think there's a time when any mother stops worrying about their children. I worried the first day she went to school. I worried the first Saturday night she went to town with her friends in the car. Her dad used to say, 'It's not her I'm worried about it's the other buck-ejits on the road.' Arlene will say what she thinks, even if that means being unpopular. I sometimes worry that she would become a target because people don't like that she's standing up to them. I suppose I've grown used to it now."

Being stoic, though, appears to be a Foster family trait and Arlene says her mum has lived alone since the sudden death of her husband John in 2011.

Thankfully, Arlene and husband Brian and their three children, Sarah (16), George (14) and Ben (9), live close by.

Arlene explains: "My mother lives on her own independently - very much so. She had to have people in after she broke her two arms in a fall, three years ago, but she soon got back to normal. She has vertigo. We all take it in turns to take her to hospital appointments even though I'm not as free as I used to be."

Like her mother, the First Minister loves a good book: "I certainly get my interest in reading from her - my earliest memory of her is with a book in her hand, and she still goes to the local library. My singing voice? No. She doesn't sing at all and she would be the last to say that. That's from my dad's side; my looks, too. He was dark - although, it's funny, I got a letter recently from somebody saying I'm very like my mother now. I think you do get more so, as you get older."

But Arlene admits her parents were like chalk and cheese when it came to temperament.

"Mum's always been very level-headed and doesn't get overly excited about things - I know what you're going to say: so where do you get your temper from then? Well, I'm very quick like my father. Mum's very steady and she was always there. Looking back, you appreciate that.

"When my father was shot, mum internalised her fears and concerns at the time, but her hair went white, almost overnight. And she was just around my age at the time. She was never one for crying and I don't remember tears, though, apart from when we lost dad in 2011."

She adds: "Mum and dad were married for 54 years, so obviously it was an awful wrench for her when he died suddenly, and very difficult to get over. She's lucky to have very good friends and three of us close to her, and she gets out and about to her clubs and so on.

"She's very strong and she was a marvellous support to me - as was my late mother-in-law - when my son Ben had to have surgery on a valve in his heart when he was only three weeks old. He's fine now - he's only nine and he's a chicken farmer with his own hens."

And it seems Arlene's husband Brian and her mum get on well together - busting any myths about mother-in-laws.

"He's into rugby and she's not into sport at all, though, having lived with a mad Manchester United fan for many years. I am an EastEnders fan while Mum loves Coronation Street and we both like watching Downton Abbey and murder mysteries, like Columbo, together.

"Mum came from Sandy Row originally and I remember she used to refer to a bag as a 'beg', and things like that, which stood out from the local pronunciation. I remember going to see our granny there, in a bus in the Seventies and it was stoned, and we had to go the whole way back to Fermanagh with no window. But going to town was an adventure for us."

Despite Georgina's city upbringing she has adapted to rural life now, even joining in with some farm work.

"Mum has lived in the country since she was 25 and she'd be out stooking the bales with the rest of us. We were lucky to have parents who spoiled us all. There are lengthy gaps in our ages, so we all got plenty of attention. My eldest sister's 12 years older than me. I remember we always went to church on Mother's Day and had lunch together afterwards. We still do - Mum takes it in turns to come to one of us for lunch every Sunday.

"She never gives me political advice but she was delighted to be there on my first day as First Minister. She always wanted me to have a good career but her advice was 'just do your best'. She was never too pushy but she has always been very supportive.

"In fact, she and my mother-in-law, who died 14 months ago, were always of great assistance to me, and they were good friends. I do understand, if you have young kids and elderly parents who need care at the same time, that can be real source of stress, and I recognise how fortunate I am that Mum's in good health, and that my mother-in-law and my father were, up until the end."

Arlene, just like her mum's wishes for her, just hopes that she is able to enjoy life, adding "that's all you can wish for".

"My mum and in-laws have so much wisdom. My children adore their grandparents and they love talking to Mum. I wish I'd had more of a chance to talk to my granny on my father's side. Dad was an only child and his mother lived with us until she passed away, when was 98.

"It just shows how calm and level-headed my mother was - and is. And I think that's proof that two women can live in the same kitchen without it being a recipe for war."

Carmel and Claire Hanna

Ask former MLA Carmel Hanna (69) what the highlight of her political career was and her answer will be bittersweet.

"There are many highlights to my political career. The most important thing was getting people to listen and to engage, which I feel I did in my role as health spokesperson. But by far my most important role has always been as a mother," she says.

Carmel, now retired from politics, lives in Belfast with her husband Eamon Hanna (69), a chartered accountant who is semi-retired, and is proud mother to Michael (41), Siobhan (40), Deirdre (37) and Claire (35).

For years she juggled motherhood with her career, first as a nurse in intensive care and midwifery and then as one of the best-known faces in local politics.

"I thought I worked hard as a nurse, particularly as an intensive care nurse in the Mater Hospital during the Troubles, but I never worked as hard as I did when I entered politics," reveals Carmel, who is preparing for a busy Mother's Day this year with three out of four of her children and four out of her eight grandchildren. Daughter Siobhan and her four children now live in LA.

"Working in the Mater I was up close and personal with people and I saw the rawness of the damage the Troubles were causing. This was what encouraged me to enter politics to try to make a difference. I have no trouble admitting to my Irishness, but I could never understand why anyone would kill or try to kill because of it.

"The thing is, people could see the job I was doing as a nurse, but in politics they would maybe say 'oh I saw you on television last night and you looked great', but they wouldn't have had a clue what I was talking about as they weren't listening.

"That is the biggest challenge I faced in politics, it wasn't being a woman in a mainly male environment, instead it was getting people to engage and to see the bigger picture.

"I wanted them to take an interest in what was going on and to think about the decisions which were being made on their behalf and the discussions being held on how to run the country and achieve peace."

Motherhood and politics overlapped for Carmel when she found her youngest daughter was constantly to be found at her side helping her campaign and loving being on the doorsteps and meeting people when her mum was electioneering.

It was no surprise, therefore, when a young Claire joined the SDLP and became active in politics after leaving school.

The baby of the family, who Carmel describes as the "most honest and generous" person she knows, started to make her own mark in the arena when she was elected to Belfast City Council.

"Claire is great craic and a very interesting person. She is generous to a fault and was always giving things away and sharing things. She went on holidays once to stay with her sister in Nice in France and she ended up giving all of her money to beggars on the first day.

"She has always been determined and a strong activist. I think she will do well in this profession," says her mum.

Her two pieces of important advice?

"In politics just be yourself and go your own way and believe in yourself, but at home make every precious moment with your two young children count. This job robs you of a lot of family time, so make every second matter."

Claire Hanna, who took up her role as an MLA last July, admits juggling and finding enough hours in the week to balance party life with home life - with husband Donal Lyons (34), who is also in the SDLP and works in Public Policy and their two daughters, Eimear (4) and Aideen (2) - are the biggest challenges of the job so far.

"It is tough but you just have to make the time you spend at home extra special. I don't remember mum not being at home much when we were growing up as she always made time for us.

"And I knew, just like I hope my girls will understand when they are older, that she was working for the greater good and a better environment for younger people to grow up in."

Claire says having witnessed her mum's long hours, working in a male-dominated environment and the odd security threat were never enough to put her off a career in politics.

"We were aware growing up of security issues from both sides of the community, but it wasn't something which dominated our lives.

"I knew entering a career in politics I had big shoes to fill, but that's why I never intentionally went for mum's seat or ran on the same ticket as her.

"I waited until she had retired to enter politics full-time. Up until then I was working for Concern Worldwide and was an SDLP party member."

Since entering politics full-time, Claire says she has turned to her experienced and knowledgeable mother for advice on many occasions.

"She is always there for me. She might not always tell me what I want to hear, but she will give me her honest assessment of things and I value her opinion greatly.

"This is a full-on job and I am acutely aware that I don't want to miss out on anything with the girls. I discuss this with mum, as well as the major political decisions confronting me. I feel exceptionally privileged to be doing this job and representing the people."

Claire says there is nothing she likes better than a big family get-together and this Mother's Day will probably see her cooking a huge lunch for everyone as her mum, her strongest supporter in every role in life, carries out an executive director role from the sidelines.

"She has earned the right over the years to spend more time enjoying a glass of wine than peeling the potatoes," she adds.

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