One of the most interesting reads in a long time was an interview with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill — and there wasn’t a single line about party politics.
Instead she was talking about becoming a mum at the age of 16, and it was the story of a teenager coping with a dramatic change in her life that proved so riveting.
But it was also because we were getting a fascinating insight into a very different Mrs O’Neill.
This wasn’t the Sinn Fein politician on the steps of Stormont issuing statements on the party’s policy position on this and that.
Nor was it one of those hostile interviews with a public figure, setting out to examine a career trajectory, with a bristling writer chipping away at a carefully constructed persona.
No, this was Michelle O’Neill talking at length about what had happened to her as a young woman in the early Nineties when she found herself engulfed by circumstances many would dread to find themselves in.
Reflecting upon her teenage pregnancy from the vantage point of being 44, she said: “You are still a child yourself really when you look back.”
She didn’t reveal how her parents initially reacted when she first told them, but she did acknowledge that they were “very supportive”. She went on: “Quite often people are left isolated and don’t have that kind of network of support.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly some at the Catholic grammar school where she was studying weren’t thrilled by her news.
It “wasn’t a good experience... you were nearly made to feel girls like you can’t be at school, that kind of a thing”.
In the later months of pregnancy during her GCSEs and no longer able to fit into her uniform, she had to travel to school in her own clothes. Once, she forgot her bus pass and the driver “fought with me that I wasn’t actually a pupil at the school”.
How excruciating this would have been for a young woman, already self-conscious about her changing figure, singled out for this sort of attention. When she finally made it to school she was “treated like a plague”.
She revealed: “I remember coming home that day and I walked through my front door and I fell on the floor and I collapsed and I cried. I’ll never forget that experience and I thought nobody will ever treat me like this again.”
To her credit, Mrs O’Neill went back to school after having daughter Saoirse, now 27, and sat A-levels. Her own mother gave up work to enable her to continue with her schooling.
While Mrs O’Neill is adamant that things were very different in 1993 than today, there are still those who would recognise and identify with some of her experiences and take some comfort that life will still hold many opportunities for them.
One of the most encouraging aspects of Michelle O’Neill’s journey is that is illustrates how life isn’t set in stone, but is fluid with the potential for new opportunities. That a particular event doesn’t have to derail your ambitions or destroy your hopes. In fact, it can even prove a motivating factor. UltimatelyMrs O’Neill says her experiences made her stronger. She married and went on to have a son, Ryan, now 22.
Her interview shows politicians have full and complex lives, just like the rest of us. Politics is a job, but not necessarily their life.
Here, of course, we tend to see our politicians as essentially Orange or Green. For many, that’s the most important characteristic. It can also even suit the parties that their politicians remain two dimensional — some feel “personal” issues get in the way of “principle”. The Sinn Fein Press office isn’t alone in often seeming reluctant to put its people up for interview.
Which is why, when we do get to see beyond the public figure of politicians, it’s often because some personal lapse has been exposed, whether a financial scandal or an affair, all of which only leads to more stereotyping.
Of course, most unionists’ knowledge of Michelle O’Neill will be defined by her republicanism. Their opinion will be formed by seeing her at commemorations for dead IRA men who may have murdered their loved ones. Understandably, that doesn’t cast her as a sympathetic figure in their eyes.
Still, some women, no matter their allegiance, will empathise with elements of her story and feel a kind of sisterhood.
Cynics might also argue that her interview in the Irish Times this week was also a piece of crafty PR, presenting her in a softer light as a mother battling the odds to become a success in her chosen field — an image which will distract from the continuing fall-out from her mid-pandemic attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral.
But this particular perspective on Michelle O’Neill is indeed unusual, and it took courage to open up about something so intensely personal, especially given the excoriating abuse routinely heaped upon female public figures on social media.
We talk a lot about what female politicians can bring to public life — a more human face, greater understanding, aware of the need for flexibility. Is any of that true, simply because one is female?
We do know what type of politics men deliver, because that gender has been the norm in government for centuries.
Both Mrs O’Neill and Arlene Foster, for example, have been remarkably open about the personal experiences which have shaped them and also about the horrendous sexist abuse heaped on them across social media. That stuff simply doesn’t land on male politicians.
The openness can’t be said to have won them voters across the divide — that would be naive. But it has certainly helped illuminate the very real additional obstacles and challenges facing women who want to be active in society.
Even very senior republicans, you might say, and even unionists at the very top of the tree, are going to be vulnerable to the cheap jibe about their looks, gossip about their personal history, what the rumour mill generates about their private lives, when some bullies feel they “have something on them”.
It doesn’t matter what the flag is if you feel belittled, abused, ashamed and small, and while personal openness won’t deflect attacks or change someone else’s politics, it absolutely moves us forward to a healthier climate for living in.