For the third in this series of interviews, I talked to Dawn Purvis, MLA for East Belfast and leader of the Progressive Unionist Party in her Stormont Office on Wednesday 11 November. Read on to discover her views on East Belfast, her party and its pro-choice policy, as well as education and how she entered the world of politics.
As usual I started by asking about her views of the opportunities and challenges facing the area that she represents.
(Dawn) There are quite a lot of challenges. Certainly where my office is based on the Newtownards Road, would be classed as Ballymacarrett ward, which is in the top ten most deprived wards out of 566 in Northern Ireland. And that ward faces many challenges including educational underachievement, high unemployment, health inequalities, lack of development in nought to four year olds, intervention in terms of parenting skills, job and training opportunities as there’s a lot of challenges in that particular area.
And the challenges I suppose in different parts of East Belfast would be different according to the wealth of the ward you’re talking about. So for example, further out in East Belfast in the Belmont area, you’re facing challenges around flooding, dog poo, street lighting, pelican crossings. The issues change according to the neighbourhood. ...
But there are lots of opportunities in East Belfast. Tourism potential is big. I don’t think it’s been capitalised upon and we’ve still a lot of work to do, particularly around Sirocco Quays, Titanic Quarter development, because the potential opportunities there for the greater East Belfast area not to mention the areas that are just on the periphery of Sirocco Quays and Titanic Quarter, and of course Northern Ireland wide.
I think what’s disappointing at the minute is that those potential opportunities haven’t materialised very well. Whether that’s the effects of the economic recession: and we know that developers have been hardest hit by the recession. Whether that is a lack of partnership working with developers and government – for example, planning department or the Department of Employment and Learning or other smaller agencies within East Belfast – remains to be seen.
To me, Titanic Quarter and Sirocco Quays seem isolated sitting on the other side of a big flyover, as well as isolated in terms of the wealth of those who could afford to live there.
(Dawn) Well, I think the concerns of the communities in Inner East including Short Strand, Lower Newtownards Road, and Templemore Avenue ... have been well aired both with the Carville Group and with Titanic Quarter Developments Ltd. In terms of don’t be building a walled city or a walled village on the periphery of East Belfast to the exclusion of everyone else in East Belfast or you’re saving up problems.
The communities there want to be part of the consultation around the development, want to be part of the housing in terms of the developers ensuring there is social and affordable housing but also in terms of construction jobs, apprenticeships, and latterly when the development is complete more high value jobs and a stake in that community. Because it is part of their community, it is part of East Belfast and always has been.
So I think it’s important that the developers realise the linkages in geographical terms but also culturally and community terms.
Which leads to a future vision of people walking to work, following the route trod by their parents and grandparents, from the bottom of the Newtownards Road across to the land that used employ so many from the area.
(Dawn) And that’s why access is very, very important and I know that Titanic Quarter developments had plans for a walkover and a new road etc. But they’ve probably gone on the back burner because of the economic recession but they are no less important in the future development, the future investment in the area. That local people have access, otherwise, it just becomes a walled village, people see that there’s no opportunities for them and they’ve no connection, and no buy in with that.
And building community cohesion is very, very difficult as we know at the best of times. Building social capital is very difficult at the best of times within communities that are deprived in relation to other communities. And I think it’s very important for Titanic Quarter developments, for the vision of the community they want to have in that area, it’s not just about young professionals, it’s not just about wealthy families. And Sirocco Quays is the same. They actually want a vibrant city/village community, and that means you need families, you need a mix of ages, and you need a mix of wealth as well in order to create that dynamic.
I asked about Short Strand and whether Dawn saw signs of more integration with the surrounding areas. Which led to an unexpected reference to the Berlin Wall!
(Dawn) Well I think that’s something that people need to work towards. And certainly there are people of both sides working towards that: Short Strand Community Association, Inner East Forum, Contact Group, you’ve East Belfast Mission, Ballymac Centre, Pitt Park, and the Woodstock and the Link Crime Project there. So there are people working together.
And in terms of cross community projects, in terms of integration, one that I can think of off the top of my head is the Education By Choice at the bottom of the Ravenhill Road that works with young people excluded from education, for whatever reason, started off with six children, and now it’s completely cross community with forty children from lower Ravenhill, Woodstock area, and Short Strand. So that’s children being educated together which is extremely important for the development of relations in that area.
I think that Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road have really worked well together when it comes to developments like Sirocco Quays and Titanic Quarter. So there is lots of opportunities there for more integration.
Certainly we’d love to see the walls coming down, but when people are at a point when they feel safe, secure and confident in the future, just as in the Berlin Wall, they’ll dismantle it themselves.
Moving on to the part, in the run up to a Westminster election, how did Dawn think the PUP were changing, and what would be party’s big constants?
(Dawn) I think the big constants that will keep with the Progressive Unionist Party is conflict transformation, working towards a complete and absolute end to any form of conflict in our society, and we’re not quite there yet. So I think one of the main stays of the Progressive Unionist Party, we’re not afraid to admit where we came from, we’re not afraid to roll our sleeves up and get in there and do the work while others can condemn and complain and everything else from the sidelines, we understand the processes that needs to bring this about and we’re prepared to do that.
I think the other main stay for the Progressive Unionist Party is social and economic justice, for the most vulnerable in our society. And that means trying to alleviate poverty, trying to work on issues around housing or in educational underachievement. Because we understand the link between poverty and conflict and it you look at the history of Northern Ireland, over 40 years of conflict it’s the most deprived communities that have suffered most from the conflict and perpetrated most of the violence in the conflict. So those are the communities where the fault lines of the conflict are still there and therefore the potential for violence is still there, and there’s an awful, awful lot of work to do.
So I believe in election after election to come, as we move to a more Realpolitik, normal politics which is more about social issues than it is about green and orange, that’s where the relevancy of the PUP will grow.
Dawn predicts that politics in Northern Ireland “will be a long time evolving … probably another two terms of the Assembly” before there is “any significant change”. But she firmly believes that it’s “only through the working out of the democratic institutions” that the public find out “you get what you vote for”.
(Dawn) I think in many respects the voters in Northern Ireland are way ahead of their politicians. They’re fed up with the green and orange. They’re fed up with the wrangling up here. They’re fed up with the doublespeak and the hypocrisy and they just want them to get on with it and start delivering on the real issues on the ground.
And looking forward?
(Dawn) I think in terms of moving forward, the PUP are certainly concentrating, not on Westminster because we think we’ve a job more work to do in Northern Ireland and we’ve a vision for Northern Ireland, so in terms of moving forward, we’re concentrating on the next local government election and the next Assembly election. Because we believe we have something to offer people that’s not out there. We believe that our message in terms of social and economic justice is not exclusively unionist and not exclusively nationalist, and we think we can draw that wider appeal.
Dawn agrees that her party’s appeal is defined by people’s perceptions of the paramilitary past of the party’s founders. Yet she is heartened by the transfers at the March 2007 election that came “every other party that was on the ballot paper”.
(Dawn) People know we work hard in terms of conflict transformation, in terms of bringing paramilitarism to an end, and also in terms of the issues that are affecting people on a daily basis. So I think that message is getting through and that people are saying “oh here is an alternative voice within unionism” and it’s not about beating the orange drum, and it’s about saying there is something better here for everybody, and everybody can have a slice of the cake.
The Progressive Unionist Party’s distinctive pro-choice policy was unsuccessfully challenged at their party conference in October. I asked if Dawn was disappointed that the other parties held such different views?
(Dawn) I think the PUP is the only party that I believe can stand up and say we have a mandate both from our party and in terms of our electorate because the PUP has always had – from before I joined – a pro-choice policy and a policy of campaigning for the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
I don’t remember any other political party either having that on their election manifesto or campaigning on that or even debating that at their party conference. Sinn Fein argue that they’re a socialist party. I’m sorry, that’s not true. The SDLP argue that they’re a socialist party. I’m sorry, that’s not true. Because fundamentally, one of the issues is a woman’s right to choose, and you either believe in equality and rights for women or you don’t. And that’s what fundamentally goes to the heart of the issue.
The PUP in setting its stall out is a good thing because it means that voters are aware of the policy up front. I have noticed that from the campaign to extend the Abortion Act and the profile of that has increased, that for the first time ever Ian Paisley Senior in putting out a constituency newsletter for the first time ever has mentioned abortion on his constituency newsletter saying that he will campaign against any liberalisation of the laws in Northern Ireland.
There’s a lot of misconceptions around abortion and what’s legal and what’s not in Northern Ireland. An awful lot of people do not realise that women in Northern Ireland are not allowed abortion if they have been raped, or have become pregnant as a result of rape or as a result of incest. And they don’t realise that a woman who is faced with a pregnancy where the foetus has a severe abnormality is allowed to have an abortion. That’s the law that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, but women here are regarded as lesser citizens.
Asked about public engagement with politics, Dawn points to the performance of politicians.
(Dawn) Well, I’m in politics by accident, but I like the job that I do because I like people. I couldn’t do the job I did without liking people, without listening to people, without hearing their views and hearing their opinions and wanting to improve their quality of life. To me that’s what politics is about.
I think there are some politicians who don’t even like people, who can’t engage with people, it doesn’t come naturally to them. They may regard themselves as policy nerds, or legislation nerds etc, but politics is essentially about people because it’s the public that vote for you, that put you in office in order to represent their views. They vote for you because they share your values and your principles.
But I inform myself by engaging with people, and I remind myself all the time that’s why I’m here, that’s the job that I have to do. So engaging with the public is absolutely crucial to your job and to everything that you do in this Assembly and everything else that you do in terms of your constituency. So any opportunity for engagement I think every politician has to take it up, and have to explore new ways to engage, new ways to reach out to people who for whatever reason are difficult to reach out to.
Are there a lot of people who are difficult to reach out to or don’t want to be reached?
(Dawn) I don’t think that they’re difficult to reach out to, but we find it difficult to reach them. Because we’re not using all the means and mechanisms that are there.
She referred to the RNIB newsletter (on CD) and the chance to publish election literature on CD form as one way of using alternative mediums to reach people who currently don’t hear her party’s message.
(Dawn) ... I don’t think we as politicians use to the best of our ability. We get too comfortable in the usual forms of press statement, media, going on TV, going on radio, but an awful lot of people now ... we know that sales of newspapers for example have decreased, and more and more people are using the internet, as a means of either accessing local news, or national or world news, so I think politicians have to get with the times.
On the topic of openness and transparency, Dawn felt that the principles of public life - the Nolan principles - should “guide everything we do”. She rejected the view that politicians were “lifted and laid”, pointing to long hours and the possibility of being “made redundant every four years”.
(Dawn) I think that because of the expenses scandal, I think because of the whole debate around double jobbing, employment of family members, that that has damaged the credibility of politicians in the public eye. Would it have been such a big story if we weren’t in an economic recession? Probably not. But people feel it in their pocket, so they have a right to demand certain principles, certain standards of their politicians.
Education is high up the public and political agenda at the moment. The day before I interviewed Dawn, a second round of cross party talks between Alliance, DUP, UUP and SDLP had taken place. The rumour was that a Heads of Agreement would be imminently published - though nearly a week later there’s no sign of it.
In working class areas of East Belfast, education and literacy are big issues. I asked Dawn if she was hopeful that the current post-primary educational chaos would deliver something practical.
(Dawn) I’m not. It’s an absolute mess. It’s an absolute disaster. Whilst I would agree with Sinn Fein in terms of ending academic selection – because I think it’s the single most discriminatory tool that has disadvantaged working class children, the majority of children in our society, right across the board – I don’t agree with how they’ve gone about dismantling academic selection and I think it’s been a complete disaster.
I think the grammar schools are to blame for this. I think they share the blame with the education minister, because they have single child vision rather than every child vision. They are and have been for many, many years, operating a system not as academic selection, but as social selection. They are closet comprehensives, they have taken children who have passed the 11 Plus from grade A to grade D but they take them from the wealthiest and middle class communities. If a child got a D in the 11 Plus from Short Strand or Templemore Avenue, not one grammar school in East Belfast would entertain them. But yet they would take them if they came from the Belmont Road area or somewhere else.
So I think we need to put paid to this myth that's peddled around academic selection. We’ve never had a proper system of academic selection. There’s only two grammar schools in the whole of Northern Ireland that take A grades only. That’s academic selection. So we have closet comprehensives that choose children on the basis of their family’s income. That’s wrong. And it doesn’t provide a vision for the future of education that values every child for their own skills and talents. That’s why we need to do away with it.
What we’re left with now is the gap between the halves and the have nots ... it’s going to get bigger.
Sinn Fein didn’t join the talks, and neither the PUP nor the Green Party were invited. As Kermit the Frog sang: It’s not easy being Green. So I asked Dawn if it was hard being purple? Easily overlooked?
(Dawn) I suppose because I’m opposed to academic selection I didn’t fit into the scheme of things ...
I hope the parties can come up with something. I’m told that they are not far away from reaching agreement on a set of Heads of Agreement. But ultimately where do they go with it? Because the education minister has set her stall out. She’s not budging on it. They have refused to take part in the talks. So what do these parties do with whatever Heads of Agreement they come up with.
Why didn’t they do it when the minister was talking about ending academic selection? Why did they not discuss education in the whole of 2007 before we got to this debacle? Why has the Executive not discussed education since early 2008? A lot of this is political point scoring. If they were really serious about having an every child vision instead of a single child vision for education in Northern Ireland I’d say why didn’t they do it before this.
I finished by asking Dawn how she ended up in politics.
(Dawn) I was never attracted into the world of politics. Politics was a big turn off for me because I heard large men with booming voices and from a very early age I thought they had nothing to offer to this society and were never going to resolve the difficulties. So from a very early age I always though that it was those who were doing the fighting and those who were committing the violence that had to sit round the table and had to sort out their difficulties. And that’s what needed to happen and it did happen.
And I suppose becoming involved in community work, mother and toddlers, after school club, and actually working in the community when my kids were small, when I started to realise the very great need that was there, that’s how I became headhunted by the party if you like.
And that’s what the PUP does. It recognises talented people and said we need people like you in the party who are working at the coal face for some of the most vulnerable. And a friend of mine headhunted me into the party.
And I have to say that where I am now, if you’d said to me in late 1994 this is where you’re going to be in fifteen years’ time, I’d’ve probably been looking two GPs to get you signed into Knockbracken!
But I love what I do and I remind myself every day that I’m here because people put me here, and in everything I do, I remind myself that this isn’t about me, but it’s about the people who I represent.
Next up will be Niall Ó Donnghaile, Sinn Féin’s representative in East Belfast.