Baroness May Blood: Martin McGuinness and David Ervine are huge losses
Baroness May Blood will step away from the House of Lords next month after 19 years of service as the first woman from Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage. A proud working-class Belfast woman, she tells Joanne Sweeney how she walked through the doors that life opened to her in an extraordinary career
WHEN Baroness May Blood speaks, only a fool wouldn't listen closely, as the likes of Gerry Adams and the late Ian Paisley could attest.
Having turned 80 a few weeks ago, the Shankill woman will step down from the House of Lords after 19 years of representing Northern Ireland’s interests in Westminster. She was in London three days a week, never missing any of the 39 weeks the House sat throughout the years.
“When I came in here first I didn’t think I would survive one year, let alone 19. But I always said that if I could survive, I would stay until I was 80. But I’m also leaving due to the travel,” she explains.
“I thought everyone wouldn’t understand me as they were so well educated and I wasn’t. That’s completely untrue.
“In my time in the Lords, I’ve learned that I have skills that I never knew I processed and I learned that there are things you can do if you just make up your mind to do it.”
Some of her initial misgivings about taking up the seat disappeared after her first year, when she readily admits that she felt at odds in the Lords, as she was particularly conscious of her working-class Belfast background.
“I was a bit of a novelty when I came into the Lords in 1999. I was a community worker from grassroots and that’s rare in the House of Lords as most people there have an academic background or have been in politics or medicine or made their mark in the work that they are involved in,” she says.
“I was terribly lonely in my first year as I kept myself out of the House unless the chamber was sitting. Then I realised that if I was going to make it work, I would have to come in and make it work as there was nobody going to make it work for me. I found out that if I was willing to work with others, then they were willing to work with me.”
She admits that she will miss it as she loves being in the Lords but the former mill worker turned shop steward, influential community activist and peace worker has plenty of other work to do – including leading the campaign for more integrated schools here.
She will continue her campaigning work and is an active board member in the Argyle Business Centre which hopes to soon realise a project to bring 120 jobs to the Shankill Road area.
It was the indomitable Mo Mowlam who saw the potential of Blood at Westminster. No doubt the late Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland relished bringing a working-class trade unionist into the lofty Lords.
“Mo told me after it was announced that she was determined to get at least one working-class woman into the House of Lords,” laughs Blood. “She was a great person for promoting integrated education and didn’t get as far as she would have liked to in her term here as secretary of state. I’ve always imagined that Mo felt that if she opened that door for me, that’s what I could do. I feel that when I do work for the Integrated Education Fund, I’m doing work that Mo really wanted me to do.
“I’m also a great believer that in life you are presented with doors; you open those doors and go through them.”
As a tireless advocate for integrated education in Northern Ireland, she has helped to raise £15 million since 2002. It’s her passion project but one that despite fundraising success and encouraging developments, she’s disappointed that there are only 65 integrated schools here to date, rather than the 100 she had hoped for by this time.
As sharp as a tack, when she shoots she scores and can still give a dressing down to leading politicians.
She once glared at DUP leader Ian Paisley senior when, as the only woman at a meeting to talk about loyalist decommissioning, he asked her to make the tea.
When she sat in the middle of a 2,000 strong audience at a Sinn Fein fundraiser in Boston, she made her presence felt in front of former party leader Gerry Adams. She says: “He was giving it the full wellie about 'the poor Catholics', then he saw me and talked about needing to work together.”
A lifelong Labour party member, she scorns party leader Jeremy Corbyn, saying: “I was reared in a house where Labour was bread and butter. He doesn’t talk the language that I understand to be Labour.
“I would fear that if this Brexit plan went belly-up, and [Theresa] May was to call an election, where would we go as there is every possibility that Jeremy Corbyn could get elected? That would really frighten me.”
She mourns the loss of two former and now deceased combatants as “statesmen” that the north badly needs today.
“It was a sad day for Northern Ireland when Martin McGuinness died as he was one of the few statesmen we really had,” says Blood. “Me and him fought the bit out many a time over different things but we could work together.
“If [late PUP leader and ex-loyalist paramilitary] Davy Ervine had lived, he would have been a brilliant politician. There aren’t people like that around now. Unfortunately they are gone and the place is not being filled by people of the same stature.”
She admits to being frustrated and disappointed over the lack of political progress at Stormont, saddened by the lack of co-operation by the two women party leaders, former First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP and Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s leader in the north.
“As three of our parties now are led by women, you would say that’s great, but they can’t get along and we are no better off.”
As a democrat, she adds that the thought of an all-Ireland, or an agreed Ireland, does not scare her.
“I’m a democrat and if the people of Northern Ireland voted tomorrow, I would agree with it as I’m a democrat and accept it. But the thing is, I would go to bed as a Protestant and get up the next morning as a Protestant, an all-Ireland wouldn’t change that.”
FROM MILLS TO LORDS
A FORMER linen mill worker in Belfast, Baroness May Blood of Blackwatertown, Co Armagh became a prominent trade unionist and shop steward from 1952-90.
She went on to become a respected community activist through her work with the Greater Shankill Partnership, a community-led agency designed to regenerate the Greater Shankill area, with a particular contribution to its Early Years project.
Working at grassroots level to build peace and reconciliation, she was one of the founders of the Women’s Coalition in 1996
Baroness Blood has also received three honorary doctorates, an MBE (in 1995) and a US Citizen’s Award, in 1997.
In 1999 she became the first woman and the first working-class person to be given a life peerage and seat in the House of Lords.
She became a champion and campaign chairwoman for the Integrated Education Fund in 2002 and will continue to advocate after stepping away from the Lords.
In 2007 she published her well-received autobiography, Watch My Lips, I’m Speaking.
In 2013 she was awarded the Grassroot Diplomat Initiative Award for her tireless campaign for integrated education in Northern Ireland.
She still sits as a board member in many organisations and is a sought-after speaker.