Commons people: how Nadine Dorries went from Irish Liverpool to Westminster
The Conservative MP has written a novel about the Irish in 1950s Liverpool. She recalls sectarianism in her home city and talks about attitudes to ‘people like me’ in the House of Commons
Nadine Dorries in full flow in the House of Commons
Dorries in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’
Imagine Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes with a Scouse accent and you might be close to understanding Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’s story of life for Irish immigrants in Liverpool in the 1950s.
Her first novel, The Four Street s – one of three in a £100,000-deal – is grim. It tells of poverty, insecure employment on the docks, exploitation, domination by the Catholic Church, even rape and sexual abuse.
The story has tales of friendship too, of loyalty, and a sense of community among the poor in days before welfare benefits, even stretching to communal meals when the money had run out.
Sitting in the Pugin Room in the House of Commons, Dorries recalls her own childhood a decade later in the city. She is the daughter of a Mayo-born bus-driver, who died in his 40s, and she lived on a council estate with her English mother on the edge of the Irish enclave.
“They were a very insular community. It reminds me very much of the Somali community today. The children still spoke with an Irish accent because they went to schools that were run by the sisters who had come from Ireland. Everybody they met in their daily lives was Irish. It was very funny to meet kids who spoke differently from me and yet we were both living in Liverpool,” she says.
Sectarianism in Liverpool is a shadow of its former self “but it is still there” – the protests launched against a march honouring James Larkin last year showed that the embers have not been entirely extinguished.
“When I grew up it was very divided: it was very much the Orange Lodge and Catholics,” says Dorries, remembering how she was afraid to leave an office at lunchtime because a Lodge march was passing outside. “You were always being asked, “Are you a Catholic or a Proddie? That was a question that you were always asked in the 1960s and early 1970s.”
She recalls the construction of the city’s 1960s-built Catholic cathedral, the Grade II-listed, if deeply disliked, Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King – better known to some in Liverpool as “Paddy’s Wigwam”.
Today, the situation has improved, partly on the back of work done by churches in the city, which has “been pretty amazing in healing lot of the divisions and rifts which were there,” says Dorries.
She is a mother of three. “My daughter’s boyfriend is a Power,” she says, in a way that only someone of Irish background would say. “He was in Ireland until he was four, when they came here. I told him about Liverpool’s past. He’s 21 now and he was wide-eyed listening to me – that it was that bad.”
Bingo wins and Mayo trips
Dorries spent holidays in Bangor Erris in Mayo, even going to school there on occasions, fuelled by occasional bingo wins by her grandmother.
“Every time my grandmother had a win on the bingo, my stuff was packed into bags and I was back to Mayo. I can remember my uncle ringing the butcher’s. The butcher’s and the pub were the same building. I can remember my uncle in Liverpool ringing to say to my nan, ‘You’ve got to bring her back; she has got to go to school’.” My nan was saying, ‘She is in school’. And I was in school,” she says, laughing.
During lengthy sojourns in Mayo, Dorries never remembers hearing one conversation about the Troubles. “It wasn’t something that touched the village. It just isn’t part of daily life and it wasn’t when I was growing up there either. I tell you what they talk about more: they talk about the English in the 1600s driving them on to the bogs. They talk about that, and the partition of land.”
Later, she travelled to Australia to appear on the TV programme I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! – a decision that brought her ridicule among some of her colleagues, although she defends it.
Looking around the Pugin Room, she offers a friendly greeting to Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, who inherited much of his father James’s huge fortune. She gets a friendly greeting back.
Pointing to Goldsmith, Dorries murmurs: “There is almost resentment among some here that people like me are here. Yet that is what democracy is supposed to be about. He’s not like that at all. He’s from Eton, a very aristocratic background, [but] he isn’t like that one little bit. People from Zac’s background, I find, are completely accepting, but there are some who feel people like me shouldn’t be here: ‘We paid to go to school to prepare us to get here, we’ve got connections’.”
So why is Goldsmith different? “I think it is upbringing, probably his parents. Some people in this place have been brought up very badly and could have done with a few weeks on my streets and a few slaps across the legs, frankly,” she says.
Dorries is refreshingly blunt. She lived apart from her father after her parents divorced when she was a teenager. She was the one who found him dead in his bed, seven days after he died. “I was nursing in Liverpool. I was working seven nights on. My dad put the milk bottles out, had a chat with the neighbours and went to bed and never woke up. I found him seven days later, when I came back from the night shift.”
Dorries describes herself as a social conservative; she opposes abortions in the UK beyond 24 weeks, but she is not opposed to abortion itself. “I can remember well girls in the 1960s appearing in Liverpool from Ireland and then disappearing home again a few days later,” she says. “It has always been the case. I don’t think it should be the case. They shouldn’t have to travel, and it shouldn’t be that difficult. I am pro-choice up to a point, so those safe options should be available in Ireland.”
Books about gritty inner-city upbringings are a trend in Britain – the Call the Midwife tales have sold 2.5 million copies and sparked a popular TV series.
For Dorries, writing novels provides income for one obvious purpose: paying the costs of being a member of the House of Commons, since she does not claim parliamentary expenses. The Bedfordshire MP has fallen foul of the expenses rules, having to pay back £3,000 worth of travel expenses, and she remains angry about it.
Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband, she says, “need to scrap expenses as of now, but neither will because neither is brave enough”, though it is far from clear that her per diem solution would do much to assuage public anger. “It should be simply: “It cost this and that is what is paid. Sleep on the floor if you want, or stay in a Travel Lodge. This is undermining democracy. We are driving people into the arms of protest parties like UKIP.”
“I don’t claim a penny because I don’t trust the system not to shift the goalposts so that I end up falling foul of the system which I think is corrupt.”
Her decision costs her £30,000 a year, which, she accepts, is not something everyone can, or should do. But she asserts: “As long as I keep earning I will be okay.”
The Four Streets is published by Head of Zeus