Election of Poots: ‘If you are gay or a woman, be worried’ – NI community worker

Women from loyalist community fear new DUP leader’s views will inform governance

Northern Irish women from the Protestant community have described the election of Edwin Poots as the de facto leader of unionism, as "very worrying" and "depressing".

Catherine Pollock (40), community worker in Derry living in the mainly loyalist Fountain area, told The Irish Times she didn't "know whether to laugh or cry" at the result.

"Either way, if it had been Jeffrey Donaldson, it wouldn't have been great, but that Poots is to be seen as representative of unionism is very worrying. He doesn't believe in science. It's just baffling. How do you reason with someone like that? If you are gay or a woman or are concerned about the environment, be worried."

When put to her these were his private views, she said: "His private views don't just look bad. They manifest themselves in real things that affect people. Gay rights, access to reproductive healthcare – he is not going to push any of that. It really does have tangible impacts on people's lives."

Poots is steeped in the DUP’s religious elements, and is on the traditionalist, Paisleyite wing of the party. He is opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion in the North and has courted controversy over his views on homosexuality and evolution – he is a creationist who believes the Earth was created about 4,000 years ago.

As minister for health he tried to maintain a ban on gay men giving blood which had been lifted elsewhere in the UK, a ban later found by the high court to be “irrational”, and also opposed same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children.

Emma Shaw (39) from east Belfast contributes to the relatively new Twitter account @herloyalvoice. It aims to "provide a platform for the voices of loyalist women…who are often marginalised and have not had the opportunity to have meaningful involvement in peace-building and policy work in Northern Ireland".

Her reaction to the result was that “it’s pretty depressing”. Currently completing a Master’s degree in education policy at the University of Texas, she said many in her working-class, loyalist community feel their culture is “threatened… because we are seen as backward and ‘old-fashioned’.” The election of Poots will do little to improve that image.

Shaw is proud of her culture and traditions – like marching bands and bonfires to mark the night before the 12th of July – but feels these are attacked as showing loyalism as one-dimensional and with “no ideas, nothing to contribute to society”.

“We do have a lot to contribute. Loyalism is a wide, eclectic mix of social and political views. I think that is what @herloyalvoice does a good job of putting across. Everyone thinks all loyalists think the way the DUP thinks, and that’s not true.

“I am pro-choice in terms of women’s rights. My form of loyalism is different to someone else’s form of loyalism, but we all identify a loyalists and we all believe our culture and our traditions are important parts of who we are.”

‘Male-dominated environment’

Loyalist women are the ones who know the issues on the ground – whether in housing, childcare, education, Shaw said, but they aren’t heard by either politicians or the media. Many loyalist women, she adds, fear speaking publicly.

“On @herloyalvoice have faced a lot of backlash from lots of different angles. I was personally told to stick to wearing make-up and taking selfies.”

She believes if former leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster had been a man "she would have been treated with more respect" when suddenly forced to resign. "Politics in Northern Ireland is still a very male-dominated environment. That's a big part of our country's problems."

Echoing Shaw, Pollock described as "really frustrating" that media and political leaders go to the Loyalist Communities Council – a body that includes ex- loyalist paramilitaries – when seeking "the voice of loyalism".

“At grassroots level in unionism, even though women are hugely active, they are not given the same voice as they are within nationalism. Unionism is not as good in pushing women forward,” said Pollock.

Both hoped the election of Poots may force a debate about how their communities’ priorities and values are represented in politics.

“I’m increasingly challenging friends and family members who vote DUP. I ask, ‘Are you ok with that policy on gay rights?’ Maybe there will be more discussions about what they represent,” said Pollock.

Shaw hopes the result "gives other unionist parties such as Ulster Unionist Party and Progressive Unionist Party a chance to restructure and reform to attract voters who are done with the DUP."

A new poll on Saturday, May 22nd, found that support for the DUP had fallen to 16 per cent. Support for Sinn Féin had risen to 25 per cent, putting Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on course to be First Minister after next year’s elections.