This week we kick off the ’50:50 NI Meets’ series with Patricia O’Lynn. Patricia is an Alliance Councillor on the Mid and East Antrim borough council. When she is not representing the people of Ballymena Town Patricia works as a programme manager at the Charity Right To Succeed. Having achieved a BA in law and a MA in social science, as well as a diploma in strategic level leadership and management, Patricia is now working on completing her PhD. Patricia’s doctoral research seeks to better understand young people’s experiences of exclusion from school within the context of Northern Ireland.
So, have you always been into politics or is that something you came to later on?
No. I have not always been into politics. I knew nothing about politics growing up other than there were two sides and they didn’t like each other and this got violent sometimes. That was the extent of my involvement. In 2016, I went back to start my PhD. When I started it there was a call for the Washington Ireland Programme. I applied because I wanted to learn more about leadership and stay in Washington for two months. I was successful. This is an example of how little I knew about politics at the time. My internship was with John McCain. When I told parents there was silence, they were so surprised and I asked, who is this guy? Is he a big deal? To which my parents responded, Yes! He was a presidential candidate. So, I didn’t really know anything, I didn’t know anything about the republican party. I was working with other interns who were the children of multi-millionaires. They would ask me a lot of questions about politics in Northern Ireland and I didn’t have a clue.
So I would go home in the evening to catch up on the Northern Ireland news. Then I’d get up at five or half five in the morning to read loads of different newspapers like politico, anything I could, to get up to date. I’d get into the office early, the first one there, to watch what was on the agenda, do briefings, anything I could do to catch up.
Before the end of the internship, John McCain asked me what I was going to do when I got home. I responded you know, I’m not sure, I guess, finish my PhD and see what happens. John Mccain said I think you should consider going into politics. He said to just take a step forward, try it out and see what happens. After that, my manager on the Washington Ireland Programme put in contact with Kate Nicholl who is an Alliance councillor. I went to meet Kate for a coffee in the student’s union. Before I left that coffee meeting I was a fully-fledged member of the Party and within three months I was standing for the Assembly Election in North Antrim.
Politics is all around us though, once someone points it out to you, you realise you have been in politics your whole life. Whether that’s in the playground or the workplace.
That’s amazing. I had a similar experience myself. I knew nothing about politics until I started my degree. When I started to learn about public law and the more political side of things it just really changed the way I saw the world.
That’s similar to me. I also studied Law at Undergrad. Before that, I had a very black and white view of the world. Then going through my law degree I realised that the law is socially constructed. It’s not absolute. Then I became interested in the sociological side of things and got into criminology and the field which I’m in now, which is school exclusion. I really believe that schools or universities should teach some kind of politics to equip everyone.
I absolutely agree. Before you were a councillor, I guess you were doing your PhD. Did you go straight from Undergraduate into that, or did you work before you started your PhD?
So, after my undergrad I went straight into my Masters in criminology at this time I started working at a children’s care home. So after I graduated from my Masters I started a job at Extern, working in a school exclusion unit called the pathways project. I managed the transition services for young people who had been excluded from school. Young people that were moving out of alternative education and into the start of their career. I became fascinated with the work, fell in love with helping young people and I was disgusted by the education system. One day I was researching how to make things better for the service and I couldn’t find anything in Northern Ireland. I said to my manager, I think there is something to be researched here and that’s when the PhD really started. I’m due to finish it this year after 4 years. I have always worked along the way, I helped set up the Stranmillis centre for researching educational underachievement and right now I work for an English organisation called Right To Succeed which is an education charity. We are combating school exclusion, and I started politics around the same time that I started my PhD. I’ve kept myself busy!
Great! I feel like you may have touched on this but do you think there is one thing in particular that inspired you to become a politician?
You know, the more I started to wake up to what was going on around me, the more I felt a sense of responsibility. I had a good friend who was also doing a PhD at the same time as me and she showed me a picture of a mural that said; now that I see, I am responsible. This has sort of haunted me. I feel this way. Once you can see inequities, you have a responsibility to do something. The 2016 US presidential election definitely inspired me because it was a reminder that what was happening there can happen here. I have to admit I felt the Naomi Long effect. There was no other party for me but Alliance. Whenever I met Kate, she embodied everything that the party claimed to stand for. She was the person that called me up when selections were happening and said, why don’t you give it ago. My response was, I had never considered it before but she encouraged me to do it. I think without people pointing out your moral and ethical responsibility, and without encouragement, without people telling you that you have a shot and you can do this, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
Well, we have spoken about education and exclusion, so we have touched on this. Is there one issue that you are particularly passionate about and why is that?
Well, people would probably say that yes, it is school exclusion but I don’t think that is what it is. I think it’s exclusion in general. From my perspective, Northern Ireland society runs on the principle of, or the threat of exclusion and the principle of shame and I’ve seen how corrosive this can be to young people. I look back on stories my family and parents have told me. The way they were treated in school, then leaving school into a conflict-ridden society where they couldn’t safely go to technical college so they ended up in low paying jobs. It’s just a vicious circle and millions of pounds wasted while we are all at each other’s throats. I just think it’s completely wrong.
After I had left work to study my PhD, I was about twenty-six. By that stage in my career, working in the care sector with young people, we had buried three young people. From I was twenty-two to twenty-six. For me, it all started when they slipped through the procedural safety nets at school. The hard thing is, there is no quantity of data that could prove that but watching it, you know that if someone had cared enough to work with them, they wouldn’t have died.
Wow, It sounds like you are doing really great work.
Do you think that it is particularly hard to be a woman in politics? What do you think is the hardest part of being a woman in politics? In your experience.
Well, where do I begin? I think before I became involved in politics or interested in politics I was used to being in a group of people and having the main speaker address all the men first before they came to me. People ask why I stood in North Antrim in the assembly elections. To me, these places that are tough for women, they are the places that we need to be the most.
Our council chamber is the most confrontational, ignorant, aggressive professional setting anyone would have to deal with. These are things that I was warned about by party leadership. Having studied law, been in debating societies, worked for John McCain, I saw myself as having a real strength of character. In the chamber my confidence and my conviction waivers.
The only way I can explain it is that it’s like being gaslit only 40 people are gaslighting you at once.
On social media, people say awful things. I have been threatened, I don’t know how many times but that doesn’t really bother me. I let it roll off my back. The chamber stuff is tough. You walk past someone, even in public and they look you up and down. You can never wear the right thing, you can never say the right thing. You are either too aggressive or you’re too meek, you’re dressed too provocatively or you’re dressed like a man. You cannot satisfy people. What gets me through is I’m not there to satisfy people. I’m very lucky that our group is very supportive.
I can imagine that’s pretty tough. Do you think being a young woman adds an extra layer of discrimination? If you were older would it be different?
Yes, I definitely think you are younger you have an added layer of difficulty because people assume that you are naive or that you are stupid. Also blonde hair! I don’t care what anyone says. I have talked to some of my colleagues about this and blonde hair doesn’t help!
I was having a conversation with another council, we were debating a legal issue and I was really going for it. The councillor messaged me the next day and said, I didn’t know you gained a law degree overnight. And I said no, I got it in 2012. He just assumed I didn’t have a law degree.
Also, I have been astonished, completely astonished by the number of men who just send messages, on Whatsapp, email, Facebook, Twitter. Even personal accounts. There is so much entitlement. Some of the messages are so sexually explicit as well.
That is a lot of harassment to deal with. Can you think of any positives to being a woman in politics?
Yes, I absolutely love my job. It’s hard and busy, but it’s a privilege. I know that a lot of people don’t encourage doing too much casework but I just think it’s the best way to help people and advocate for them. I love talking and connecting to people. I have constituents who just call to check in with me and see how I’m getting on and I love that.
I think in Northern Ireland, being a councillor can enable your voice to be heard more. People are interested to hear about your work and your party.
For me, the best part of it is getting to know people and help them. I love storytelling and learning about people’s lives.
What do you think is the best part then, of being a woman in politics?
You are in a privileged position, you are given time to say what it is you have to say. I really value the opportunity to bring my unique perspective as a younger woman from a working-class background, with intersecting identities. I’m well attuned to what it’s like to live a life difficulty and I really value bringing that perspective to a chamber that is full of white middle-class men.
I guess we have discussed harassment but what do you think are the major barriers for women getting into politics?
I think there is such discord, people think that it’s an unattainable position. I think elected representatives should be embedded members of society. You shouldn’t think of elected representatives as being better than you. They are just normal people whose job includes representation. From my friends, family, and my lived experience I see that women tend to think they aren’t good enough and don’t step forward. I think the major barriers are low self-confidence, low self-worth. These are all a result of the structures of our society. I really value having the opportunity to speak to people like, 50:50 NI that will encourage women to get involved. If it weren’t for Kate Nicholl calling me and encouraging me to stand, I don’t think I would have done it.
Great, that’s such a nice story of how Kate encouraged you to stand. Finally, what advice would you give to a woman who is interested in getting into politics or running in an election?
First, I would say, let’s go for coffee and we’ll talk it through!
Really though, If you are interested just reach out to a party or a person that you think would be receptive and talk about it. If you want to run in an election or do anything scary, you will easily think of five reasons not to do it. Think each reason through and ask yourself what is the absolute worst that could happen. If it isn’t going to affect your life in five years, don’t worry about it.
Most importantly, I genuinely mean this, I would research organisations like Women’s Aid that can educate and teach you about emotional abuse. Things like manipulation and gas lighting. As women, if we learn about these tactics and understand them we will be in a better position to manage them. My mum is a social worker so I know about these issues and I think if I didn’t understand them I’m not sure I would have felt like I could have lasted as long as I have. I think women are really well placed to take on these roles because we are tough.
If you are interested in getting into politics or are even just curious about how it all work get in touch with 50:50 NI at firstname.lastname@example.org