This week 50:50 NI meets Louise McKinstry who is a councillor on the Armagh Banbridge and Craigavon council. Louise is also a Maths teacher.
Have you always been interested in politics?
Yes, when I was at school I did public speaking and I had a fab English teacher. She really encouraged me to find my voice. I loved reading and everything so she really encouraged me and gave me confidence.
When I went to university I was a student rep for my class and I stood for student council in my last year. I wasn’t elected but I ran and I was part of the ulster unionist group at queens as well.
Then, when I left university I noticed women and especially young women, were not really encouraged to get involved with the party. so, I got married, had my 4 children and I am a maths teacher so I guess life just happened and took over.
Then my cousin ran in Upper Bann for Westminster and did quite well and that got me back interested and involved in local politics. When the council seat became available in Lurgan I put my name forward.
Was there something that inspired you to take that step into politics again?
It felt natural I guess. I was encouraged to do it at that time. My friends would say you know ‘why don’t you get involved. I am from a working-class unionist background and very few women from my background actually get involved in politics. They tend to stay more in the area of community work and working in the community and you know I’m not sure why that is.
It is a shame isn’t it because these women that work so hard in their communities would make excellent politicians they are already doing so much of the work.
I’m by no means a pedigree politician, I’m from Mourneview in Lurgan. I feel like people from my background often have low aspirations. For example, working-class unionist boys are one of the worst-performing groups in schools. We have people decide things for us but they don’t have a clue what we want. They think we should want money spent on murals for example but there are an awful lot of people, women in particular, that this is not what they want. They want to feel safe on the streets, they want good health care, they want access to childcare.
Do you think your career as a teacher prepared you for life as a politician?
Before I was a teacher I worked in Glenavon Social Club, since I was 16. If you can deal with Glentoran supporters at half time in a match, all looking for a pint at the same time, you can deal with anything the Twitter trolls throw at you!
My first job as a teacher was in Lagan college and my second job was in the Belfast boys model an all-boys school. That prepared me too.
I feel like my job in the bar prepared me because I heard things that were important to working-class people. People who work really hard for not a lot of pay. It’s really all about what you are born into. Like, when I went to University, my granny cried when she saw me in my graduation gown because someone in our family went to university.
My experiences from my background all have prepared me as well. I didn’t run until I was in my mid-forties so all of that life experience also prepared me.
But the job in the bar definitely prepared me more than anything!
Is there a political issue that you feel particularly passionate about?
Yes, there are a couple of things. Last night in council I raised the issue of period poverty again. That is something I have been working on in my school for the last ten years. I have been providing free sanitary products there for ten years now. Always send me the products for free; every year they send me loads of boxes of products. This is great because there are girls that have to make decisions based on finances and not based on what they really need.
So through council, we have period products provided for free in leisure centres in our borough and we are hoping to roll that out in other civic buildings too.
I am also a volunteer for the scouts so I am a really big supporter of community groups and clubs like GAA clubs and hockey clubs and everything but it’s getting really hard these days to get people to volunteer. I’ve noticed because of the substantial training people have to go through to volunteer these days actually puts people off volunteering.
Also, my sister is in a same-sex relationship so I fought hard to get the pride flag flown on the council building. I got quite a bit of backlash from people who have a very rigid view of what it means to be a unionist but it’s something I care about.
Of course, I have other opinions of issues such as abortion but within my role as a councillor, it’s not covered within my role. But within my role as a councillor, those are the issues I care about. Period poverty and volunteering in the local community.
In your experience what has been the toughest part of being a woman in politics.
Honestly, in my council there are three women, we are all from the same party. We have our WhatsApp group, we support each other, we help each other out with ideas and everything. So I am very lucky.
I think I would have had such a different experience if it hadn’t been for the other women in the council with me.
I think as well because I am a mum and I’m educated and I am articulate, I think I’m articulate, that people respect me because I fit this idea of what a politician is. I think it also helps that I understand the working-class community and I’m on the council where I’m from which I think makes people like me. I just have been very lucky compared to other women colleagues in the party.
What do you think is the best part of being a woman in politics?
I think we can be passionate which is great. Men are expected to control their emotions and I guess a lot of the time the only emotion that men are allowed to show is anger which is a shame. If I feel strongly about an issue for example getting the pride flag flown I can get emotional and passionate about it.
If you could make it easier to get women into politics what would you do?
I think a lot of the time women lack confidence. It’s so important to let women know that their voice is important and they are important.
I think it also helps women if they have an issue that they care about, be it domestic abuse. Unfortunately, men don’t need that but it helps women I think.
Men are so much quicker to assume they know about an issue, for example, if we are talking about farming or agriculture or farming I’ll keep quiet because I don’t know anything about it ut if something related to teaching, for example, come up a man with no knowledge on the issue will happily talk about it. It’s just so different. So yes, confidence is really important I think.
That’s so true, women are constantly questioning themselves like, are we smart enough to be a politician or are we good enough, whereas men, I think, feel so much more entitled to the job.
So, if a woman came to you and told you she wanted to get into politics, what advice would you give her?
Get good friends! Who can canvas with you, who support you, who can help you and will let you bounce ideas off them? A good support system is really important. I’m really lucky to have a supportive husband and great kids and good friends.
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