This week 50:50 NI met Michelle Guy. Michelle is an Alliance councillor for Castlereagh South. Michelle has previously worked in marketing and in policy as a civil servant.
Have you always been interested in Politics?
I guess the honest answer is yes. It’s very hard to grow up in Northern Ireland and not be interested in politics. I grew during the troubles but my whole adult life has been post Good Friday Agreement so I, and others my age, have quite a unique perspective. So growing up, yes I had an interest in politics, it was unavoidable.
I studied politics at A-Level and at school I was very vocal, I had opinions and I liked talking about issues. I think also growing up in the troubles and seeing that we had a tribal, “us versus them” type of politics, I was aware that that had to end. That conviction really drove me into politics. The first party I ever voted for was the Women’s Coalition! What they were talking about all made sense to me.
That’s great, and was that interest ultimately what inspired you to become a politician or was there something else that got you elected in politics?
I was never inspired to be a politician, I am an elected member by a twist of fate and circumstance. In the particular area that I live in, two Councillors had left the party and they needed to be replaced. Suddenly everyone said Michelle you’d be good at that! I had no interest really in becoming an elected representative. I was motivated to be part of a cause to change politics. My intention because I had kids and everything was to be out delivering leaflets sitting in the background, supporting other people through that work.
I was genuinely inspired by people like Naomi Long. There are people in the party who I guess ‘came up’ alongside her when Alliance was a much smaller party than when I joined, so it’s a different dynamic for people like me who joined inspired by her. As a Man United supporter, I’ve joked to family and friends that my decision to stand for Alliance is like being asked to put on a jersey for Sir Alex Ferguson’s United Team!
Also, my experience of working in the Civil Service was a big drive to actually join a political party. I spent about five years in the Civil Service and it wasn’t a good fit for me personally so when I had the opportunity to leave I signed up for the Alliance Party shortly after. I had seen up close how dysfunctional the Northern Ireland government can be and I just knew I wanted to be part of changing this.
So, you mentioned you worked in the civil service for a few years, what did you do professionally before becoming a politician? Do you think this work prepared you for life as a politician?
So, my background is very much in marketing and communications. I did a Law degree at University, didn’t want to be a lawyer so did a postgrad and got my first job with First Derivatives after a work placement. It was the coolest job offer ever. My boss offered me the position and then asked if I wanted to go to LA for the weekend to think it over? He explained there was an awards event and they needed someone to accompany the Head of Marketing. I of course accepted and that’s how I got into marketing. I always worked in IT and tech companies really.
My husband (then boyfriend) took a year out to travel and when we came back I ended up temping in a government agency and ultimately took a permanent job in the Civil Service. I found it mostly a very frustrating environment to work in. I ended taking up a job in policy and ultimately that experience in communication and policy really helps my work as an elected representative. It also really helped me with my confidence too.
You have mentioned that it was a passion for issues that got you interested in politics in general. Are there particular issues that you are passionate about? Why is it that you are interested in these issues in particular?
At the very top level, the thing that got me into politics in the first place is the idea of reconciliation and getting rid of the divisions in Northern Ireland – as an Alliance Party representative so that is no surprise! That’s what drives me, from the top.
Since being in this role, the issues that have inspired me are childcare and education.
Childcare was the first issue that I really got a bee in my bonnet about because I brought my own experience to the table. I was given the role of Parenting Champion and I ran with that! During the first meeting that we had as a new council group when I was elected, I said about the summer provision of summer schemes and how amazing it was that the council had subsidized these and how it’s something that people in the area really feel the benefit of. Someone made a comment almost criticizing parents for using the schemes as cheap childcare. I was a bit bemused because of course people are using it as childcare, wasn’t that the intention?? Clearly not – so it was clear this need was greatly misunderstood. Most people, every year, have to figure out how they are going to get through the summer because of the need for childcare and a lot of mothers end up taking unpaid leave because that is cheaper. Childcare is just one of those critical issues that isn’t taken seriously enough in government and it’s perhaps that when we look at the people making these decisions it’s likely they aren’t really affected by it. These, mostly men, are not living this experience and perhaps there aren’t enough women in the room to make the case for better childcare. We have friends who live in Norway and it’s a different world, completely different. They say in Norway that they value the family and they really do. They fund childcare and they just have such a better system.
In terms of education, I have school-age kids and have recently dealt with the post-primary transfer process, which is a ridiculous system. I am emotionally drained this week from dealing with parents and children who are heartbroken because of it. This year the stress of it has been exacerbated by the pandemic but this isn’t a new issue, we put children through this trauma every year and it needs to change.
So, you are a woman in politics. In your experience, what has been the toughest part of that?
Being patronised. My god how people love to patronise you. Coming in at my age with kids people view you as ‘just a wee mummy’. They assume you don’t know anything about anything and you are just this ‘nice wee mummy’. An early experience of this was at a discussion about event management. Now, I have worked in marketing and communications for fifteen years, so I know a bit about this. I pointed out to the meeting that the costs I was looking at were very dear and asked where they had got these prices from and my input was dismissed. Someone said, “don’t you worry about it, we do the events here and we know what we are doing so don’t worry about it and just let us get on with it.” I was just being put back in my box despite having the experience.
I also hate that you are expected to be a nice, complicit wee girl for people to be agreeable to you. If you stand up and push an issue, suddenly you are not to be trusted and all of these negative qualities are attributed to women who are motivated on issues. Suddenly your whole character is someone to be watched and looked out for, but if you were a man you would be formidable, or someone to be reckoned with.
Fortunately, I have never faced the issue of harassment. I think the higher profile you are the more people want to tear you down.
And what do you think has been the best part about being a woman in politics?
For me, setting an example. I have an amazing daughter, she has so much to give and to do. When I was running for election her friends would be like “oh wow, your mummy is doing this” and I’m happy I can set that example. It was a really positive thing to do, to run for election and it has been great for my kids.
We have touched on the issue of childcare and how that can be a big barrier for women getting into politics. There are also so many other barriers that women face.
If you could change something to make it easier for women to get into politics, what would it be?
Through lockdown and this hybrid model that we have been doing now, I have been able to do my job better. I have been able to attend more meetings and participate more because I can do so much of it online. When I had to get to physical meetings, it was so stressful in our house. I had to get my husband home from work or get my mum to help or I had to arrange childcare. The pressure was constant, it was on my whole family and you do feel guilty about that. So the ability to use technology and have hybrid models are hugely important to allow more women to take part and get involved.
Another thing is maternity leave. Why on earth do we not have maternity leave for Councillors or any politicians? I can’t think of a sensible answer to that question. You have an entitlement to have maternity leave, for that security and that time with your family that you get in every other job.
Finally, If a woman wanted to get into politics what advice would you give her?
I would say, the first thing to do is find what you are passionate about and get involved. That activist route is great to me. Get involved and learn.
If you decide that being a politician is the best route for you then talk to other women who are in politics and not just women from your own party.
I would also say be authentic and use social media in a way that you are comfortable with.
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