Get to know the person before voting for the politician

Am I a unicorn? I have been called many things since becoming involved in NI politics. This was the most frightening. If I am a unicorn i.e rare and on my own then I have no hope of helping change the landscape of our society.

Is it always a bad thing to be a unicorn? Whilst attending an international business school in Holland we were schooled that to be the first to create an open new market ensures you normally get to lead the way. Maybe then, NI21 are leading the way for others to tread more easily.

I myself confuse a lot of people. I hear them inadvertently question whether I'm orange or green? "How can she have been in a "republican" family yet support a "Unionist" party?... What are her real motives? Does she have another agenda?". The truth of the matter is that I am neither green nor orange.

I grew up in a family -- like most other families in NI in 1970s and 1980s -- with deprivation, the Troubles, and an adrenaline-filled community spirit. The experiences I remember are might be surprising to some people who know me today. 

At the age of eight I remember looking at the British soldier on the Andersonstown Road firing shots into the crowd. He did not scare me but the fear in the eyes of the screaming people and the shaking of my mother’s hand scared me. I (like most families in my area) was attending a funeral of a neighbour who had died in the H Blocks.

Monthly on a Tuesday, I would go up to see my ‘chocolate Daddy’, as we called him, and see what he thought about it all. My Daddy had been in Long Kesh since before I was born, he was the man who always had Dairy Milk Chocolate when we visited.

The RUC plays in my memories too. The slam of the jeep doors in the middle of the night. All 6 of them. For some reason, there were always 3 jeeps, 2 British Army and 1 RUC. I still jump when a door bangs. This was the noise that would waken us as children when the front door was about to be knocked down. Within minutes, many men with different coloured faces would be in our room shouting and pulling back our bedcovers. This was part and parcel of the life we had. I know I am very lucky compared to many when it comes to the Troubles -- I was never a victim. But even as a child I wondered what the neighbours were thinking of us. I didn’t know why, but I remember feeling the shame.

As I got a little bit older I felt another shame. Shame of realising that we were poor. If I’m really honest with myself, it is still one of the things that drives me today. Of course, it is easy for me to admit this now that I have come on such a long journey proving myself to myself. I feel deeply for all those people who feel shame. I still carry a little myself. This must be the worst of all feelings to have, feeling helpless and humiliated. The mother who cannot afford to fill the oil tank yet buys her son designer trainers so that he does not feel shame with his classmates; the business person who re-mortgaged for the new car and takes loans and credit cards for clothes and holidays just so his family don’t feel the shame. All shame feels the same, it knows no class nor religion.

I could have gone one way or the other. I could have easily dropped into the culture of Republicanism. Goodness knows, I had many, many reasons to feel angry. Instead, I was more interested in ensuring that I did not feel helpless or ashamed again. I decided to go to University and work, and work, and work until I became successful.

I was lucky that people believed in me and that great people have allowed me to lead them in business. I have worked many years in Northern Ireland with many in my team from different backgrounds. I secretly loved that my little Belfast team was my own little peace project back in 2001. I knew all of their backgrounds. One of my team came from a family who for generations had been in the police, another was English and her family served in the army here, another’s father was blown up by his own bomb, and another’s father had secretly helped negotiate the 1998 Agreement. We all had a fun environment. We worked hard and were extremely successful and we all still keep in touch. 

Of course my own childhood and background was a closely guarded secret, especially as I had been discriminated against at my first job after University. The organisation I was working for reneged on my promotion because of who I was related to and where I was from. They told me though not to worry because they knew it was nothing to do with me! I packed up a few weeks later and went to London to build a life away from this. I did not know it then but I was running away from my past. 

Some of my international colleagues reading this will be surprised! I learnt when climbing the greasy corporate ladder that you never ever let people see your weaknesses. This is where I missed the game because in fact the great leaders I was lucky to work with were very open about their weaknesses and pasts. This in fact is what courage really is and courage makes good leaders great.

Coming Out

My “so called” success didn’t give me the courage to “come out” -- it was the people in my life that love me for who I am and not anything else. 

Coming out for me meant being honest and saying I actually having the courage to openly state my political opinion. Here goes again: I, Tina McKenzie, think Northern Ireland is better placed within the UK. I did consider other people before declaring my view. If I openly joined a political party supporting the notion of staying within the UK, would it look really bad for my family? Would it look really bad for my business? After all of the heartache my community went through, am I then hurting this community more? What will people think of me? Will I feel ashamed again, because I had worked so hard to build a core of protection around me to ensure that was never coming back. 

I am not a disloyal person, in fact the opposite, but surely loyalty starts with being loyal and true to oneself. 

I decided if I was going to do it, I would do it well. I quickly became one of the leaders of a new liberal political party. I knew I would be called names. The worst day came when the leading Belfast papers’ headlines screamed “IRA Bomber Daughter is Chief Unionist”. I didn’t know which part of that headline was worse. 

The world did not stop. I did not feel shame, although I did feel fear for my little children (I also never want them to feel shame because of me). As time went on I became more and more proud of looking shame and fear in the eye and challenging myself and everyone else to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Don’t judge a book by its cover! That goes for me and NI21. I believe we have a platform to build a United Northern Ireland that does not ask us to choose between our politics and our culture. I am as Irish as any Republican. We want a party that stands up and celebrates all of our cultures and does not deny who we are, the good, the bad and the ugly. Celebration of one culture does not mean dismissal of another but we must respect our neighbours and be mindful that we live in an evolving and diverse society. 

I have one more secret. It will be revealed fully next week but in short it is this... If people still think I’m a unicorn, I know I’m not the only one. There are so many of us in Northern Ireland who have our own stories -- who live outside of the orange and green dichotomy and who are fed up with conversations that leave us out. We are the people too! But we’ve been silent for a long time. Good news is we’re finding our voices, we’re joining together, and we’re finding our own way to change the conversation. It’s official: we unicorns need to stand up and be heard, so I hope to meet you all soon.


Follow Tina on Twitter @ Tina for Europe