Green Party leader - and former Greystone resident Clare Bailey vows: 'We'll be back'

AS many local people understandably focused their attention on the ‘Battle for South Antrim’ at the Assembly Elections last week, over in the South Belfast Constituency, there was a shock as the leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland lost her seat.

Clare Bailey, who grew up in Antrim and helped pushed through vital legislation during her time at Stormont, said her party ‘will be back’ after it was wiped out by the so-called ‘Alliance surge’.

“I would like to thank the thousands of voters who supported us, and the hundreds of activists who threw everything at this campaign.” she said.

“It's been a tough election for us, but we’re confident we can rebuild and grow.

“I’m proud of Green MLAs’ work as Stormont’s unofficial opposition.

“The Climate Change Bill is only in place because of Green MLAs - the most important piece of legislation the Assembly has ever passed on the most important issue of our generation.

“Rachel Woods’ Safe Leave Bill will literally save the lives of victims and survivors of domestic abuse - a phenomenal legacy for someone who was only an MLA for two years.

“My Safe Access Zones Bill will end the campaign of intimidation and harassment facing women accessing abortion healthcare across Northern Ireland.

“The Green message remains vitally important.

“The growing impact of climate breakdown will become more obvious.

“The need for Greens influencing Northern Ireland politics remains increasingly important.

“An Executive must be restored as a matter of priority.

“All parties must work together, as we have shown they can do, to address the crises facing our public services, the cost-of-living and our climate.

“Greens will continue to hold the Executive parties to account for their repeated failures on environmental and social justice issues.

“Despite a disappointing election result, our vote has increased in Belfast, setting us up to make gains in next year's council elections.

“This is a credit to the hard work of our activists, and our Green councillors.

“We have a clear path for growth in next year's council elections and beyond. We'll be back.”

Back in 2019, Clare spoke to the Antrim Guardian about her experiences of Antrim after moving in the town aged seven-years-old.

She said that the first thing she noticed was ‘the space’.

Clare and her sister had grown up in the Clonard district of Belfast.

“It was inner city, a concrete jungle. we lived in a two-up, two-down, with an outside toilet, and here we were, moving to Greystone in Antrim, with three bedrooms, central heating, a front and back garden, and a big field out the back,” she said.

“My sister and I used to come up in the car with my late father while he decorated the place before we moved in.

“I used to play in the bath, I imagined it was a swimming pool!

“In Belfast, in those dark days, there were still barriers and barricades everywhere and it was very claustrophobic.”

Clare was elected leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland in 2018.

But in Antrim, she is still the daughter of Eleanor Bailey, who helped bring the world to the Greystone estate through the popular summer schemes.

“All the children in the estate ran around together and played, we went out in the morning and didn’t come back ‘til we were hungry, and even then, we all ate in each other’s houses anyway.

“People used to grow their own fruit and veg in the gardens. I remember loads of people used to grow rhubarb and you would get handed a stalk of rhubarb and a rolled-up paper cone of sugar to dip it in and get sent on your way!

“We played tag, rounders, we went on little hunts, it was great fun.”

While she may have been sent to a different school to some of her friends, Clare remembers a vibrant cross-community scene.

“I got sent to St Joseph’s, but just across the road was Greystone Primary and before and after school we were together again.

“The two schools had and still do have, a very good relationship.

“I’d gone to St Vincent’s in Belfast, a red-bricked convent school, with a big wall to separate the boys from the girls and we were taught by nuns.

“Here [at St Joseph’s] we had big windows and a modern building and we were all in the same class, it felt very liberating, even at that age.”

Clare and her sister Elaine were part of the first intake of pupils at Lagan College, Northern Ireland’s first integrated school.

At that time there were under 30 pupils in the Ardnavalley Scout Hall at Shaw’s Bridge in Belfast.

On the first day they had to go in the back entrance because there were protests at the front.

“I loved Lagan College and it was great to be a part of something so important.

“People thought it wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t last, but integrated education is normal now.”

Clare’s mum Eleanor was something of a community activist, helping out at the local youth club, the ACE scheme and trying to get help for others on the estate.

“Our house was like a community hub,” said Clare.

“You would come downstairs and there would be a journalist or photographer or student sleeping on the sofa.

“People would come in the back door, stick the kettle on, have a cuppa and leave out the front door again - and that could have been anyone from a neighbour to an international reporter.”

In her work with the summer scheme, Eleanor linked up with overseas organisations who provided young volunteers, keen to sign up to peace-building placements around the world.

Activities included many different types of sport, swimming at the Forum, and discos - and eventually, almost everyone in Antrim had a granny in Greystone, such was the popularity of the scheme.

The Housing Executive donated vacant properties for the volunteers to live in, while the TA donated furniture and local people helped decorate.

The newcomers hailed from Britain, America, Italy, the Netherlands, and Lesotho.

“These students came from all over the world and we all lived in and out of each other’s houses,” said Clare.

“For some children in the community who would have never got the chance to travel, it gave them an amazing experience.

“It was such a connecting force. Even now, if I am somewhere in the world I will think, oh yeah, John lives here, I must look him up and see if we can meet.

“I and others are still in contact with those people after all those years and we often get told that the scheme changed people’s lives.

“It showed us all that there is a bigger world out there, it made it tangible, and it helped create friendships that have lasted for years.

“At the weekends, the students wanted to go to Belfast, to the Giant’s Causeway, to Carrick-a-Rede, so I also got to see my own country from a tourist’s point of view.”

Clare grew up bilingual thanks to another initiative her mother was involved in.

“My Mum organised holidays putting Catholic and Protestant kids with Dutch families via a programme called Help Northern Ireland.

“Mum and Dad both worked so Elaine and I were fostered to Dutch families every Easter, summer and Christmas until we were seven or eight.

“My aunt has since moved out there so there is also a family connection and the third generation of our Holland family has now been born.

“I still try to get over as often as I can.”

While South Belfast is now home for Clare and her family, she still retains strong links to Antrim.

“I could still walk back into the Silver Dollar - or Madden’s, as it is now, and know people,” she said.

“There’s a Facebook site for all the Greystone folks too, social media has been wonderful for keeping in touch with everyone.

“In the 80s, Antrim, like other places, struggled with low employment, especially after Enkalon closed, and unfortunately, history is repeating itself.

“Back then we had Thatcher, and now we are struggling again under Tory-led austerity.

“We were working class, we had no money, my mum sold her car to afford sending my sister and I to Belfast for school on the bus, but everyone rallied together, we never felt or thought of ourselves as poor, we all mucked in together.

“But poverty and lack of access to services and opportunities still exist and is part of the reason I got into politics.

“Antrim is a pretty town, it is an historic town, it has a lot going for it, the people are brilliant.

“There are a lot of houses being built, but the social housing provision in Antrim used to be the envy of the country.

“I live on the outskirts of Belfast now and the Belvoir estate reminds me of where I grew up - it has the shops, the fields, the forest, all that space.

“There are very few places like that left.”

Clare went off to London at the age of 18, working for a time as a live-in chambermaid at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane.

She returned to Northern Ireland in her early 20s and had two children.

Following a turbulent time in her personal life, which saw her become temporarily homeless, she went back to study aged 35.

Clare found particular solace in the Giro’s Community Cafe and drop-in centre in Belfast, where she volunteered for 15 years.

Giro’s was first established next to the Centre for the Unemployed in Donegall Street and then moved to Upper Donegall Street.

It attracted a diverse group of people to its café - from unemployed young people and schoolchildren to solicitors and art students.

A recording studio was installed nearby, giving opportunities for bands to record, bands that wouldn’t normally have had the opportunity to do so.

It became a place for campaigns and benefit gigs and there was even a printing press where people could publish their own work.

“It was a real community collective,” said Clare.

“Some of the best bands in Europe visited, my son grew up in the place, it was a real example of people coming together.

“In the 80s and 90s when things were very grim, it offered a lot of opportunities to a lot of people.”

Clare’s move into politics was unconventional.

“I completed a BA in Politics with Cultural and Media Studies at Queen’s University, and it was one of my tutors who challenged me and asked, why do a degree like that and then not go into politics?” she said.

“When I came home, people were talking about ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement and I started paying attention to parties like the Women’s Coalition.

“When the kids were in primary school and settled, I looked at them as future citizens and wondered what politicians had to offer them, and what I could offer them.

“I looked at all the parties and as a feminist first and foremost, and a bit of an angry woman at that stage, having gone through homelessness and being unable to access support.

“I saw that women were still going through these things and that they were perhaps not always being properly represented.

“The Greens were forward-thinking, it was the party which best represented my outlook and who I was and am, and I wanted change.”

Clare, who joined the Greens in 2010, is particularly passionate about women’s reproductive rights and has also worked with Nexus, the charity which supports victims of sexual abuse.

“I have gone with so many women to England and I feel it is their right to access free, safe, legal healthcare at home,” she said.

“I am thrilled and astounded and very thankful for the work that Stella Creasy did in Westminster, in securing that right for women in Northern Ireland.

“The speed at which change has happened is phenomenal.”

Clare has also acted as a volunteer escort at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, shielding clients from anti-abortion protests outside.

“Some of the treatment we received was vicious and vile,” she said.

Remembering the treatment of Women’s Coalition in the old Northern Ireland Forum and latterly the Assembly, she added:

“People would ‘moo’ at these women when they spoke and tell them to get back into the kitchen.

“And it wasn’t that long ago. We don’t hear that sort of language any more but I have no doubt that the attitude still prevails in some quarters and it is an attitude that I will always fight.

“I am still in contact with Monica (McWilliams) Annie (Campbell) and Bronagh (Hinds) and I am still grateful for the work that they did and the trail that they blazed for people like me.”

Clare was elected to the Assembly in 2016 and just as she was finding her feet, the institutions collapsed.

At the time, she said: “Life is hard enough without identity politics in the background.

“We are in a vacuum and people are being pushed to the wall.

“My days are dominated by helping people to get access to food bank vouchers, benefits and universal credit.

“The orange and green issue holds us back so much.

“I was asked to designate either unionist or nationalist, and I wanted to designate as a feminist, but I couldn’t, so I had to be an ‘other’, whatever that means.

“As a party, we feel that Brexit and climate are interlinked and is why we are anti-Brexit. You can’t discuss one without the other.

“Some politicians want to promote the division in our society.

“We are not two separate communities, we are one community, despite the efforts of others to create division.

“It just seems like we are stuck at the moment.

“People suffer from the effects of austerity on both sides of that false divide, the people at the bottom of the ladder don’t really care one way or other, they need to be able to eat and put clothes on their backs.

“If we all worked together without this identity politics clouding the issue and tried to make things better for those who are struggling, then we could perhaps move forward.

“I live in South Belfast now, which is very diverse, all the communities living and mixing together - it reminds me of those summers in Antrim, in a way - and that is the way the country is now, people have to accept change.”

Speaking last week, Clare said she was unsure if she would continue in her position at the helm of the party.

Ms Bailey said she’s content to now spend more time with her family and friends.

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