May was born during World War Two and grew up in Roden Street, a mixed area of Belfast with her mother and sister. He family was separated due to the evacuations during the war. “For the first six years of my life I thought there was only me, my sister and my mum. When the war was over my dad came home, I had never seen my dad and then my brothers and sisters came back. I wondered who all these strange people were. All of a sudden instead of having a bedroom of my own I was squashed up against the wall along with two others. It was quite a learning curve.”

May recalls a great collaborative spirit within her community during her youth. “As I was growing up, I came to realise that my mother was providing a meal for another family whose father was unemployed. I was lucky my dad worked. If there was a family having a baby, all the women in the three streets where I lived supported them. If somebody had an accident, if there was a death everybody, chipped in. In those days I wasn’t aware of any religious difference. Catholics, living beside me, lived in the same conditions as I did. So I wasn’t aware of any discrimination.”

May attended Donegall Road Primary School and passed her 11+ exam. “I wanted to be a school teacher. I hated school but I thought the teacher had a bit of power, so from a very early age I must have wanted power!” Confusion over where she would receive her secondary education led to May going to “a little school in Sandy Row. I literally wasted the next four years of my life.”

After leaving school May initially took up a two-week position in a local mill. She ended up spending the next 38 years working there. “The mill was a community within a community, predominantly women. In work I found people pulling together. Anybody who ever worked in the Mill will tell you the same thing, ‘everybody cared for everybody else.’”

This sense of community and great bond between workers provided May with a catalyst to become a trade unionist. “When I was 14 I was approached with ‘we are all in the T&G’ you’ll have to join. Well, I wasn’t going to be the different one, so I joined.”

After speaking her mind during a meeting May was offered the position as shop steward. Not wanting to upset her father she initially declined the offer but was persuaded to take the post for a month. After enrolling in several training courses with union and with more confidence in her role, she became a senior shop steward. “I found at that time, most people who took up shop steward jobs, particularly in settings like the mill, really took it because they felt they wanted to make a difference.”

After tackling issues regarding health & safety and unsociable working hours May moved into more senior and broader roles in the trade union. “The TGWU was a predominantly male union so women didn’t figure in their thinking. One of the things that took my fancy and that of another girl from Portadown was to go onto our regional committee which was the ruling committee of the union. This was totally unheard of. Women did not apply for those positions. We applied and were both elected by our members. We had to fight for our place there and gain the respect of the other guys from the committee.”

After setting up a women’s committee and a disabled committee, May began to speak at conference and from there everything fell into place. In spite of everything, May still feels that more needs to be done regarding women’s rights within trade unionism “Thirty years on, progress isn’t as fast as I would like it. We still have the issue of “she’s a woman what would she know?” but we ended up in our Regional Committee in Ireland with a woman Chair, which would have been totally unheard of when I was young”.

May recalls the outbreak of the Troubles and the effects on her community and on her working life at the mill. “People who had lived beside one another for years began to view each other differently. I can remember someone saying to me about our catholic neighbours  ‘oh you couldn’t trust them’. I couldn’t figure out why, overnight, Catholics had suddenly become my enemy. In the Mill it was extremely difficult. With some women, their men had been interned; other women their men had joined the U.D.A. These women were sitting beside one another. It was strained. It wasn’t easy, because all of a sudden, we started to view each other differently.”

May experienced the effects of sectarianism and fear of other cultures on a first hand basis. “We were actually burnt out of our home by Protestants. They came one night to put the neighbours next door out. My dad came out and said to them ‘catch yourselves on, this woman’s not doing any harm.’ There was a great fear in the community at that time because people where disappearing. You went to bed and when you got up the next morning there was another two neighbours gone, nobody ever knew where they went. And the fear was, that they were taking all of the Catholics and then they were going to come and shoot all the Protestants.”

It happened a month before the 11th July bonfire. “Luckily my mum and dad were on holiday in Newcastle. They lit the bonfire right up against our house and all the ceilings came down and every window in the house was broken. It was a definite message.  We decided we had to move.”

With few options of where to find a new home, the family relocated to a newly developed Springmartin estate where a peace wall had been erected to separate Catholics and Protestants. “Almost immediately on moving into Springmartin, I got involved in voluntary community work. I got a group of women together plus one man who was included because he was good at writing letters. We began to say, this is what we want in our estate we pay the same rent as everybody else and therefore we are entitled to the same things.”

This was the beginning of the Black Mountain Action Group. A decade of community work later and much and risk taking, the estate was eventually transformed.

However, the work of the Black Mountain Action Group wasn’t confined to the Protestant community. “It was the mid 1980s, we were having a meeting and somebody said, ‘I wonder what they’re doing over the wall?’ That struck a chord with me because, I had worked with most of the women over the wall when I was in the Mill.”

With suspicion rife across both camps either side of the peace line the opportunity to speak to one another presented itself in the form of an event in the Europa Hotel. “Out of that one day conference we decided to leave the constitutional issues to the side and we found that we had similar issues. We had poor housing, poor health, low education attainment, we had a lot of male suicide and we had teenage pregnancy on both sides. So we decided to pool our resources. That’s still working 20 years later.”

“There was a big risk in doing cross community work. You were threatened but when you get a group of very strong women together who have a real aim in life, there’s very little that stops them, even a threat.”

“I think the neighbours in Springmartin just decided that the best thing to do was to ignore me. They were willing to take all of the advantages that went with getting the estate cleaned up, getting the housing developed, getting the park in, raising money, getting the community centre opened. I’ve been threatened a number of times, I’ve had my car destroyed twice and if people thought that it would put me off they were wrong. I remember I went to one of the commanders and said to him I don’t know what I’m doing wrong here and he told me privately, ‘whatever you’re doing keep it up. If you weren’t doing good, people wouldn’t be interested in you.’

May oversaw some radical changes in the community work sector during her involvement. “When we applied to the Belfast Action Teams, we were able to put paid workers into community centres. In a sense, it went away from volunteering but it certainly transformed the face of community work within a Protestant area. We lost the whole idea of ‘lets get together for the good of our community’, it was very much left to the paid workers.”

May recalls her involvement with the Women’s Coalition. “We had watched the political scene, watched the idea of ceasefires. We sent a letter off to the Minister at that time asking if there would be women at the talks table and the answer came back ‘yes, if they are elected.’ We then sent another letter asking if we would be accepted if we formed ourselves into a Women’s Coalition, would we be accepted as a political party? The answer came back yes. We had six weeks to form the Women’s Coalition and I have to say of all the experiences in my life. I think it was probably the most exhilarating, the most hairy and the most scary six weeks of my life.”

May was chosen to be Campaign Manager for the newly formed Women’s Coalition and she took full advantage of her role. “I suddenly learned that being the Campaign Manager meant that I was to be in front of every television camera in the world because we were unique. We were a bit of a joke, everybody wanted to interview us and so we took advantage of all of that. I knew there were good women within the political system here but they were never going to be involved in the decision making part of it. Our desire was to get women to where decisions were being made. Two women were elected and those two women had the most horrendous time over two years, physically and mentally they were abused.  But if the guys thought that were going to get rid of them, they picked on the wrong two women.”

Although the Women’s Coalition failed to capitalise in further elections in May’s personal opinion, “for me, the objective was to get women into politics here in Northern Ireland and I think that was achieved and it was achieved through the Coalition because, all of the other parties suddenly said ‘’hang on here, there’s a women’s vote out there and if we don’t do something about it all of those women in the Coalition are going to be up in Stormont.” And if you look at today’s Executive, we have four women ministers. I’d like to think that the Coalition is responsible for that. If you look at the four ministers they do a remarkably good job. I remember doing an interview on RTE with one of leading ministers here and he said on radio “you realise May that if women go into politics it’ll be the end of family life as we know it.” I think that over the years women have proved that not to be true.”

May talks about the Early Years Project which was funded by the European Union. The initiative gave money to cities with a population of over 100,000 suffering from deprivation areas. “We decided to build three state of the art centres.  At that time, we were working with over 1300 families and we had 90 workers. We gave local people the jobs. We trained them. I’m rather proud of some of the women who have gone on to bigger and better things, and today all our projects working wonderfully well”.

Mays endeavours were recognised when she was awarded an MBE in 1995. “It blew me out of the water I have to say. When it became public knowledge I got the most atrocious hate mail. I remember when I went up to the Queen to get the medal pinned on, she seemed to know who I was and I was absolutely amazed, how could this woman know who I was? I didn’t get the MBE for community work, I got it for labour relations.”

“I was born in a mixed area and I worked in a mixed place for years. We have seen big changes, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s more like cosmetic surgery. It looks good and it maybe feels good, but underneath there’s no actual change to the cancer that’s eating Northern Ireland, which is sectarianism. That is something our elected leaders up in Stormont will really have to take on board. My passion in life is integrated education. The Troubles split communities and I think if you get kids mixing from an early age, they learn about one another’s culture, it doesn’t become the big fear factor, that then people can use to drive people apart.”

May decided to retire in 1999. She was offered a seat in the House of Lords with the title, Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown. “As a woman, all my life I fought to get women to take these opportunities and I thought it would be churlish to turn it down. I also thought it would be nice to go to Westminster and tell people that we all don’t run about with guns and we have the same problems as them, they were just exacerbated by the Troubles.”

Upon her achievements to date, May reflects, “My mother would be very proud of me because my mother always said to me ‘if you want to do it, do it.’ I think my father would have a few chosen words to say to me, the fact that I have a title and the fact that I sit at the House of Lords.” 

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