Great Women: Baroness May Blood

May Blood was born on 26th May 1938 to a working-class Belfast family and grew up in a “two-up, two-down” house in Roden Street, West Belfast. Her father worked in the shipyard and her mother was a cook in Mackie’s foundry on the Springfield Road. May attended the Donegall Road Methodist Church Primary School, before going on to attend Linfield Secondary School in Blythe Street, Sandy Row.[1] Recollecting her childhood in an interview with the Best of Belfast podcast, she commented that “community was everything because we had nothing else”, and that “everybody had the same, so you didn’t think you were any poorer than anybody else”.[2]

May’s working-class area was composed of Protestants and Catholics alike, and she remembers the strong sense of community before the outbreak of the Troubles, which “changed all that”.[3] In 1969, as political tensions escalated and violence broke out across Belfast, her next-door neighbours were burnt out of their home. Her father intervened, telling the perpetrators to “catch yourself on, this woman’s not doing any harm”. For this, the Blood family were in turn targeted.[4] In June 1969, a bonfire was lit against their home, destroying the property and forcing the family to relocate.[5] The family moved to a new home in the newly developed Springmartin Estate, West Belfast, where a peace wall had just been erected.[6]

At the age of fourteen, May left school and started work in the cutting room of Blackstaff Linen Mill, on the Springfield Road, West Belfast. She describes how the mill workers “were a community within a community” and, despite the initial low wages and poor working conditions, she states, “I was proud to be a milly for 38 years”.[7] Within half an hour of working in the mill, May was informed that all ‘Millies’ were members of the Transport and General Workers Union’ (TGWU), one of the largest general trade unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland. She swiftly joined the TGWU, despite her father’s reservations. A strong trade unionist himself, he believed that trade unionism was not for women![8] In 1968, she was approached to fill a temporary shop steward vacancy. As shop steward, she would be the union member elected as the representative of a department in any dealings with management. When her boss laid down an extensive list of what she could and could not do as acting shop steward, she decided, “Well if you’re that angry about it, … that’s for me”.[9]

May describes the TGWU as, “where I got my education”.[10] She learnt about employment law, wage negotiation, health and safety and put theory into practice fighting for members’ compensation claims. She progressed to senior shop steward and later convener.[11] During the 1970s, she actively supported the Equal Pay Act (1970) and Sex Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order (1976). Other campaigns within Blackstaff Mill included fighting to reduce working hours, negotiating for holiday pay and Saturday overtime rates, and campaigning for a minimum wage for the women working in the mill offices.[12]

Baroness May Blood photographed outside the former Blackstaff Mill, her workplace for 38 years. Source: The Irish News.

After thirty-eight years of working in Blackstaff Mill, May entered into community work, utilizing the skills she had learnt as a ‘Millie’ and union representative. Between 1993 and 1999, she worked for the Greater Shankill Partnership, running a training programme for long-term unemployed men on the Shankill, and setting up the Early Years Project. The Early Years Project provided services for local children, parents, and families and benefitted the local community. As she proudly remembers, “we gave local people the jobs. We trained them”.[13]

In 1996, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) was formed, led by May Blood and Monica McWilliams.[14] The Women’s Coalition was established by leading women from the community and voluntary sectors and aimed to give a voice to ordinary women who were largely ignored by mainstream political parties.[15] The NIWC contested the 1996 Northern Ireland Forum election and won two seats, giving them formal access to the peace talks.[16]  The Women’s Coalition were one of few groups that worked across the political divide. They engaged in open dialogue with all parties and were trusted intermediaries during the peace talks. The NIWC were also influential in modifying the language in the Good Friday Agreement around the rights of victims, the reintegration of political prisoners and, crucially, the importance of integrated education and housing for social cohesion in post-conflict Northern Ireland.[17]The NIWC won two seats in the inaugural Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, but both were lost by 2003. The Coalition eventually dissolved in 2006, having served its purpose to amplify the voices of women during the initial stages of the Peace Process.[18]

The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, May Blood pictured standing. Source: The Irish Times.

In 1999, May Blood became the first woman in Northern Ireland to be given a life peerage, making her Baroness Blood of Blackwatertown and awarding her a seat in the House of Lords.[19] Reflecting on this in a TV interview, she said, “all my life I fought to get women to take these opportunities and I thought it would be churlish to turn it down.”[20] In her nineteen years representing Northern Ireland in the House of Lords, she never missed a session.[21] While a member, the Baroness focused on issues around social economy, social services, social security and pensions, young people and integrated education.[22]

May became a volunteer fundraiser for the Integrated Education Fund in 2000 and has been the Campaign Chair since 2002.[23]  She has since helped to raise £15 million for integrated education in Northern Ireland and openly expressed her disappointment that, as of June 2018, there were only 65 integrated schools in Northern Ireland.[24]  In a TV interview, she stated, “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 a big fear factor that then people can use to drive people apart.”[25] May was awarded the Grassroots Diplomat Initiative Award in 2013 for tirelessly campaigning for integrated education in Northern Ireland.[26]

Baroness May Blood. Source: https://bestofbelfast.org/stories/baroness-may-blood-ief

May Blood was born to a working-class family and was raised in a mixed community in West Belfast. Her work at Blackstaff Mill opened her up to another important community, trade unionism. Through her education within the TGWU, she was able to push for change for women and the working class over the next four decades. She was influential in the Women’s Coalition which influenced several aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and latterly used her position in the House of Lords to address issues around integrated education, social economy and social services. She has continually used her experiences, knowledge, and political position to push for change and help the community she came from. Baroness May Blood is a wonderful example of what a determined woman can do when she takes opportunities before her to achieve her goals and better her community.

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/may-blood/

[2] https://bestofbelfast.org/stories/baroness-may-blood-ief

[3] Ibid

[4] http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/

[5] http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/

[6] Ibid

[7] https://bestofbelfast.org/stories/baroness-may-blood-ief

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/may-blood/

[12] https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/may-blood/

[13] http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/

[14] https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/northern-ireland

[15] https://www.c-r.org/accord/public-participation/northern-irelands-womens-coalition-institutionalising-political-voice

[16] https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/northern-ireland

[17] Ibid

[18] https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/may-blood/

[19] https://www.rte.ie/culture/herstory/2019/0904/1073928-herstory-baroness-may-blood/

[20] http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/

[21] https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2018/06/23/news/baroness-may-blood-jeremy-corbyn-as-prime-minister-would-really-frighten-me-1360624/

[22] https://members.parliament.uk/member/2502/career

[23] https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/may-blood/

[24] https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2018/06/23/news/baroness-may-blood-jeremy-corbyn-as-prime-minister-would-really-frighten-me-1360624/

[25] http://archive.northernvisions.org/specialcollections/ogpersonal-stories/may-blood/

[26] https://www.irishnews.com/lifestyle/2018/06/23/news/baroness-may-blood-jeremy-corbyn-as-prime-minister-would-really-frighten-me-1360624/

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