Anne was born into a large family, being one of 9 children born in South Belfast. Anne spent most of her childhood growing up in the Cliftonville area in north Belfast. During her youth Anne recalls a lack of youth provisions “There were no activities organised through the school. In terms of youth clubs I can’t really remember going to anything like that. We probably just made our own craic hanging around street corners getting up to no good.”
Reflecting on the Troubles, Anne recalls “I became aware that it was something to do religion. Later on I would realise it was more to do with politics. I do remember family and friends losing their homes whenever they were burnt out in Ardoyne.” Her father lost his barber shop business as a direct result of the Troubles.
Moving to England in 1979 to study law was, in part, an attempt to distance herself from the conflict but she decided to return in 1984.
“I got involved in Welfare Rights. The Benefit system was changing. I got involved in a Benefit Take-up Campaign and then I got involved in housing rights. The next stage was actually getting involved with women’s rights.”
She remembers the increasing poverty in the community in the1980s. “People might have had video recorders, but not three good meals a day. That’s probably what led me into welfare rights and housing.”
Working on the Shankill, the Troubles came to impact upon her work. “It was difficult being a catholic working in the Shankill. The women that I worked with had great respect for me because they saw that it wasn’t about being a protestant or catholic, it was about the work that you did and the outcomes from that.”
She was warned of the potential danger. “It was suggested to me that I should change my name a bit, so I did. I also remember being asked the names of my children and they’ve all got Irish names. I remember sometimes thinking I’m not going to deny who I am. It’s only when you do look back that you realise it was very stressful.”
Reflecting on her community development work, she says “It’s based on a lack of something. It’s not something that you can draw up a poster for. In my case, how the Shankill Women’s Group got off the ground was to do with housing. It was mostly women who were part of the Tenants Association. They wanted to see changes. It was through women coming together and discussing their commonalities, then it progressed to education. It has to be an evolving and developing need for something that isn’t there and wanting to do something about it.”
“All isms are the same. It doesn’t matter whether it’s racism or sexism or any of those. It’s the same issues that are there. It’s Discrimination. In terms of bringing about true equality you have to deal with them all.”
“Whenever the conflict was going on, there were a lot of other issues that were suppressed. It was all about Catholics and Protestants. Racism, sexism and a lot of inequalities were put to one side. They weren’t dealt with.”
Today, Anne is Chief Executive of the Women’s Tec. “It was set up by a group of women who were involved with Windsor Women’s Centre in 1993. It came about because the women wanted to something a bit more non-traditional in terms of skills for women”.
Based in Belfast, the Women’s Tec enables women to return to employment in non-traditional sectors and contributes to reducing the chronic skills shortage in the construction and ICT industries. TEC stands for Training, Enterprise and Childcare, as the organisation provides valuable facilities to women who are socially and economically disadvantaged, ultimately offering them new career and life perspectives.
Anne found resistance to this. “There is still the gender gap, I think there is a lot of indirect discrimination. I think that’s probably a lot to do with attitude. There’s still a long way to go.”
“I don’t know why we can’t have quotas set in colleges for female enrolment and even in government tendering”.
The Women’s Tech has been hugely successful with international developments and partnerships. Looking to the Anne believes, “ The Women’sTec is unique. It has a role that no other organisation in Northern Ireland has. We would like to see the Women’sTec model replicated throughout Northern Ireland. What we are doing is only the tip of the iceberg.”