One of Northern Ireland’s newest Assembly members, Lagan Valley MLA Jenny Palmer, is still finding her feet in the male dominated world of Stormont politics.
However, the Lisburn woman, who will be known to many as the politician who defied orders to ‘put party before people’ when she was a DUP councillor, never harboured ambitions to sit in Stormont, rather her childhood dreams centred on her love of sport.
So just how did one of the first women to represent Northern Ireland in football, volleyball, and netball, come to be one of the most well-known faces in the political arena?
Born and bred in a working class Protestant area of Lisburn, Jenny grew up with eight brothers and sisters, and as the second eldest, she spent much of her younger life looking after her siblings. “I grew up in a big family and there was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, even as a child,” explained Jenny.
And it was this sense of responsibility that inspired her first career ambition. “I wanted to be a policewoman,” she continued. “I remember going to the Blue Lamp discos which were run by the RUC and the Bridge Youth Club. It was the only outlet for young people in the 60s.
“I always had the ambition to join the RUC. It was the connection with the community that appealed to me. But I couldn’t join because of the height restriction. You had to be 5’ 4” and I was 5’ 2.5” so I had a way to go.
“I did everything I could and I even tried to stretch myself every day but there was no way I was going to achieve it.”
With the realisation that she was never going to be able to join the RUC, Jenny was making a name for herself in the sporting arena. What started off as a kick about with her siblings and friends became a passion for her as she excelled as a football player, as well as proving herself as a both a netball and volleyball player.
“I was establishing myself in netball, volleyball, and football representing Northern Ireland at all three sports,” explained Jenny. “I played for Merton United Football team, which was based in Belfast at Ormeau Park.
“I progressed to the national side and played for Northern Ireland in the sweepers position. When I was about 19 we played our first international match against the Republic of Ireland. My recollection was that Northern Ireland hadn’t played the Republic before and we beat them 2:1.”
Jenny was injured during a match in England but, unaware of the extent of the injury, she kept playing. “During my first UEFA Championship match in Spain, our goalkeeper was injured and because of my injury I was put into nets. There was no-one else.”
Sport broadened Jenny’s horizons and introduced her to people she would never have otherwise met. “I come from a working class, Protestant background, very steeped in the tradition of Orangeism,” she continued. “Sport helped me to meet people I would never have come across. We had training in St Dominic’s on the Falls Road. I remember going in and seeing holy relics that I had never seen before.
“That’s where I picked up my first words of Gaelic. I had some fun, and they weren’t very good words,” she joked.
Whilst she was training on the Falls Road, Jenny began working on the opposite side of the divide, taking up her first job after leaving school on the Shankill Road.
“My first job after leaving school was on the Shankill Road as a leisure attendant at a new stadium that had opened,” she revealed. “I remember there were two full sized snooker tables and only special club members could use them. One day a man barged through and I told him he couldn’t go in. He pulled a gun on me.
“I travelled up and down on a moped bike, which was stolen from outside the stadium. I decided it was time to look for another job.”
When Jenny was 21 she married her childhood sweetheart, John Palmer, whose family ran a well-known store in Lisburn,
“I met John when I was 16,” Jenny explained. “I was working part time in the kitchen in Lisburn Golf Club and he was delivering produce.
“He asked me out and we went to Bangor on a Sunday afternoon. My mother was adamant I take my wee brother as a chaperone. John sent him to buy ice-cream so that we could have some time alone.
“I was attracted to his sense of humour. And he was very good looking as well.”
The couple married in 1981 and Jenny began working in the Palmer family shop doing the accounts and clerical work.
Jenny continued to play football after she was married but soon motherhood took over. “I came back from a competition on the Mainland,” she explained. “My sister picked my up off the boat and I told her I was as sick as a dog and didn’t know what was wrong. I had no inkling I was pregnant. I thought ‘I can’t be pregnant, I’m playing football’.”
John Jr came along in 1983, followed by David in 1985 and Hannah in 1990. Family life took over and still Jenny never imagined that she would one day be entering the political arena, first as a DUP councillor representing Lisburn South and later as an MLA for the Ulster Unionist Party.
“My father was an Ulster Unionist but he was never that political,” explained Jenny. “I didn’t have a great deal of interest in politics. I was more interested in sport.
“It was only later when I became and Orangewoman that I was approached and asked if I would like to represent the Ulster Unionists. At the time there was a tug of war between the Ulster Unionists and Jeffrey Donalson MP. After Jeffrey removed himself from the Ulster Unionist Party, we all followed suit.
“I wanted to contribute something back into society and I thought I would apply for a position as a lay magistrate. Jeffrey Donaldson told me not to apply because it would rule me out of running for the council. I told him I didn’t want to run for council but I gave it some thought, spoke to John and put my name forward. I never looked back. I loved it. I loved working for people, and serving people is something I really relish.”
During her time on Lisburn City Council, Jenny served as chairman of the Environmental Services Committee, and the Economic Development Committee. She also served as chairman of the Lagan Valley Regional Park and on the board of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
It was in this last role that she found herself at odds with her Party and led to her publicly leaving the DUP, before joining the Ulster Unionist Party, where she was selected to run in this year’s Assembly election.
The conflict arose when Jenny claimed she was “bullied” by a DUP special adviser into changing her vote at a Housing Executive Board meeting, in line with the wishes of the Party, something she refused to do.
The matter came to a head when the BBC aired an interview with Jenny, during which she broke down in tears when she revealed the torment she had gone through over the situation.
Following the release of a report at the Assembly and before a disciplinary hearing by the DUP, Jenny, and her husband John, who serves as a councillor in Lisburn, took the decision to resign from the Party and, after some consideration, they both decided to join the Ulster Unionist Party. Something Jenny said at the time was like a “homecoming” for the couple.
“Other Parties courted us but really there was only one home for us because of the background in the family,” continued Jenny. “If it hadn’t been for the Ulster Unionists in the Council I would never have got through the last year. I felt I was amongst friends. I started to laugh and joke again and felt I was getting my confidence back.”
Jenny, together with her Party colleague Robbie Butler, ran in the May Assembly elections for the Ulster Unionist Party and they were delighted to secure two seats for the Party in Lagan Valley. “I believe there is a sea change in Lagan Valley, specifically that people were fed up with the DUP,” added Jenny. “I knew support for the UUP was strong on the ground and it was fantastic to get two in. The Ulster Unionist Party didn’t have a voice in Lagan Valley for a long time but now that has changed.”