Patricia Lewsley-Mooney has had a long and successful career as a politician, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and, now, director of NICMA. She was also awarded a CBE for services to children’s rights.
But behind the scenes, the former cook, advice worker and mum-of-five has had struggles with her health and the breakdown of her first marriage.
‘‘I ended up as a single parent in emergency accommodation on benefits and I thought to myself ‘am I ever going to get out of this hole?’
‘‘It was horrible place and we were there for about a year,’’ she says.
Patricia says she worried about the impact the divorce (from former SDLP councillor Hugh Lewsley) would have on her children.
‘‘I probably spoilt my youngest daughter more than the rest of them because she was quite young when the divorce happened. I was also in politics so that took up a lot of my time, but I never did breakfast meetings because I took her to school every day - that was my opportunity just to spend that time with her.’’
Then the former Irish dancing champion discovered she had a hole in the heart.
‘‘I didn’t realise I had it. I just thought I was unfit because I was out of breath all the time.’’
It transpired her breathlessness was actually a serious heart problem due to a genetic defeat.
‘‘Six weeks before the Assembly elections I went through open heart surgery. I then ran in the Assembly elections and got elected and then in the September I got a Housing Executive house - two of my sons, who had been living with their dad and came back home to live with me.’’
It was undoubtedly a stressful time, but Patricia says she had to remain strong for her children.
‘‘No matter what is going on in your life, you have to maintain some normality for the children.
‘‘But that was 20 years ago and I haven’t looked back - I’m not on medication or anything, .
Patricia Lewsley-Mooney is the eldest of seven children, ‘‘born and reared’’ on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.
‘‘My parents are still there - my mum, who is 85, was born in that house - you’re never going to get her out of it now,’’ she laughs.
Growing up in a large family, Patricia says she always had a nurturing instinct.
‘‘There were always babies in the house,’’ she smiles.
She also had a passion for working with people with disabilities.
‘‘When I was at school I did a lot of voluntary work at Fleming Fulton (a special school for children aged 3-19).
‘‘I suppose I took that passion into politics because when I started out in 1993 in the City Hall I tried to make it as accessible as possible.
“I was one of the co-founders of Shop Mobility Belfast.’’
She lost her seat in 1997 and then was elected to the Assembly in 1998 representing the SDLP in Lagan Valley, a seat she held until 2003. During her time as an MLA she chaired all-party Assembly groups on children and young people, disability, diabetes, anti-poverty, and ethnic minorities.
On the day the Assembly was suspended in 2002, she had been due to introduce a Private Members Bill to strengthen child protection arrangements in Northern Ireland, by placing Area Child Protection Committees on a statutory footing.
In December 2006, she resigned from the Assembly in order to take up a post as Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People
‘‘I loved it. It was the best job in the world.
“It was amazing to be able to meet young people who were high flyers, but also to meet those young people at the other end that struggled.
‘‘When I was commissioner, the priority for me was participation, so if I went to meet a minister I would have brought a young person with me and they would have talked to that minister about the issues that affected them - whether that was transport or education, or whatever.’’
As a mother, first and foremost, Patricia is realistic about the pressures on today’s parents.
‘‘I don’t believe there’s a perfect parent - I think every parent does the best that they can with the tools that they have.
“And I always believe that if you get your kids to 18 and they’ve turned out to be half decent kids and they’ve never brought any serious trouble to your door, then you’ve done a good job.’’