Kate Hoey is brisk and forthright as she explains that she became the 39th female British MP when she was elected during a Vauxhall by-election in 1989.
“I simply met a lot of politicians and felt it was something I could do,” she says. “I didn’t go into it with a huge amount of feeling about the fact that I was a woman going into a profession typically considered male. Feminists get annoyed with me because I don’t really consider myself to be a feminist.
“I have never supported the idea of positive discrimination as a way of rectifying the gender imbalance in politics. I would rather feel as though I was in a job or a particular role because I was the best person for that job and the most worthy for that particular role.
“But look at how well we are doing in terms of women in power anyway: Theresa May as PM, Arlene Foster as First Minister of Northern Ireland. Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and the possibility of a woman becoming US President for the first time in history.”
Hoey strikes one as a woman of action rather than high talk and procrastination.
Her whole bearing seems no-nonsense and efficient and she notes her election to parliament without any kind of fuss, as though it is entirely natural that a young girl from Mallusk in Co Antrim should become one of the Labour Party’s longest serving backbenchers.
A maverick within Labour who is known to often voice rightwing views, she has appeared to many as a more natural Tory - Hoey refuses to oppose hunting, was in favour and delighted by Brexit (noticeably having been spotted cosying up to Nigel Farage on his Thames flotilla), wants to see tougher controls on immigration and even tougher welfare reforms. Many have suggested that she would be better off defecting to the Conservative Party; but it seems Hoey enjoys being a minority voice on different issues, never sacrificing her commitment to independent thought for the sake of backroom politics.
“On his death bed my father said to me, “Always do the right thing”. And that’s what I try to do, what I believe to be the right thing. There are lots of times when it would be much easier for me as a politician to go along with something that I do not personally believe in, but that is just not possible for me. If I do not support something or believe in it then I cannot vote for it.”
Then too she learned much from the Protestant faith she was raised in: “I think the early grounding I had at church and Sunday school was a sort of rationale for understanding what is right and what is wrong and about what truly matters. Respect for others. Values. Keeping Sunday as a day apart.”
Catherine Letitia Hoey grew up on a farm between Mallusk and Lyle’s Hill, the daughter of lower middle class parents who she says often struggled to make ends meet. Climbing trees and being immensely sporty shaped her childhood and at one stage the young Kate was even an award-winning high jumper when she wasn’t doing her bit on the family farm helping sows in farrow or attending Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church.
Hoey describes how she had not met a single Catholic until she began her secondary education at Belfast Royal Academy where she also began to realise for the first time that many people were a good deal better off than she and her family were.
After school she studied sport at what is now the University of Ulster at Jordanstown and then moved to London to complete an economics degree and begin work as a PE teacher. She kept meeting people involved in the political class and soon came to feel that it was something she could do herself.
“I had this idea that politicians had to be very clever and very special people but then I realised that wasn’t really the case. I never set out to be a politician as such but I suppose I have always been drawn to leadership roles and expressing my opinion.”
She recalls the Vietnam War as something that helped ignite her commitment to politics and recalls demonstrating in opposition to the conflict.
“Growing up I did sense of a lot of unfairness around and discrimination against people because of their religion. If you were poorer I could see that you did have to struggle so much harder than those from more middle class backgrounds and it simply didn’t seem very fair.
I certainly didn’t have any kind of chip on my shoulder or feel bitter in any way towards those who were rich. I could simply see that there was a very big divide between those who have and those who have not.
“I have always felt that I wanted to support the under dog and some of the stories that were coming out of Vietnam made me very angry.
“A lot of the time you can look at things that feel very frustrated that there is nothing that you can do internationally.
“At that time we had a government that refused to get involved in Vietnam - if only the British Government had managed to do the same on the question of Iraq” - Hoey was a notable opponent of the war and a member of Blair’s cabinet at the time, serving as minister for sport.
She radiates a can-do attitude and political polish of the sort Margaret Thatcher would have approved of, strong-willed and well-informed, the sort of enterprising pragmatist who just gets on with things instead of creating drama.
While working as Minister for Sport under Tony Blair she claims to have frequented the English rugby team’s dressing rooms during rehearsals and still has a lot of footballers’ numbers in her contacts book having worked for various premiership teams in an advisory capacity.
She is also mad about the Northern Ireland team and tells me she has attended every single one of its competitive matches in the last 10 years - excluding only friendlies.
In fact she was quite irritated by David Cameron’s decision to hold the EU Referendum during the Euros.