‘I’m in this job out of conviction, not career aspiration’

Pacemaker press 11/04/2016. Pictured is TUV candidate for East Antrim Ruth Wilson.  Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press
Pacemaker press 11/04/2016. Pictured is TUV candidate for East Antrim Ruth Wilson. Picture Mark Marlow/pacemaker press

It’s hard not to instantly spot Ruth Wilson inside the dark interior of the hotel lobby. Rising quickly to her feet, her face breaks into a huge smile as she comes over to greet me at our meeting point in Carrickfergus.

Petite and slim, she has huge, expressive eyes and is dressed in a bright red shift dress teamed with a red, white and navy striped jacket and navy shoes.

At first sight, she appears to be every inch the TUV politician; the 47-year-old mum-of-three (she spent her birthday this week out canvassing) and native of Kilwaughter, near Ballynure, has been chosen as Jim Allister’s party’s East Antrim candidate in the upcoming Assembly election.

She’s also a local councillor serving the Coast Road district electoral area on Mid and East Antrim Council, and has been involved in election campaigns for the last five years in a row.

Add to the mix her full-time job at Belfast City Hospital, her involvement in her local band, McMaster Memorial Accordion Band, Kilwaughter, and a stud of horses and ponies to care for, and it’s something of a miracle she managed to find the time to schedule in this interview.

“My life is packed,” she admits, and I think of the adage, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it’.’’

But it’s not simply about her ‘political CV’; what I’m struck by, when it comes to Ruth Wilson, is her reason for her involvement in a life of politics.

It’s not because of career aspirations, it’s because of conviction, she tells me.

“If you bring your Christian life into your public life, you can see how you’re helping people,” says the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle attendee and close friend and supporter of its founder, Pastor James McConnell.

“It’s like living out your Christianity really. To me, it’s natural to want to help somebody to get a house, for example, or get out of a situation, for example if they are suffering domestic abuse.”

Working in the health service - she’s been a medical secretary for 30 years - has also increased her natural compassion for the plight of other people.

She was educated at Ballyclare Secondary school, the same town in which her three children, 20-year-old Cherith, 17-year-old Kathryn, and 14-year-old Samuel, were all schooled.

Husband Ian also works in the health service, and what with their careers, their children, and their horses, life is busy.

“We are very much a team,” says Ruth. “We have both been interested in politics our whole lives.”

She says that as a couple they were “lifelong supporters of the DUP” - until “Dr Paisley led them into power sharing with Sinn Fein”. Describing this move as a “shock to our system”, the Wilsons were amongst those who felt they couldn’t support this move, and became founding members of Traditional Unionist Voice.

It’s a period she looks back on as “an awful time of isolation”, one when they felt they were saying goodbye to people they had shared political views and aspirations with all their lives.

“I have no regrets about joining the TUV,” says Ruth, adding that she was “delighted” to be elected onto the local Council in 2014. “Having family already in politics (her brother is the DUP’s Paul Girvan) I knew what I was in for really, but the timing worked out well in terms of my family, as one of my daughters is at university and the other will hopefully be going as well. My son is heavily into rugby and stock car racing, so him and his dad really now are able to do all that together. They are needing me less. I do have a strong faith, so I believe that God makes things happen in his own time.’’

And she adds: “If I didn’t have the support of my family, I couldn’t do it.”

She concedes that the cut and thrust of politics, the way it can be portrayed on the TV and in the media, may be off putting for some women, but feels that rules and regulations in place do their part to dilute this somewhat.

“It is a tough job, and the debating etc. can be robust enough at times, but I think that now, with the codes of conduct and whatever, politics is getting more sterile, and you can’t have the shouting across the table. That sort of rufty tufty politics has very much been put to bed. So I think that since that it’s more an open door situation for women.”

Her faith and church life is a key part of her life, having come been “saved at my mother’s knee at the age of six.”

“I was brought up in a Christian home; my mum and dad were foundation members of Newtownabbey Free Presbyterian Church. Then when I got married we moved to Whitewell, and it has been great bringing the children up in a vibrant church and seeing lives changed every week.

“Becoming a Christian is something I’ve never regretted. I didn’t go wild in my teens, I always stayed close to the Lord, and found that it gave me a great peace. I don’t panic about the future. And it gives you a reason for living. Bringing up our children in the way we have has given them a great grounding. We all talk about our faith together.”

Ruth believes that freedom of expression when it comes to one’s personal beliefs should have its place outside the home as well as inside it.

She is close to Pastor McConnell, who hit headlines following his controversial comments about Islam, and publicly supported him throughout his trial.

“I wouldn’t be in support of putting your faith down people’s throats, but I believe you should be able to have the freedom of your conscience, and if there’s something that you in your conscience can’t agree with, I feel that you should be allowed to have freedom of speech. I feel that if your country moves so that you can’t speak out anymore you’re no longer in a democratic society. I felt that at the time, Pastor McConnell needed support; after all he had given us as a congregation and a family it was the natural thing to do. I had been out in the past to support political issues, and this was an even bigger one, an issue of freedom of speech. When the verdict was given, I felt that justice had been done, but it was traumatic for him to have been put through the whole court case. However, these things happen, and God maybe used this to speak to someone. And the Pastor shone through the whole case, he never gave in, he held firm, and I think that was important.”