Reigning on the parades

Twenty-eight, ‘a bit of a looker', and with a blurred cultural identity, the Green Party of Northern Ireland's Kelly Andrews sits awkwardly beside her colleagues on the Northern Ireland Parades Commission. Fionola Meredith wonders if her energy and enthusiasm will outlast the tough months ahead


When it was announced in January that Kelly Andrews had been appointed to the North's controversial Parades Commission, the very first comment on Slugger O'Toole, a popular Northern politics blog, referred not to Andrews' political credentials – she is co-leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party – or to her background in conflict resolution. No, what interested this avid blogger, (most accurately named ‘Yokel') was the fact that Andrews is “a bit of a looker”.


So far, so predictable. If you want to be taken seriously, being blonde and 28-years-old is no advantage in politics or public life. ‘Yokel' and his ilk make up a significant proportion of the North's politicos (both wannabe and actual). When they are not sizing up female public figures, politicians and commentators like prize heifers, they treat them with scorn or bored indifference. But Andrews is philosophical about the adolescent gawking. “Oh yeah, it happened too when I stood for the council elections. Never mind that I was appointed to the commission because I had the skills to actually do the job, not because of the way I look. I'm not being funny, but sometimes you see a man in a sloppy suit looking like they haven't had a shower, and nobody says anything – it's just the usual double standards.”


The surprising thing about Andrews is that there is no discernible ‘side' to her. She has an earthy, pleasantly unpolished manner, and while experience of local politics (or media training) has taught her to weigh her words, she voices most of her opinions disarmingly bluntly, in a broad Dublin accent. Born in a British military hospital in Germany (where her father was stationed with the Royal Irish Rangers), she was brought up by her mother in Cabra, an area with large housing estates on Dublin's Northside, after her parents divorced.


Moving to the North aged 17 to live with her father, Andrews trained as a hairdresser – “I was always into my hair and makeup: a typical girl” – and, by 19, was working as a senior stylist at a salon in the genteel seaside town of Bangor, on Co Down's so-called “Gold Coast”. But a prevailing sense of dissatisfaction and missed opportunities prompted Andrews to enroll for a business studies course at her local technical college. Her application was rejected by the course tutor (“She said my qualifications weren't up to scratch. Two fingers up to her, I've done alright now,” Andrews laughs), so she took a university access course instead, and emerged three years later with a 2:1 politics degree from Queen's University Belfast.


It was Dr John Barry's environmental politics class there that inspired Andrews to get involved in grassroots green activism, and she rose quickly in the party she now co-leads with Barry. “I was shocked at the environmental degradation going on and that nobody seemed to be doing much about it. Now it's much further up the political agenda. John Barry invigorated the Northern Ireland Green party [which had been around for 20 years] with new energy, new people. And I was very quickly put to the forefront – I'm a young woman, it's a small party, and perhaps I got the opportunity quicker than if I'd joined a bigger, more established party. I was flattered that I had that opportunity, and a little bit nervous about it too, but the more I got into it, the more my confidence grew.”


Andrews is frank about her own limitations, and – perhaps because she is still young – is unusually willing to defer to the expertise of others. But neither is she overawed by the political climate she finds herself in, where blustering self-importance is so often the order of the day. “I don't know everything and I don't claim to know everything but you prepare, you brief yourself, you draw on your own experience and that of your colleagues. It's the nature of politics to be adversarial. That's fair enough – I can live with people not liking me.”


Andrews will need to have rhino-thick skin in her new role as a Parades Commissioner. A quasi-judicial body, it is responsible for placing restrictions on – or even completely banning – parades it deems offensive or contentious. Set up in 1997 after the widespread civil unrest following the dispute over the Orange Order parade from Drumcree Church in Portadown, Co Armagh, the seven-member commission is chaired by Roger Poole, a former senior trade union negotiator. Andrews stepped into the place vacated by the departure of Orangeman Donald MacKay, who took the liberty of using the SDLP's Dolores Kelly as a referee on his original application form – crucially, without bothering to get the go-ahead from her first. It's just one example of the mistakes, gaffes and reversals that have haunted the commission since its inception.


Her colleagues include SDLP stalwart Joe Hendron (Gerry Adams' predecessor as MP for West Belfast) and David Burrows, former District Master of Portadown Loyal Orange Lodge No 1. (Given his ultra-orange credentials, Burrows's appointment was bound to be controversial; even when he resigned from the Orange Order, Sinn Féin described it as “a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has left”.) Detested with a passion by the loyal orders, the commission also takes a frequent hammering from elected representatives right across the political spectrum. Cynicism about its role and function is rife – critics regard it as an illegitimate quango liberally sprinkled with unelectable politicians. And while it may be the close season now, given the raw emotion and bitter vitriol associated with the politics of parading in the North, hasn't Kelly just landed herself with the job from hell?


Andrews laughs, a little nervously. “It will be a challenge, but that's a good thing – there's no point shying away from it. I have a lot to bring to the commission, likewise I can learn an awful lot too.” She believes that her work with a local political-skills project, delivering training in conflict resolution to women's community groups, has given her a headstart in the more high-octane role she's taken on. “It's really very basic – when you go into any negotiation, you have something you want, the other person has something they want, but for a good resolution, both people need to be happy in some way.” It's a simple, matter-of-fact approach, perhaps bordering on the naïve, but Andrews is confident that her culturally diverse personal background will help inform her role as an arbitrator. “My identity is very blurred. I describe myself as Anglo-Irish: I was born in a British military hospital in Germany, lived in England, brought up in Dublin, went to a Catholic school, moved to Omagh to a British army camp. So I have this experience of different cultures – I can draw on that, my identity is not defined in either way. I bring an open mind, I'm balanced and impartial in my approach. People will always try and box you, insisting that you're this or you're that, but I genuinely have no agenda. Anybody who knows anything about me will know that's true.”


The precarious balance of the commission is constantly under interrogation. Some unionist commentators have questioned Secretary of State Peter Hain's judgement in replacing an Orangeman with a centrist, fearing the balance may be tilting away from them. And they aren't keen on the fact that the Northern Ireland Green Party is a regional council of Comhaontas Glas: “a foreign party”, and they accuse the Northern Greens of being de facto nationalists. That's absurd, says Andrews: “we have unionists and protestants, catholics and nationalists, baha'i and various others – we're not denying anyone their identity, you can be whatever you want to be, as long as you're a green first and foremost.”


It's spring, and Kelly Andrews is bouncing with youth and enthusiasm, brimming with an untarnished sense of justice and fair play. A long, tough summer in the heat of the marching season, disentangling an endless stream of messy squabbles, may take the shine off her zeal. But Andrews is up for the challenge. “And anyway I'll get to meet some interesting people,” she adds brightly.