I first saw Izzy Giles pop up in my Twitter feed at the beginning of last summer. Here was a young woman, a Progressive Unionist Party member, tweeting about loyalism, flags, social depravation, feminism and marriage equality. This caught the attention of a lot of people, including Joanne Sweeney at the Belfast Telegraph, who wrote up a profile piece on progressive loyalism’s rising star last December.
I bumped into Izzy shortly after the publication of that article at an event at Queen’s University, where we heard from the American scholar Tony Novosel speak on loyalism and working class politics. We discussed bringing the PUP into my church to participate in our Faith and Democracy dinner series. We finally had that encounter last Friday (see my previous blog).
What strikes me about Izzy is her sincerity, passion, and slightly shy nature. She hasn’t been in the public spotlight long enough yet to master the art of spinning a story. Which means she talks to you from a place that you recognise as sincere and un-crafted.
As a flag protester and self-identified loyalist, some may be surprised that Izzy attended an integrated school and believes strongly in the integrated education movement. From our dinner conversation I came to understand she believes in the kind of liberal pluralism many attack loyalism for supposedly lacking.
Izzy joined the PUP a little less than a year ago. She had been sitting on her sofa whinging about the state of local politics and decided one day that she wanted to do something to sort this place out. Her mum recommended the Progressive Unionist Party, which appealed to her left-wing sensibilities.
I sat down with Izzy after our dinner at church on Friday for a short interview. I wanted to know why she was different than a lot of young (and older!) people who might complain about the state of politics, but don’t make the effort to get involved.
I asked Izzy how she got involved with the PUP.
“I guess I’ve always been a strong campaigner for equal marriage and pro-choice issues. Then I guess, me sitting at home, thinking about these things, and complaining about them wasn’t going to do anything.”
“I spoke to my mum about joining a political party. And she said, why don’t you look at the Progressive Unionist Party, and I looked up their policies, and they mostly aligned with what I believed in anyway.”
“So actually, it was at a flag protest at City Hall where she [her mum] tapped Billy Hutchison on the shoulder and he came and spoke with me and took me along with him on the journey.”
“He told me to just join online and fill in my details, and I got a text message to go to a meeting and that’s how it all began. And speaking to other young people that’s exactly how they got involved too.”
How did you get chosen to stand for Castelreagh?
“I guess throughout the course of the year I started working on different projects to see where I would fit in. I wanted to do justice at the beginning and then I did research for members who needed a helping hand. So I worked on the human trafficking bill, so we put a submission in for that.”
“I researched welfare reform, researched fiscal autonomy if we were to join a United Ireland and that’s basically how it all began. I started doing more and more and getting more involved and the party encourages you to get involved as much as possible. But if you want to do it as little as possible you can do that as well.”
“I was always saying no, no, no, I don’t want to run. It’s not me. I want to stay in the background. But then I looked around the area I grew up in after the new boundary changes and I realised there were no PUP members standing in that area and I felt they needed to have a choice. And I didn’t want on the card to be Alliance, DUP and UUP. I didn’t think that was fair. It’s not fair representation. That’s like almost taking someone’s vote away from them if they wanted a centre-left unionist party. So I decided, ‘I’m going to stand here.’”
“We also needed more women standing. There was far too many men! Well, it’s not that there are far too many men, but there’s just not enough women.”