Peter Weil is the founder of Politics in Action
The first time I met May was six years ago when I was preparing a Living History course for Stranmillis University College to mark the 50th anniversary of 1968. We wanted to invite as wide a range as possible of different speakers who had lived through the events of half a century ago. Unlike many of our other contributors, May didn’t sound remotely like a politician. And although May achieved far more than many a professional politician, that’s precisely because she never saw herself as a politician or even anyone very special.
I was totally spellbound by May’s obvious warmth, humour and genuine commitment to an equal and just society. Although we now take women leaders in Politics for granted, that certainly wasn’t the case in May’s day. She had to overcome all kinds of snobbery- class, sectarian, gender, background, education…but none of that phased her. She was May and was comfortable in her own skin.
Watching May’s presentation at Stranmillis was fascinating. May was the only contributor during our ten-week course to get a spontaneous and lengthy standing ovation from the entire hall. And at the end of the session, our students queued up for selfies.
At that time, I was in the process of establishing “Politics in Action”. a shared education initiative for post-primary schools which focussed on exploring and discussing the political issues which affect our students. One of my first tasks was to establish a board of trustees. I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking of approaching May. “Don’t be ridiculous,” countered my friend with an indignant snort. “May is in her eighties and is one of the main champions of the Integrated Education Fund…it’s the very opposite of shared education!”
Something inside me told me to ignore the advice which had just been offered. I invited May to join us, and she immediately agreed. We met regularly for coffee which was a most agreeable mixture of high-level gossip and invaluable advice May rapidly clocked that I had no experience of fundraising but nor did we have the funds to hire someone with the necessary skills. It was a Catch-22 situation. May not only very kindly acted as a mentor to me but also introduced me to a number of her contacts.
Even more important, May was an invaluable member of the Board. She was always supportive but also recognised that sometimes I tended to get carried away by enthusiasm for my ideas. Always courteous and friendly, May gently insisted that I think through the practical implications of some of my more hare-brained schemes. May intuitively understood Northern Ireland, its people, what would work and what wouldn’t.
May, all of us at Politics in Action owe you a big debt. And I’ll miss a great friend.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.