‘I do not fear a Sinn Féin First Minister. My identity as a loyalist female is not threatened’

Education activist insists her community is better off in UK, but would respect vote if reunification was supported

Shielding herself from the winter wind, Emma Shaw stands by the entrance of her East Belfast office in blue jeans and a grey sweatshirt. It is printed with a logo that declares: “She believed she could. So she did.”

One of her favourite sayings, it is part of a clothing range that aims to raise funds for Shaw’s organisation, the Phoenix Education Centre, which she set up in 2021 to tackle educational underachievement.

Yet, the slogan could also explain her unconventional CV and the approach to life taken by this self-defined “loyalist female”.

The eldest of three children, she is from a Belfast working-class background. Her mother had a job in an ice cream shop and her late father was a coalman before an accident forced him to retire. Shaw left grammar school at 16 with no desire to go to college or university, so began working in a travel agency. She had her first child at 18 and then worked as a clerical officer in a Belfast hospital. During her time in the health service, she often thought she was capable of more demanding roles – “I was like, I could do so much more than this.”


Jobs in the car trade followed, and after the birth of her second child and a series of redundancies she decided that it was time to make big changes. “I started out in my 30s and thought I want to do something for me,” she says.

It was then she decided that she wanted to go to university after all. It was a decision that altered her life. After enrolling on an access course, she got a place at Queen’s University Belfast to study politics – a subject she had deliberately shied away from in the past.

“Growing up here in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I didn’t think I was interested in politics. Honestly, nobody had ever talked to me about what politics was, and I wasn’t interested.”

Life has now turned full circle. Shaw is now a sought-after voice for podcasters and broadcasters keen to get a handle on the current thinking in loyalist working-class areas. So how does she define herself?

She smiles and declares, “I identify as a loyalist female.”

There are a lot of people in the community who cannot read or write, and if they give you the statistics you would be shocked

—  Emma Shaw

Quizzed on what being a loyalist means she says, “I feel a sense of responsibility to my community, and that is the only way I can explain it.”

Challenged that republicans and nationalists can also have that same sense of responsibility, Shaw agrees. So, I try again with another question. Who are you loyal to? “My community,” comes the short reply.

Interestingly, Shaw does not initially respond with the more traditional answers you would expect from loyalists about the monarchy or the union, but she is clearly a supporter of both.

Pro-union, Shaw supported the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP, formerly led by the late David Ervine) in the past. Linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force, the party had some electoral success and had candidates elected to Stormont, but in recent years its influence and support has waned. In Shaw’s view they are “just so small now”. She feels loyalism and unionism lacks “good strong political leadership”.

On the fundamental question of where Northern Ireland rests, Shaw is on the same page as her fellow unionists. “I still believe in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland staying in the UK.”

However, with changing demographics, the rise of Sinn Féin and the talk of a border poll, does she accept that she might see a united Ireland in her lifetime? “I don’t think so. I am 42 now. Thinking over the next 30/40 years, I don’t think so. But only because of the way the system is at the moment. I don’t think there is enough people [that] want to see that change.”

So how would she respond if a border poll supported reunification?

Her answer is clear, “I cannot say ‘I am pro-choice and a democrat’ and ‘I believe in getting our people out to vote’ and then not respect the democratic vote of people. You cannot have it both ways.” Shaw says, “If that time comes, that is going to have to be what it is. Do I want to see that? No.”

Shaw insists her family and friends are better off in the UK, politically, socially and economically. We then discuss the fact that average salaries in the Republic are higher, and that economically it is in better shape.

Could she be tempted to vote for reunification if a united Ireland provided better healthcare and living standards? Her answer comes with a caveat: “It is all well and good saying in a united Ireland we would have this utopia and you would be offered free healthcare and there would be no waiting lists. And everybody would have the best access to that you know. Show me it working in the Republic first before I would even comprehend like the chance of it happening here.”

Shaw’s constitutional view may be fixed, but she is open to dialogue and routinely takes part in public events with nationalists and republicans. She has participated in discussions with The Shared Island Initiative at the Department of the Taoiseach, which aims to build on the Belfast Agreement and improve North-South relations. She thinks areas of mutual interest should be discussed: “We are a shared island, regardless of the jurisdictional differences. Even if we always stay that way, we will always be a shared island.”

Comfortable in the company of opinion formers and government officials, Shaw originally had a dim view of politicians. “It always just looked to me they were taking snipes at each other, and they didn’t do anything to make our community a better place.” She felt politicians contributed little: “I didn’t have a very positive view of politicians or politics in general.”

Consistently not having a functioning Assembly has probably done more to create space for discussion than Brexit itself

—  Emma Shaw

That all changed when Shaw began her academic journey at Queen’s as a mature student. She got bitten by the political bug and began to study the role of women in society, and as the Brexit debate began in the UK, she became interested in attitudes to the European Union.

Shaw supported the Leave campaign. “I actually thought it was going to be a good opportunity for Northern Ireland. I thought like we are in a unique position. The reason I voted for Brexit was because I did not feel the EU was accountable any more.” So, would she vote for Brexit again? “I honestly don’t know. Like, I have been asked this question before. I kind of feel I am a democrat. So, we should have that.”

After her first degree in Politics and Conflict Studies, Shaw’s academic journey continued, and she got a scholarship to study education policy at the University of Texas. Education became her passion, and away from the lecture hall she wanted to focus on how to address low attainment and underachievement in working-class areas.

She feels the issue needs urgent attention. “There are a lot of people in the community who cannot read or write, and if they give you the statistics you would be shocked. Your readers would be shocked. Between 35 and 40 per cent of young people going into their first year of secondary school have a reading age of below average. Why are kids getting through the whole primary school system and not being able to read when they go into secondary school? That is not good enough.”

In May 2021, Shaw founded the Phoenix Education Centre, and in September 2023 got the keys to her office in East Belfast. Without governmental and private funding, the group could not function. Backers include the Republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland, the UK’s National Lottery community fund, the Ireland Fund and Belfast City Council.

Money is understandably an issue for groups such as Shaw’s. Many community groups across Northern Ireland have seen their budgets cut – hence her decision to set up a clothing range which she hopes will generate cash. Recently, she also penned two ebooks: one aimed at helping parents, and the other at offering guidance for mature students. Following the adage that you write what you know, both publications come from Shaw’s own personal experience.

Shaw is keen to help others by telling her own story. She participated in a book and a blog called Her Loyal Voice where loyalist women came forward to talk about their experiences of living in Northern Ireland. It brought her to the attention of journalists, and she quickly became a regular on podcasts and radio shows.

So, would she consider a move into politics? The question draws a laugh and a wry smile.

She has been asked by a number of parties to become a candidate. She says it is not the right move now. Articulate, enthusiastic and confident, you can see why the offers are made.

The possibility of a career change is left open. “I am not saying that will never happen, but right now that is not something I am considering.”

Shaw guides me around the building which she shares with her two colleagues. It is here where she can offer help to school refusers, children and young people with autism and ADHD, and those who need help with literacy. The centre helps both children and adults, and most recently has been running a sign language course.

As the new year gets under way the complex is being decorated, and as you climb the stairs you are greeted by the smell of fresh paint. A mural is being completed enthusiastically by young people who have also designed it. . It all fits into Shaw’s philosophy of community involvement, and she can’t wait to see the final version.

From the top floor window of Shaw’s unfinished office, you get to see familiar landmarks. In the distance, the two yellow shipyard cranes, Samson and Goliath, stand guard over the city – the undisputed symbols of Belfast. In the distance you will find the Titanic building where the ill-fated liner’s story is chronicled and commemorated. These are reminders of Belfast’s industrial past, when the politics of majority rule was predictable, and unionists held sway. It is a world away from life today in Shaw’s home city.

Brexit, changing demographics, the growth of Sinn Féin and the end of a unionist majority at Stormont has changed all that. Shaw says making Northern Ireland work should be the political priority.

With that in mind, she is pleased to see the DUP agree to return to powersharing at Stormont. Hours after the party endorsed the deal, Shaw spoke of having a sense of optimism. “I do agree with the DUP going back. The deal is the best they can get.”

So how does she view the prospect of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister? Shaw says people need to remember that “it is a joint office.” She adds: “I do not fear a Sinn Féin First Minister. My identity is not threatened.”

However, she says O’Neill will be judged on whether she is a First Minister for everyone in Northern Ireland. “It is not about words. It is about actions.”

When it comes to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK , Emma Shaw is firmly a remainer. She backs the status quo.

When it comes to life in her community, she wants to be a change-maker, an educational revolutionary, who shakes things up and helps to rewrite the narrative of underachievement. Just like the words emblazoned on her sweatshirt put it.