May Blood, Lady Blood, who has died aged 84, was a former Belfast linen millworker, peace campaigner, community activist and member of the House of Lords. She left school at the age of 14 without any qualifications and lived by the tenet that anything was possible for those who were sufficiently determined. She became the first woman from Northern Ireland to be awarded a life peerage.
She was small in stature, but endowed with a forceful personality and relentless energy. In Northern Ireland she was “the wee Belfast woman” or “the Shankill woman” who became famous as someone who was always in the middle of a campaign to improve the lives of working-class people in Belfast through the provision of jobs. Her activism extended across the sectarian divide and led her in 1996 to become a founding member of a cross-community political party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, of which she was campaign manager.
She scorned sectarianism and in her last two decades channelled her passion for social justice into the pursuit of integrated education for the children of Northern Ireland. Although she had originally rejected this idea as a middle-class concept without relevance to the communities in which she operated, in 2001 Blood agreed to become a voluntary fundraiser for the Integrated Education Fund. She helped raise £15m for the non-profit-making organisation in the years to 2018 and became the campaign chairwoman.
She was born in Belfast, the daughter of William Blood, who became a shipyard worker, and his wife, the former Mary MacKeen, who was a cook. Her father was in the Army during the first six years of her life and all but one of her older siblings evacuated, and it was only after the end of the second world war that the family was reunited. May went to the Donegall Road primary school and Linfield secondary school and started work in the warehouse of the Blackstaff linen mill in 1952 on a Monday after leaving school the previous Friday.
The largely female workforce at the mill was strongly trade unionised and, despite the reservations of her father, while still a teenager May swiftly became an active member of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. She trained as a cutter and became a mill supervisor but her union membership gave her access to further education. She became a popular shop steward – a go-to problem solver – and overcame considerable hurdles in the then prevalent attitudes towards women in industry by winning election to the TGWU regional committee.
When the mill was unexpectedly closed in 1989, Blood was made redundant. She was briefly unemployed, but secured work with the Greater Shankill Partnership, a community project helping those who had been long-term without jobs. In 1994 she became the information officer for the Shankill Early Years Project. It was at this time that she began to win public recognition for her doughty campaigning, all conducted with an irrepressible good humour despite the agonies of the ongoing conflict on the streets of Belfast which dominated her adult life.
At the very beginning of the Troubles in 1969, her own (Protestant) family had been burned out of their home in a mixed area of the city by Protestant paramilitaries who retaliated when her father tried to defend their Catholic neighbours against an attack. The family eventually found a home in a new estate at the top of the Shankill Road, where Blood’s later community work would be centred. She herself was often threatened, her car was destroyed twice and she briefly became a victim of a hate campaign in 1995 when she accepted an MBE for her work in industrial relations and equal opportunities.
She was surprised and delighted when offered a peerage by the Blair government in 1999, recognition which derived from her friendship and work with Mo Mowlam, then the Northern Ireland secretary. It was an appointment she found initially more intimidating than any of the paramilitaries. “If you are presented with a door, you open it and go through it,” she said. She became a diligent member of the Lords, never missing a week if the House was sitting until she retired, aged 80, in 2018.
She was a lifelong member of the Labour party – it was the bread and butter of her upbringing, she would say – and became president of the Labour party in Northern Ireland. She sat as a crossbencher in the Lords until 2004, wishing initially to indicate her independence, but thereafter decided to sit as a Labour peer.
The experiences of her much-lived life made Blood fierce in the defence of the rights of women. She wanted more women to be encouraged to enter politics and community work and for history to recognise their achievements. She made her own contribution to changing attitudes: the former Democratic Unionist leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, is said not to have forgotten his mistake at a meeting to discuss loyalist decommissioning at which Blood was the only woman present, during which he asked her to make the tea.
She was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Ulster (1998), Queen’s University, Belfast (2000) and the Open University (2001). She published her autobiography, Watch My Lips, I’m Speaking, in 2007.
• May Blood, Lady Blood, trade unionist, community worker and peace campaigner, born 26 May 1938; died 21 October 2022