She’s a working class girl made good - but rather than forget her roots, PUP candidate Sophie Long says she wants to help communities on “bread-and-butter issues”.
The 29-year-old, who is running for Upper Bann in the NI Assembly elections, is the only child of a single mother, and was brought up in the large, loyalist Braniel housing estate in east Belfast.
She now lectures part-time in Queen’s University and believes that while it is a positive thing to climb the social ladder it is not OK to “pull it up behind you” - and wants to see greater attainment among working-class loyalists.
Unlike her childhood friends, she attended a grammar school and while she acknowledges it gave her an excellent education, she did not exactly ‘fit the mould’, with many of her fellow pupils the offspring of lawyers and doctors.
She also had an inspirational role model in her mum - a liberal who worked with ex-prisoners and also did mediation work and always encouraged her daughter to reach high.
However, wooed by the world of work, Sophie left school before finishing her A-Levels, working part-time in a bar and in the insurance industry for a while. But as she entered her 20s she “started to get politicised and to look at things in a different way”.
She explained, “I was 12 or 13 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, but in the area I lived in there was no sign of change - there was still a lot of violence and deprivation.
“I wanted to know a lot more about why that was, and to know more about the world, and I decided to go back to education.”
She made the return via a part-time Access to Education course, achieving a First Class Honours degree in Politics, and winning a scholarship to do a Master’s degree.
Sophie is currently studying for a PhD in Politics and lecturing part-time, with the aim of becoming a full-time lecturer.
She added, “When the flag protest kicked off in 2012, I thought my own people were being unfairly demonised. I stood with the protestors and tried to show them the benefits of using politics as a way to achieving their goal.”
Education and under-attainment are one of the key issues for the PUP.
She said, “You don’t see many loyalists or working class unionist representatives in academia and that is an issue. We would like to abolish academic selection and use pupil profiling instead.”
Other issues which she has been talking about on local doorsteps are crime, mental health, and lack of decent jobs.
She believes politics has moved on from sectarian green and orange issues and that people are more concerned about the bread-and butter-issues that affect their daily lives.
Sophie said, “The union is safe. People are worried now about anti-social behaviour and not having enough police on the streets, they are worried about their children getting a job when they finish school.
“I believe in a society where people have a decent standard of living, where we treat people with respect, where we are not afraid of each other and where we are not afraid to debate with each other.”
Among issues she is campaigning on are a zero suicide strategy and opposing any privatisation of the NHS.
In terms of leaving or staying in the European union, she is happy to provide information but is letting people make their own decisions, while on the topic of immigration,she believes we have an obligation to support people fleeing conflict.
As a gay woman, with a partner for five years, she supports marriage equality and pro-choice on the issue of abortion.
She added, “If elected, I would vote to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Women are not criminals. I would like to give them choice.”
Although traditionally Belfast-centric, the PUP has been making its presence felt on the ground in Portadown, Lurgan and Banbridge over recent years and has built up a strong presence in the towns, in particular for its work with communities on the ground.
And with around 40 per cent of MLAs not living in the area they are elected to, and shared issues between here and Belfast, she sees no reason why she cannot successfully represent the people of this area.
She added, “When I was asked to stand here, I couldn’t say no. They guys here are so progressive and organised. I am prepared for a lot of work.”
Now living in a loyalist area of Dundonald, Sophie relaxes by walking in the Mourne Mountains, caring for her “needy” boxer dog Luke and going to the gym.