Getting to Know You: Paul O'Kane
The new West of Scotland parliamentarian speaks to Louise Wilson about his roots, his upcoming nuptials and being Labour’s first out gay male MSP
What’s your earliest memory?
My maternal gran and grandpa use to watch me when I was wee. I think my really strong memories are of them. I remember my grandpa introducing me to porridge when I was quite wee because he would make breakfast, and he would make porridge you could stand a spoon up in. Then obviously memories from my house with my mum and dad as well, which I’m really fond of. Food memories stick in my mind, I don’t know what that tells you about me.
What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?
I think in terms of being a campaigner and having gone through a lot of campaigns, usually it’s what people say to me on the doorstep. I have been called everything under the sun.
There is a quite well-known story about when I was threatened with an electric chainsaw. If you Google this, you will find it. I think being threatened in that manner was one of the worst things that anyone’s ever said to me. ‘I’m going to cut your head off,’ essentially.
When people make comments about my hair as well. I am a councillor and where I used to sit in the chamber, the camera was directly on my bald spot. There used to be quite a bit of commentary from people who weren’t my biggest fans on social media about that. I’m holding onto it. If you come to me next year, I bet you can measure how much hair I’ve lost and at the end five years, I’ll probably be completely bald.
What was your best holiday?
There’s a couple. The first holiday I went on with my partner; we went to Kefalonia in Greece. I love the Greek islands and Kefalonia is particularly beautiful. I really loved that and it was the first time I had gone away with him and it was such a nice holiday. Then we also did interrailing, but we did it as adults. We didn’t do the studenty one, we did quite a nice version of it. We visited seven or eight different countries, including Austria, Italy, France, and it was just amazing. I love that you can jump on a train and go anywhere, wake up in a different European city and explore a different culture.
More recently, we were due to get married in September, but we had to cancel due to COVID – so we went on a little wedding holiday when we were meant to get married. We were able to do that in Scotland which was lovely, so we went to Mull and Iona. I love Iona. Iona is stunning and if you sit on a white sandy beach in Iona you could easily be in Barbados and you also feel a million miles away from anywhere or anything. On the day we were due to get married, we sat on that beach. In a way, that was perfect.
Have you managed to reschedule your wedding?
Yes, we’re getting married on 14 August, COVID permitting. We have a number of contingency guest lists and we’re just kind of working through the guidance. There’s an important point here around ensuring that suppliers have clarity, because a lot of them have mentioned the difficulties of navigating the restrictions and certainly I know Pauline McNeill has been doing work on that. I have a personal interest to declare, but it would be good to have clearer and bespoke guidance for the sector.
You’re the first out gay male Labour MSP. That seems like a surprising statistic.
I am and it is. It is such an honour to be the first and I definitely won’t be the last. We’re going to make sure of that. It’s a historic wrong that’s been righted in the party. For a variety of reasons, we just never since 1999 elected a gay man and obviously, Kez [Dugdale] came out after she was elected, so it is a big moment. I bring with me to parliament all the hopes and aspirations of LGBT Labour members, but also LGBT+ people more widely who I think feel that debates recently have been too toxic, too angry, who want to have a voice in there, standing up for their rights.
What’s your most treasured possession?
Probably things that, collectively, my grandparents left to me. My granny on my dad’s side was quite a religious woman, Irish Catholic, so she left some religious statues that are quite important to me. My maternal grandmother, when she passed away, left me a beautiful print of where she was born in Barrhead, which is a community that’s really close to my heart. I want to bring that to parliament and hang it in my office. These often seem small and insignificant, but actually they mean so much to me because my grandparents were such a strong influence in my life.
You seem very connected to your roots.
Yeah. Where I was brought up in Neilston, they say it takes a village to raise a child and there’s definitely something in that. I do feel really connected. I also feel really conscious that I have multiple identities. My grandparents were from Derry in Ireland and came off the boat in Glasgow as economic migrants – that whole story of, in two generations their grandson is an MSP, I feel that. Then I feel a strong connection to my working class roots as well.
Roots are really important and there’s a really authentic story there for me which I want to do justice to. In some ways you carry all these people in your heart and in your head, and when I stood up, put my hand in the air and took the oath, that’s who was in my head, the people that I grew up with and the people who supported me to get to where I am.