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by Kirsteen Paterson
16 November 2023
Paul O'Kane MSP: 'One of the most powerful political statements ever made was the Sermon on the Mount'

Paul O'Kane at his Paisley office within a former thread mill. Photography by Andrew Perry for Holyrood

Paul O'Kane MSP: 'One of the most powerful political statements ever made was the Sermon on the Mount'

Sipping from a sheep-emblazoned mug which reads “Ireland”, Paul O’Kane reminisces about working in TopShop and almost becoming a priest. It is just a taste of what is to come. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, the ex-head boy enthuses about the pop culture artefacts acquired for the under-construction £45m Paisley Museum – a David Bowie cravat, an entire outfit worn by US rapper Lil Nas X – praises good pal Michael Shanks, who he recently helped get elected, and remembers the teacher who told him he would “do amazing things” in his life. 

If that’s not enough, he also describes the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is recorded as saying “blessed are the poor”, as “one of the most powerful political statements ever made”. 

The Labour MSP is certainly a master of the art of conversation, but does he always choose his words carefully? “Debates in the chamber, they are ferocious, and I am very often as guilty as anyone of not being as well-behaved as I should be, as the presiding officer will remind me,” he concedes. “I can be as fiercely partisan as anyone can. It’s in your DNA when you’re in the game of politics.” 

O’Kane is playing that game well. Under 40 and a rising star, Scottish Labour insiders say he’s a dead cert to be in government if the party wins big at the Scottish Parliament elections in 2026, and he narrowly missed out on the One to Watch gong at this year’s Holyrood Garden Party & Political Awards, sharing the runner-up spot with Russell Findlay of the Conservatives.  

Why does he think he’s so well rated? He jokingly notes that he didn’t win the award, so “can’t be that good”. But he says he’s eased himself into his role, watching and listening. “I got some really good advice when I first got elected – don’t rush and try to get noticed. Politicians, we inherently want to be noticed, but for me it was about taking time to get to know how things work and build relationships.” 

O’Kane won’t say who gave him the advice, other than it was a senior Scottish Labour figure. But he has no hesitation in discussing topics that would have other MSPs reaching for their press officers. And today, he has big issues on his mind – religion and sexuality, in the same breath citing Jesus Christ and Harvey Milk, the US politician and gay rights activist, as influences on his politics.  

But we’ll come to that. 

Elected as an MSP for the West of Scotland region in 2021, local boy O’Kane was born in Paisley and raised in nearby Neilston, which he represented on East Renfrewshire Council for a decade starting in 2012. 

The 35-year-old studied English literature and politics at the University of Glasgow and had that TopShop job before entering charity roles. He describes the former as a bit of a laugh – a fun job with a decent discount for a young guy who liked to socialise in a town that was “buzzing” on a Saturday afternoon. The latter saw him build up knowledge on learning disability and social care, and feeds into his current role as Scottish Labour shadow cabinet secretary for social justice and social security, and equalities. 

Covid rules were still in place when he won his place in the Scottish Parliament and he and his husband, who he married the same year, celebrated in the garden with as many guests as were allowed. It was raining, he remembers, and the gathering, held under separate umbrellas with glasses of champagne, was “very compliant”. 

It is a level of success, he says, that his paternal grandparents may not have imagined would be possible for their family. 

The couple emigrated from Derry and Country Tyrone and took a room and kitchen in Glasgow’s Anderston district, pre-slum clearance, where they were “spat at in the street” for their Irishness. “My granddad dug the roads, granny worked in service in a house, and they brought up five children,” he goes on. “One of them, my dad’s brother, died as a child. Life was really, really hard for them. That’s the experience of Irish immigrants in cities across the UK and across the world. The positive is the resolve they had to say to their children, ‘we want you to do better than this’.” 

O’Kane’s aunties became teachers, and his dad took a job in insurance. “Two generations on, I get to sit in our national parliament and make decisions about the welfare of our people. I don’t know if my granny and granda, when they came off the boat from Derry, would have thought that would be possible. For me, that’s a huge honour. 

“We all need to remember where we come from.” 

O’Kane also has Irish heritage on his mother’s side, six generations of which has been in Neilston. Some relatives were members of the fledgling immigrant parish of St Thomas the Apostle on the village main street, O’Kane says, and he followed in their footsteps by becoming an altar boy there. The church “formed a lot of who I am”, he says, driving a younger O’Kane to consider a future in the priesthood.

“It was a real thing for me. You can feel really attached to something and really called to something, but as life develops and goes on you realise you have skills and talents that manifest in different ways,” he says. 

“Politics is quite similar [to the priesthood] in many ways because it’s about people and connections.” 

It was in high school that O’Kane decided the priesthood wasn’t for him. He was thinking a lot about his sexuality and his faith at the time, wondering if being gay was “compatible” with being Catholic. In time, he determined there was no contradiction, but at 15 he wasn’t so sure. “People say to me, ‘why are you still a Catholic?’ People see it as black and white. For me, it’s so much more complicated and diverse. There’s a heritage of faith that comes from my grandparents and my forebears and that faith was to do with their identity in an Irish context. And transubstantiation is a fundamental for me. I can’t be a Presbyterian, because I’m not. I can’t be anything else.” 

But it has taken O’Kane years to reach this point. The realisation he was gay came “quite early on” and presented him with “a bit of a clash” and “a certain sadness” about what it would mean for his faith. School provided an environment where he could explore both. “I came out when I was 15. For a lot of people, you could have lived a secret life and your life would have been very different, but I’m really glad I didn’t do that. I felt like I got amazing support from my school, which a lot of people don’t. People say to me, ‘what was it like, coming out as gay at school in the ‘00s?’ For me, it was a really positive and affirming experience.

“It was a small school with 600 pupils, so you knew who everyone was and who your pals were and who to avoid, but I had amazing teachers who were really, really supportive. They understood the fundamental wellbeing of pupils, they got that need for pastoral care, good mental health support, making sure we were looked after. I remember my head teacher absolutely taking someone to task for using homophobic language towards me, and then I remember afterwards him taking me aside and having a chat about ‘if that ever happens again, you tell me’.  

“One of my teachers was the first person who gives me the ‘it gets better’ speech. He said, ‘this doesn’t last forever, these people are really ignorant, one day you’re going to do amazing things in your life, just hold on to that’.” 

It was that school experience that helped O’Kane learn to challenge and debate, even on the fundamentals of his faith. “We would debate ideas and issues; there was never a sense that it was a top-down, aggressive approach as a faith school. The gospel was proposed, it was never imposed. I firmly believe that, and not all schools get that right. My centre-left politics came from Catholic social teaching, which is concerned for the poor. 

“One of the most powerful political statements ever made is the Sermon on the Mount,” he goes on. “I was really inspired by that. When I came out, I was inspired by Harvey Milk. The world was made better by people who spoke up. For me, that’s what Jesus Christ did in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.” 

O’Kane shared his view of Christianity during the SNP leadership race after Kate Forbes said she would have voted against equal marriage, had she been an MSP when the legislation was presented. “She said she wouldn’t row back from any of the rights we have but that’s not good enough,” he said at the time. “The majority of Christians I know and I speak to are of the view that same sex marriage is a positive thing, an important thing and something to be enhanced and treasured.” 

“There is,” he tells me, “a fundamental misunderstanding about what we are about as Christians” and an issue with people “totally becoming obsessed with regulating other people’s behaviour”. “Our primary concern should always be for the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalised. That is, I hope, my compass point.” 

O’Kane shares his office with shadow cabinet colleague Neil Bibby and fellow Labour MSP Katy Clark; a bright, open plan space in Paisley’s former Anchor Mill, now a business centre. There’s a good feeling in the Labour Party now, he says, after a run of by-election wins which includes that of his friend Michael Shanks in Rutherglen and Hamilton West. O’Kane served as Shanks’ candidate aide, supporting him during the campaign and attending the recent Labour conference in Liverpool alongside him. “It was amazing,” he says. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a Labour conference like it. Being Scottish was a great badge of honour.” 

Shanks got a rockstar reception and “I must have been the groupie,” O’Kane jokes. “There’s a new burst of energy and enthusiasm [in the party] and nobody wants to appear complacent, because we are not, but there’s a confidence now. We want to win the general election.” 

The friends were close to the stage when Keir Starmer was covered in glitter by a protestor before rolling up his sleeves and carrying on. The pause before security staff reached the man, carrying him out, led to concerns about the security around politicians. “Fair play to Keir, I don’t think I would have been as calm,” O’Kane says. “There was a real moment of ‘oh my god, what’s just happened?’ 

“There is a risk, a real risk, in politics,” he goes on. “I don’t dwell on it, but my husband does. He says, ‘think about where you sit in a surgery, think about who is coming through the door’.” Our politics, O’Kane says, has become “so binary and so angry”. 

Even before becoming an MSP, he had his share of troubling moments, being chased by a chainsaw-carrying man who threatened to cut his head off in 2015. Already a councillor, he was campaigning in Barrhead for then-Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy ahead of that year’s general election when the man called him a “red Tory” and, holding the running power tool, chased him down the street. Conrad Procter, who denied behaving in a threatening or abusive manner, was convicted following a trial and sentenced to a community payback order at Paisley Sheriff Court. 

While that is an extreme experience, O’Kane says he has become so used to hostility on the doors that a warm welcome in Rutherglen and Hamilton West was something of a surprise. “A guy in a white van starts tooting his horn and waving,” he recalls. “You think, ‘oh, they’re going to give us dog’s abuse’. But he starts giving us the thumbs up. 

“They love him,” he says of the public response to Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar. “They see someone who’s speaking their language, someone down to earth. There’s a respect there, which we haven’t had in a long, long time.”

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