Honorary doctorate for women’s rights champion
Delighted and deeply moved – Dame Rita Bellamy James.
By BILL HEANEY
February 19, 2018 – Dumbarton woman Rita Bellamy-James has been honoured by the University of Westminster for her work as “a powerful advocate for both women and the education of women”.
Dame Rita Bellamy-James, aka Rita McGinlay from Quarry Knowe in Castlehill, has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Law for her distinguished service to academic and public life.
Barrister Rita has a stellar record of public service. Over her career, she has made substantial contributions in the areas of education, women’s achievement and in diplomacy. She was nominated as one of the UK Women of The Year in 2005 and 2006.
Chair of Governors at Westminster, Stephen Hart MBE., said: “She has brought to our university many great strengths, the most significant of which are wise counsel and abiding humanity. They, in turn, are founded in her education and work, but also in her distinctive personality – her great charm and good humour shine forth. All of these great qualities were much in evidence in her years guiding the Court and, through us, our university.
“Her wise counsel stems from her education and her choice of professions. First, she has a lawyer’s eye: she is a graduate in law of the University of Wales and studied at the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge. She was called to the bar by the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn and practised in family, criminal and planning law.”
He added: “Before that was her social work. In her time, she managed a clinic for disturbed adolescents, a general hospital and local authority social services. She became the Deputy General Secretary of the British Association of Social Workers, guiding it through difficult times and representing members in major public and internal inquiries. She served as the Chair of National Family Mediation in England and Wales. In these roles, we see her commitment to those who have fallen on hard times, her enduring compassion and her abundant common sense.
“In her public life she has served with distinction. Rita was the first Specialist Legal Adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There, she headed the Specialist Advisers’ Consulate Directorate. She and her team demonstrated the powerful good that Britain’s diplomatic efforts can achieve: she was responsible for legal and strategic advice on major incidents and disasters overseas, on human rights, prisoners and death penalty cases, child protection and abduction cases, and Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriages.
“She contributed to initial negotiations at Ministerial level on prisoner transfer treaties between the United Kingdom and Vietnam, and Jamaica. She helped lead Britain’s response to the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001. She chaired conferences on consular work and, through her lectures, has helped train new generations of consular staff.”
Mr Hart told the large audience of academics at the award ceremony: “Rita is a powerful advocate for both women and for the education of women. As well as serving on our Court, she has been a Governor of Hillcroft College for Women. She is currently a Trustee of the Women’s Educational Partnership, a charity which supports women through university in Sudan. She is a published author and contributor to national broadcasts.”
He added: “Wise counsel, common sense, the lawyer’s eye, her concern for those less fortunate: all have been evident in Rita’s service to our university. She has devoted herself to the work of the university in her time as a member of Court
“She has been a graceful ambassador. She has visited our partner in Tashkent, where she gave a tour de force at very short notice, speaking for over an hour with and to students, particularly on the role of education for women. Most recently she has visited Jordan with some of our students in the Changing Lives Programme.
“Her public service is justly honoured by this University and elsewhere. She was elected Fellow Commoner at Corpus Christi College Cambridge in 2012. She is a Freeman of the City of London and of Glasgow. She was twice nominated as a UK Woman of the Year in 2005 and 2006. She is a Dame Commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.”
What has Rita brought to our University, he asked the assembled graduates in Festival Hall. And what does she bring to you, our young graduates, as you set out on your way in the world?
Mr Hart said: “Those four great qualities are immense: wise counsel, abiding humanity, great charm and abundant humour.
“The first two stem from your education in a western university and in our university. Wisdom is learned from your study in a peaceful institute of learning – as Rita learned in Wales, Cambridge and Strathclyde. You have learned the powers of discernment, of questioning, of listening, of decision. Stay with them all, and apply them – as Rita has done in her public life.
“Humanity grows from wisdom: it will season your experience from living with your fellow human beings – with all their faults and failings – as you go through life. Rita’s deep humanity is founded in her experience in dealing with human beings at crisis point. It has measured and affected her contribution to Court and to our University.
“Humour – a sense of the ridiculous; an ability to diffuse a situation – is priceless. We all respond to it. Rita’s laughter has endeared her to so many, and it is a reason why she stands here today, rightfully honoured: she has worn her learning lightly and brought great joy to all who have served with her.
“And charm. It can be learned, and you should learn it. Rita has it in bucket loads. It makes her stand out from the rest. In deferring to others, in seeking to persuade them of her point of view, she has landed her message more firmly, but in a way more gently, more kindly.”
The support of Rita’s husband, Stephen, a London-based judge, and their daughter Nina, and her wider family, many of whom still live in Dumbarton, was greatly appreciated by the university.
Mr Hart said: “We acknowledge her enormous contribution over a decade and more of service. We are deeply grateful for her leadership, her counsel, her humanity and the gift of herself; and we give thanks for the grace and honour that she has brought to our University and to our country for so many years.”
Rita with her daughter Nina, school friend Bernie Heaney and husband Stephen Bellamy James on a visit to Dumbarton at Christmas.
How to survive the 21st century world of #Me2 and Weinstein
In this era of so much conflict and heated debate about equality of the sexes, parity of esteem, equal pay and women’s place in the world, Rita Bellamy James has demonstrated that if it is tough for the women of today to break through the proverbial glass ceiling.
In her own half century of work and study, it was certainly no cakewalk.
However, she is proof positive that it was perfectly possible to realise your ambitions, overcome obstacles and discrimination in some quarters and achieve great success even then. So, what route Rita do to merit receiving this honorary doctorate and grand encomium from the students and staff of the University of Westminster in London’s Festival Hall?
And what advice did she have to offer to the young graduates of both sexes as they cast off their mortar boards and gowns and stepped out into world of the 21st century.
She said: “It’s wonderful to be awarded a degree without ever writing an essay, revising for an exam or preparing a portfolio. But there is no such thing as a free lunch, so I have to earn my award by addressing you.
“The phrase ‘interesting times’ has perhaps never been more apt than now and you, this next generation, will be living through and dealing with the outcomes, good and bad, of the current geopolitical upheaval. You have already begun to be qualified to do this by virtue of your university experience. But this is not by any means the end of your education it is a hugely significant step along the way but take it from me, education is a lifetime’s work.”
Rita added: “In so many ways, my generation has had things easier than yours. But despite our advantages, perhaps we have not done the best job at leaving this amazing planet in good shape; at achieving a peaceful world; at establishing equality between rich and poor, strong and weak, black and white, men and women, not to mention the hatred and strife between various religious groups.
“These are now your challenges. I am hopeful and optimistic that you will make more progress with these matters. A message best expressed in this exchange from Lord of the Rings – ‘I wish it may not have happened in my time!’ said Frodo. ‘So, do I’ said Gandalf – ‘but that is not for us to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us’.
“Technology continues to develop apace and we can’t begin to imagine how and to what extent it might impact on how we live and work, say 20 years from now. It will be very important to make sure that any future developments are for the benefit of mankind and in no way diminish our hard-fought freedoms and values.
“One of the few advantages of getting older is that you are allowed to offer advice. This is mine to you.
“The biggest bar to success is your own fear. Be confident, Take risks. Don’t end up with a list of regrets – all those things you didn’t do when you had the chance.
“Take care of your body is the only place you have to live in. Your generation will live longer than mine so don’t neglect the need to remain physically fit.
“Be flexible, don’t assume that your career will follow a steady progression along a straight path. These days as never before, you must remain open to other possibilities and options. You may have trained as an architect but you might end up working for charity.
“Learn to cook. It’s a wonderful life skill and you’ll be surprised at how it increases your popularity ratings.”
She added: “Choose your life partner with great care. Someone you regard as your equal, someone who will support, respect, encourage and cherish you. Here I want to salute my own husband, Stephen, without whose support I would not be standing here today. You deserve a medal.
“Finally ignore people skills at your peril. Treat other people, whether senior or junior to you, as you would want to be treated yourself. Kindness is never out of fashion.
“In this post Harvey Weinstein era, it is timely perhaps for you young men here to remember in your dealings with women how much you respect your own mother and how much respect you will want your daughter to be shown, should you be lucky enough to have one someday. And ladies, it’s up to you to expect and even demand this respect – You Are Worth It!
“No one can foretell the future but what I can predict with some certainty is that your greatest source of happiness will be found in your capacity to love and to be loved.
“I wish every single one of the new graduates a happy, productive and successful life.”
Dame from Dumbarton who is renowned for her sense of humour
Dame Rita Bellamy James is no dowdy academic just emerged into the daylight, bespectacled and blinking, from her books in a dusty library full of swotting university students, writes Bill Heaney.
Sun-tanned and fit looking, she is quite the opposite of the way boffins and brainy bookworms are portrayed in the media.
Attractive, neatly quaffed, tailored and trendy, Rita has a mind that is guillotine sharp; a comforting presence, an air of concern about her – and an enviable sense of humour.
She is also fit and healthy – healthy enough to take a 90-mile walk along the famed Camino, the Spanish equivalent of the West Highland Way.
The sister of a priest who spent much of his life doing remarkable work with alcoholics, down and outs and drug addicts, Rita raised nearly £5,000 by completing a pilgrimage from Leon to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Local people were amongst those who sponsored Rita on her 90-mile journey to assist Cenacolo, a charity for teenage addicts which was supported by her brother, Father Hugh McGinlay, who died from cancer ten years ago.
Cenacolo is involved in the relief and rehabilitation of young people who are suffering physically and mentally as a result of drug and alcohol dependency, or other substance abuse.
Father Hugh (pictured left) was an assistant priest at St Andrew’s Cathedral in Clyde Street, Glasgow, at the time of his death.
He had also been chaplain to the patients and staff at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and spent much of his time working with homeless, addicted and disadvantaged people on the streets of Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.
Rita walked for six days through wind, rain and occasional sunshine along the Camino Frances.
She said: “That was a wonderful experience during which I sang, laughed and cried and I’m still trying to take it all in.
“The six days just flew past and it has left me with a great deal to think about.
“I joined a great group made up of four Canadians – one of whom was born in Greenock – two Americans, three Aussies, two Malaysians, two South Africans and me. A true international fellowship.
“The Camino is an extraordinary journey and demanding both physically and spiritually. I felt Hugh’s presence every step of the way. I cried my eyes out when we reached Compostela.
“I was really glad that I had undertaken some long walks a couple of times each week in preparation for the pilgrimage; it made all the difference to my stamina.”.
The pilgrimage to the Great Cathedral of St James in Compostela de Santiago started in the 11th century. Pilgrims include both Christians and non-believers.
Rita, whose late parents were Hugh McGinlay and Mary Beattie, was brought up with Hugh and their sister Eileen in Castlehill. Her grandparents and aunts and uncles all lived in Brucehill.
It must have been memories of that walk along the Camino that came back to her when Rita advised the Westminster graduates – “don’t neglect the need to remain physically fit”.
Feet up – Rita Bellamy James is a campaigner for women down to her boot laces.
Collage above: Rita Bellamy James with some of the friends she made on the sponsored walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. With Bart Scott, a Canadian from Calgary, sheltering from the rain during the 90-mile sponsored walk from Leon to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. With two Malaysian women she met on her walk on the Camino in Spain.