Interview: Rosie Kane, former socialist MSP

In the past seven years former MSP Rosie Kane has survived political exile, her parents' deaths, a nervous breakdown, incarceration, unemployment and the Sheridan trial, throughout it all staying true to her principles. Now things are looking up as she contemplates the future

I'M so glad I had a mental breakdown," says Rosie Kane, "because – by God – was I able to use that therapy in recent months and years." We are talking in the living room of the tenement flat in Govanhill that Kane shares with her daughter, Nicola, who is sitting at a table, wearing pyjamas and putting on her make-up. It is three days after Christmas; five since Tommy Sheridan was found guilty of perjury at the High Court in Glasgow.

Kane had a lot riding on that outcome. She was a prominent prosecution witness, testifying that the former Scottish Socialist Party leader had admitted visiting a swingers' club. She is also one of the estranged political allies whom Sheridan had described as liars and "scabs" following his successful defamation case against the News Of The World in 2006. When she was texted the verdict, she "sobbed and sobbed" with relief and had to be held up by friends and her daughter.

The conclusion of the trial, barring sentencing which is due to take place later this month, brought to an end an extraordinarily turbulent seven-year period for Kane. She was elected to the Scottish parliament in 2003, became one of its stars, moved an asylum seeker and her child into her home, suffered from months of incapacitating depression, went to prison, lost her seat amid the fall-out from the Sheridan defamation trial, spent 18 months on the dole, suffered the deaths of both her parents ("I'm an orphan," says the 49-year-old) and learned she is to become a grandmother.

"These have been very difficult personal, political, psychological, emotional years," she says. "I couldn't have been hit with more rocks."

We are sitting on a beige couch. This is the same couch on which Kane slept away ten frightening days during the shadowy depths of her depression in 2004. It is also the same couch which, during a trip to Havana, she told Fidel Castro he was welcome to sleep upon should he care to visit Glasgow. Kane believes she is probably the only person in Scotland to have met both the former Cuban leader and the Dalai Lama, and thinks, therefore, that I Met Castro And The Dalai Lama would be a pretty good title for the memoir she is considering writing.

She is a small woman with long brown hair and an open, relaxed manner. She is wearing a floral blouse and drinks coffee from a large Winnie the Pooh mug. She seems a lot younger than her years. There's something girlish and fragile about her. But she has a toughness, too. She talks at one point about being "galvanised" by her experiences of the trial, and that sounds about right – it's as if she's been coated in a protective layer of metal. I ask about being cross-examined by Sheridan during the perjury trial. "I was really scared," she recalls. "I'd been in the witness room three days waiting, and I hadn't slept."

She felt uncomfortable making eye contact with Gail Sheridan, and was worried that she would be unable to keep from crying. "But I think Tommy and I both underestimated me." When he stood up and spoke to her, she felt the rest of the courtroom drop away. It was just him and her. "He just threw so much fighting talk at me, it was like the Power of Grayskull; I thought, 'No way are you speaking to me like this.'"

Her emotions toward him were varied: pity, embarrassment, and eventually anger. "I never thought I was brave enough to raise my voice towards Tommy, but for the first time I had no fear, I wasn't shy, and I really was fighting for my name."

She remembers leaning out of the dock and shouting at him. "I felt as if I was in an abusive relationship and I was having it out before I walked away. It was almost irrelevant to the case. It was like scores were being settled. Fisti-cuffs. And I never knew I had that in me."

The irony of it is that without Sheridan, Kane might never have been capable of such a performance. He was one of the people who taught her to believe in herself, who nurtured the confidence that saw her transform from a shy, agoraphobic single mother (she was married for 11 years from 1985) to a political star and one of Scotland's most colourful public figures. He helped create the "monster" – as she cheerfully puts it – who eventually assisted in his destruction.

They go way back. Both were pupils at Lourdes Secondary in Glasgow.

Kane was in the same year as Sheridan's older sister Carol. "I remember she had a brother, a good-looking wee guy, y'know, a wee ticket." She eventually got to know him through her mother, May, who had campaigned against the poll tax alongside Sheridan and was active in the movement to get him elected to Glasgow City Council while he was in prison for trying to stop a warrant sale. It was May who suggested that Rosie meet Sheridan, and others involved in politics, in the hope that it would bring her daughter – who was feeling low and withdrawn at the time – out of herself.

"Tommy Sheridan was much closer to my mother than me," says Kane. "A great friend and associate." Following her mother's death in 2006, Kane discovered among her belongings – alongside the autographs of the Lisbon Lions – a scrapbook of letters Sheridan had written to her mother from Barlinnie and the City Chambers. She is considering sending them to him in the hope that they will help him rediscover the man he used to be.

May McGarvey was, according to her daughter, "a gutsy, gutsy wee lady. No stopping her". She was outspoken and political. Kane's father Tommy, by contrast, was quiet and shy, a gentle man. He had worked as a labourer since moving to Glasgow from County Monaghan at the age of 15 in an effort to escape poverty. He was self-conscious about his Irishness and never discussed nationalist politics in his daughter's hearing, though he loved to sing and would sometimes perform rebel songs.

Kane was the middle child and the only girl in the family. "Four brothers and me. I was very much a daddy's girl, my da's shining light."

Her father had always mistrusted Sheridan, apparently. Not so her mother. Had Rosie not been her daughter, May would have believed Sheridan when he said he was innocent of the claims being made against him.

May McGarvey died suddenly from necrotising fasciitis – the so-called "flesh-eating bug" – six weeks after Sheridan's victory in the defamation trial. This, for Kane, was the hardest thing to take – that she went to her grave having heard her daughter denounced in public as a liar. Over Christmas, since the guilty verdict, her cousins and aunty have been telling her: "Your mam never saw your name cleared, but she never doubted it would be."

Kane says it wasn't Sheridan winning the defamation case that troubled her so much as the interview he gave immediately afterwards. "Being branded a scab was devastating," she says. "It's the biggest insult in the lexicon of the left, and I come from a family that understands that. You go to Asda and people spit at you. You go to demonstrations and people are pushing you around and bullying you and hissing at you. And this is all happening in this six-week period as well as the deaths of my parents."

Her father died of a gastric aneurysm four weeks after her mother. The news was "like a big electric shock. I still cannot describe how it felt. I'm lucky I've got grown-up kids. They had to care for me. I couldn't care for anything at that point." Kane feels her father never recovered from his wife's death. He was a broken man.

The whole period had been further complicated by the fact that one week after her mother's funeral, Kane was sentenced to prison for non-payment of a fine imposed in relation to a protest against Trident. She served seven days in Cornton Vale.

"It was also my daughter's 21st while I was in jail, and everybody was worried that I might have another breakdown, but I was confident that it was the right thing to do," she says. "At that point in my life, having gone through what I'd just gone through, I was enjoying the solitude. I disallowed any visitors. I didn't want anybody to look at me with pity, or to analyse me to see if I was OK. I felt I was stronger on my own."

She worried that a sympathetic word or look might have caused her to break down. So she decided to focus instead on the troubles of the prisoners she met inside. Every day, she says, there would be ten other women in her cell, lined up on her bunk and shelf, telling her about their experiences of prostitution, addiction and abuse – issues that later formed the basis of her campaigning work. "I felt I had a job to do in Cornton Vale. It was as if I was doing an MSP's surgery. I opened myself up to everybody."

That's typical Rosie Kane behaviour. She has always blurred the boundary between personal and political. She has often gone to lengths that could be regarded as either inappropriate and masochistic or heroic and self-sacrificing, or a mix of all those things. The key moment was when she took the asylum seekers Mercy Ikolo and her young daughter Percile-Liz into her small home for five months after their release from Dungavel immigration removal centre, giving them her bedroom while she slept on that couch.

This sort of action made her an unusual MSP. She was never supposed to become one. She allowed her name to go forward as second on the Scottish Socialist Party's Glasgow list in 2003 without any expectation that she would actually end up in Holyrood. During the count at the SECC, as it became clear that she was going to be elected, she panicked and wanted to flee, daunted by the prospect of political office.

She remembers, with sad fondness, Sheridan holding her hand and comforting her. She remembers him asking Gail to keep her company. She remembers going home after the victory and how at 6am she was still sitting in the living room in her 5 Oxfam coat when a courier arrived at the front door with a copy of the Scotland Act addressed to Rosie Kane MSP.

Though Kane remains a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, she will not be seeking election this year. For the last two years she has been a support worker with a charity helping those who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. She remains an activist, continuing to campaign against Trident at Faslane for example, and does not rule out attempting a return to Holyrood at some point in future. "If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I would have said absolutely not, because I was so wounded. But now I feel vindicated. I feel political again. I feel free and safe in my politics."

She seems happy with the work she did during her years at Holyrood. She did not at first feel she belonged there. She was aware that a number of people within the media and in other parties were waiting for her to fail. There was a school of thought that held she wasn't intelligent enough to do the job.

Kane came to believe that she deserved her place in the parliament and that she could do important work, representing – with her odd, non-linear, rather poetic articulacy – people who might have otherwise remained voiceless and issues that might have gone unvoiced. Still, it was hard to shift the prejudice that she simply didn't have the brains. "It was easy to portray a working-class woman as a bit of a thicko," she says.

She did not do well at school. "A strange child", right from the start, she felt it was not for her. She would truant from the age of five and this continued into secondary. She was "a wee bad rascal", disruptive in class, who preferred to go home and drink Carlsberg with one of her brothers. She left in third year and never sat an exam. She had problems with her eyesight, which didn't help her work, and had sometimes to wear an eye-patch which made her feel odd and self-conscious. Even today she can hardly see out of her left eye.

This goes back to an injury she sustained in infancy. "At five weeks old, I was dropped down a flight of stairs and had a double fracture to my skull. My mam was taking me up to my granny's in Nitshill and the neighbour asked to hold the baby while my mam was opening the door.

Poor Mrs Butters, she collapsed. The fall killed her. I rolled down the stairs, hit the wall, and then down the next flight of stairs." It was touch and go whether she would survive. "My granny gave me the kiss of life and baptised me. Catholics. I was always scared to ask which she did first." She was rushed to hospital by her Uncle John and spent weeks being kept as still as possible in case fragments of bone entered her brain.

She was in and out of hospital for the rest of her childhood, having operations on her eye. She thinks this experience established in both her mind and in the minds of her family the idea that she was someone who needed a lot of care and attention. If Kane is a brattish "drama queen", as some have suggested, the origins of her personality surely have their roots in that early moment of high drama.

Kane sees life as running in cycles. The Sheridan saga, for her, began with a baby and will end with one. "About a week before we found all this out about Tommy, he announced that Gail was pregnant. Then I met Gail on Calton Hill and I hugged and congratulated her. So it started with the very happy announcement of a birth, and now my heart breaks for Gail and wee Gabrielle.

"But in February my daughter Susie is going to have a wee boy and a line will be drawn under all of this. This would have been my parents' first great-grandchild. It's just the best thing ever and I'm going to be a doting grandmother."

In the summer, Kane will turn 50 – a milestone birthday that can be enjoyed now the millstone of the trial has been lifted. Though she has concerns about her personal safety, given how hated she is by some of Sheridan's supporters, her vision of her future is mostly bright. She plans to set up a theatre group for women (teaching Shakespeare and Calamity Jane, a selection of texts that says a lot about her character) and – who knows – we may yet see her stage a political comeback.

"The years behind me were a bit crazy and mixed up and wonderful," she says. "I would hope for the same for the next 50, but with less pain."

• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on January 16, 2011