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A courageous move

His choice as Michael Copeland's replacement as East Belfast MLA caused ructions in the local Ulster Unionist constituency association. But Andy Allen is not the sort of man to allow any sort of setback to stop him in his tracks

By Alex Kane

Published 19/09/2015

Andy Allen MLA
Andy Allen MLA

Ranger Andy Allen was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in 2008 while on tour in Afghanistan. The force of the blast lifted him off the ground, tore off his right leg and burned his corneas, leaving him blind.

One of his comrades had been wearing a camera, attached to his body armour, and the events of that day were caught on film: the footage was later used by the BBC for the Bafta-winning documentary, Wounded.

For seven weeks, he was kept sedated while surgeons worked to remove the dirt from his wounds and fought to keep them infection-free. Ten days after he was brought in, they were forced to amputate his left leg.

Although an operation has restored some vision, his world remains blurred and distorted, which, he says, has been his "biggest challenge".

A few years later, as he adapted himself to a new life and new personal problems, he set up a charity - Andy Allen Veterans Support - to meet the needs of veterans and their families living in Northern Ireland.

Just over a year ago, he joined the Ulster Unionist Party and was reckoned to be in with a chance of winning back a seat for them in North Belfast at the next Assembly elections.

But, last week, Mike Nesbitt chose him to replace Michael Copeland in East Belfast. It was a decision that surprised many people: not least the East Belfast UUP Association, who weren't given the opportunity to hold a selection meeting.

Andy Allen was born in the Ulster Hospital on November 2, 1988. He has three brothers and a sister. His parents separated when he was still young, although he continued to see his father, a labourer, as "much as possible, until he died in 2007 after a series of strokes".

His memories of childhood in east Belfast were mostly happy ones, although he does remember "witnessing innocent people being shot in Cluan Place by republicans".

He attended Knocknagoney and Avoniel primary schools and then Orangefield High School. "When I was in school, I was constantly getting nagged about what I was going to do with my life and what career path I would choose. I wasn't passionate about school. In fact, I didn't like it.

"I really didn't know what to tell people when they inquired about what would happen next. My response was always, don't know, don't know. One thing I did know was I wanted to earn a living, but I just didn't know what I wanted to do.

"At one point, I flirted with the idea of being an electrician and got some basic work experience, but it didn't give me the kind of job satisfaction I craved. It's not something where I woke up in the morning and said, 'Yeah, let's go, let's do it'.

"Then I was sitting one day and it came on the TV, the recruiting advert for the Army. And do you know the way when you see something on TV, or you see something, and you just know? Whenever I watched the advert, I went, 'Yes, that's exactly what I want to do and be a part of. I just knew: That's me. That's my calling'."

He says he has no regrets about joining: "No, none whatsoever, in fact I would do it all over again tomorrow. It helped me to become the person I am now, it taught me the importance of doing your best, working as part of a team and putting others first."

When pushed on whether he would encourage young people to join the armed services, he says: "I would tell any young person to make sure they do their research before joining and if they feel it's for them, I would tell them to go for it.

"I spent some of the best days of my life in the Army and met friends for life."

He thinks - and this will be an important factor in his new role as a public representative - that people don't view him differently because he's an injured veteran: "I believe that people who know me and meet me judge and hold me to account just the same as they would anyone else. I want people to view me on my actions and my achievements."

He says he's the first member of his family to join a political party: "I think no matter who you are, you have an interest in politics in some way because ultimately it has an impact on all of our lives at some point."

And why the UUP rather than the DUP, TUV, Ukip, or the PUP? "I looked at various other parties before joining the Ulster Unionist Party, but it was the UUP which fitted me best. I knew Michael Copeland from other things I had been doing and always respected that he was genuine - he wanted to help and it was never about him.

"I really like how Mike Nesbitt leads the party, because there is a sense that the party want to do things differently, they want to do what is right for Northern Ireland."

Within weeks of joining the UUP, he had become a spokesman for the party in both north and west Belfast and was clearly being groomed as "the right type of candidate" to win back the North Belfast seat that Fred Cobain had held between 1998 and 2011.

A UUP constituency member who believed that Allen could retake the seat says that the "move to East Belfast is a big mistake. We have no other candidate to put in his place and no chance now of winning the seat. Worse, there's no guarantee that Andy will hold the East Belfast seat if he's alongside a better-known running mate".

He is married to Natalie and they have two children, Carter (6) and Chloe (3). He supports Manchester United, but admits that a lot of his time will still be taken up with his work for veterans. "I don't believe enough is being done by the Government to deliver adequate support for those who serve and have served, or their families," he says.

"There need to be a better joined-up approach in dealing with the issues affecting all veterans and their loved ones. I recently hosted a veterans support workshop in Antrim Royal British Legion, which highlighted the failings in the system and how important the need to address them is. That will continue to remain one of my priorities as an MLA."

Andy Allen is not yet 30 and yet he has faced up to and overcome more challenges than most of us will ever have to deal with in a lifetime.

Like many veterans, he seems more concerned about the needs of his colleagues than his own needs.

He has no regrets about serving his country and there's no trace of bitterness about the appalling physical toll that service took on his body.

He sounds like a man who has come to terms with his everyday realities and he acts like a man who believes that a wheelchair and weak vision are no barriers to public service.

Like Captain Doug Beattie MC in Upper Bann, the UUP will be very pleased to have attracted someone of his courage, calibre and understated charisma into their ranks.

What we will discover in a matter of months - maybe even weeks - is whether they have made a huge tactical mistake in switching him from North to East Belfast.

But, whatever happens, one thing is certain: Andy Allen won't allow any sort of setback to deter him.

A life so far

  • Born in the Ulster Hospital in November 1988 - he is 27
  • He joined the Army after school and has no regrets
  • He is married to Natalie and they have a son and daughter, Carter and Chloe
  • He set up the Andy Allen Veterans Support (Col Tim Collins is a patron)
  • He supports Manchester United and enjoys Peter Kay
  • He joined the UUP last year and is now MLA for East Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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