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'I don't know why but my grandson's death destroyed a lot of confidence in myself, in what I say, what I do and how I operate'

The Big Interview

Published 26/09/2016

Doug Beattie MLA outside the Ulster Unionist offices in east Belfast
Doug Beattie MLA outside the Ulster Unionist offices in east Belfast
Doug Beattie in his army days
Col Tim Collins
Doug‘s baby grandson Cameron
Doug with grandson Bradley

UUP MLA Doug Beattie (50) tells Claire McNeilly about his transformation from soldier to politician and his ongoing struggle to cope with the sudden death of his young grandchild Cameron at just 15 months old.

Q. Tell us about your family.

A. I'm married to homemaker Margaret (50) and we have two children - Luke (25), who's a soldier with 1 Scots at Palace Barracks, and Leigh (28), a homemaker, who has two boys, Tristan (8) and four-year-old Bradley. She recently lost her 15-month-old baby son Cameron [Tindale]. I have three sisters - Edwina, Tanya and Donna - and two brothers - Robert (ex-military) and Stephen (still serving in the military in England).

Q. A decorated Army captain who faced down the Taliban in Afghanistan and also saw action in Iraq isn't going to be intimidated by a rival politician. Do you find that your reputation as a war hero affords you extra respect at Stormont?

A. None whatsoever - and neither should it. We all stand on our merits and our policies and we talk for what we believe in. I've got a lot of respect for all the MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who are passionate in what they believe in.

Q Was politics something you'd thought about doing prior to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt approaching you?

A. Goodness, no. Soldiers try to steer clear of politics. But when Mike approached me, it ignited in me a thought that actually I can serve the people of Northern Ireland and the wider UK without having to be in uniform, without having to go to war, without having to put my life in danger. I didn't suddenly jump into Mike's pocket, though.

I went to see what NI21 was all about, the Northern Ireland Conservatives, I looked at the DUP and the PUP... but I fell back to the UUP because they allowed me to have a social conscience, and because some of the things I believe in aren't necessarily completely in line with other people in the party.

Q. You don't have the same view as the party leader on same-sex marriage, for example?

A. No, I don't. I believe in equality. I believe love is love. I don't think that an institution that we call marriage should override that basic human emotion called love, therefore if people love each other they should be afforded the same right as everybody else.

I also believe churches shouldn't be forced to marry people of the same sex but that should not stop people of the same sex having the ability to marry each other. That's in conflict with Mike and Danny Kennedy and other MLAs, but I'm comfortable with that and they're comfortable with that.

Q. Do you go to church?

A. I believe in God, but I don't go to church because organised religion has created so many ills in this world. People think because I don't go to church that makes me less religious, but that's not the case.

I have very particular views about religion. I pray. I don't toe a particular scriptural line, but that doesn't make me any less religious.

When your life's on the line virtually every minute and you're praying to get out of a situation alive, then there's something there for you. I don't need a church to connect with God.

Q. You were in the middle of the hustings when your young grandson Cameron died. Clearly it's still taking its toll on you and your family?

A. If I can look at this personally, I don't know why, but it destroyed a lot of my confidence in myself - in what I say and what I do and how I operate. I feel myself a less confident man than I previously was.

I was elected (as MLA for Upper Bann in May) the day we buried young Cameron and I felt a fair degree of shame. There was me, being elected to represent people, while my own family was grieving so terribly for the loss of Cameron. Maybe it's not a very rational thing to feel, but I still feel it, because we are still in the process of trying to find out what happened and we haven't got closure yet.

Q. Were your family behind your decision to stand for election?

A. Unbelievably, yes. When I speak to Leigh and Mark (Cameron's parents) and they say that one of the good things that came out of this, one of the things to hold onto, was that I was elected and it helped them. It give them a positive.

We're waiting for the coroner's office to come back to us, so that's difficult to deal with. I was there when young Cameron was lying on the floor dead.

He lay there for over three hours while the police and the forensics did what they had to do. I remember speaking to the police officers and I could see in their eyes how affected they were. They were in the presence of a grieving family, there was a young dead 15-month-old upstairs and they were having to deal with it.

They finish with us, they mark it down in their notebook as their incident number and they move on to the next thing.

I was thinking about that when the row blew up over the PSNI Chief Constable's recent comments (George Hamilton apologised to his officers last month after posting a tweet that appeared to make light of the pressure they were under).

The stress those police officers must have been subjected to, dealing with the family, dealing with a dead child... you couldn't help but be affected by that.

Q. How are Cameron's parents now?

A. Leigh and Mark are struggling, and I'm not sure they have received the support they should have afterwards. Nothing was offered.

Q. You've obviously encountered tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Was this of a different level, and can such things ever be compared?

A. Tragedy comes in different ways and it's no less a tragedy regardless of circumstance. They all have a human impact, which is the real tragedy - the impact the death of the individual has on the family, the mother and father, brothers and sisters.

Q. The date just passed - September 11 - has obvious significance for so many people around the world. And for you, it's also the anniversary of when you first killed an enemy in a combat situation. What's it like to take a life?

A. It's awful. You take a life and it's instant, in a flash. Lots of things go through your head about what you've just done - but then you switch targets and start taking other lives. Of course I'll never forget the moment when I killed someone for the first time. I watched him die.

That was in Afghanistan, on September 11, 2006. I knew that I'd not just taken a life but that I'd destroyed a family unit, that he would have maybe a wife waiting for him to come back, children waiting for their father, he may have been the breadwinner for a family.

All of these things went through my head, because I had all those things myself.

Had the tables been turned, it would have been me and my family that had been destroyed. People think that taking a life is about dropping a bomb on people a mile away, but when I charged into a house and thrust my bayonet through the neck of another man, and then watched him die... you don't have time to think about it.

Q. In retrospect, were either of those conflicts, in Iraq and Afghanistan, worth it?

A. When we went into Iraq we crossed it for what we absolutely believed were the right reasons. We thought we were going to be faced with weapons of mass destruction. It was a noble cause, and at the time I fully supported it. Retrospectively, it's become quite clear that was not the case. Afghanistan is completely different. America went into Afghanistan to hunt down those responsible for 9/11 and we supported them. Whether we should have stayed beyond that first mission is questionable, though.

Q. What are your feelings about Tony Blair following the Chilcot Report (which suggested that the then Prime Minister sent British troops into Iraq based on dubious intelligence)?

A. I think he made a mistake, but wasn't alone. I think his mistakes are Foreign Office mistakes as well, intelligence chiefs' mistakes, military commanders' mistakes. There are many to blame, and all retrospectively, because at the time we all thought this was right.

Q. Were you friendly with fellow Northern Ireland war hero Tim Collins. What's he like?

A. Tim was a fantastic commander. As his Regimental Sergeant Major we were very close, but I don't see so much of him now. I stood beside him when he gave the famous speech prior to us going into Iraq - if the camera lens had panned out a little bit more you'd have seen me - and I can confirm that his speech was off the cuff. I have a lot time for Tim. He was a ferocious fighter and commander, yet had a gentle, compassionate side that a lot of people wouldn't have seen.

Q. Your new work of fiction, Reaper, has hit the bookshelves. If you become a best-selling author, how will that affect your political career?

A. My political career is something separate. My writing is my hobby so I don't think the two are intertwined. I left school at 16. I did not do my O-Levels, I have no GCSEs, I have no A-Levels, I didn't go to university and yet I've managed to write three books and one of them (An Ordinary Soldier) is already a best-seller. My second book (Task Force Helmand) is probably the one I like the most.

Q. Your full name is Douglas 'Ricardo' Beattie. How come?

A. Apparently when I was born my late mother Evelyn was a fan of the actor Ricardo Montalban from the TV series Fantasy Island.

Q. Not many people know this, but when you were serving in Germany you ended up as one of the last people to guard notorious Nazi Rudolf Hess - former deputy to Hitler and, for 21 years until he died, sole inmate of Spandau Prison in Berlin. What was that like?

A. I knew who he was, but I was only 17 at the time and, frankly, I didn't care. I'd have been disciplined if I'd spoken to him. I wasn't even allowed to look at him. Our role was to look out, not to look in. Often you'd see him and a prison guard walking together. Spandau was a very eerie place with only one inmate - Hess. It wasn't well kept and it was incredibly spooky. Some soldiers even killed themselves while stationed there.

Belfast Telegraph

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