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New sheriff in town

He has been Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, Lord Mayor (twice) and now serves as its High Sheriff. Is energetic, dapper and media-friendly Jim Rodgers the city's best-known councillor, wonders Alex Kane

Published 06/02/2016

Jim Rodgers
Jim Rodgers

A few days before the local council elections in May 2014, I bumped into Jim Rodgers on the Cregagh Road. He was as dapper and shiny-shoed as ever, but his usual Tiggerish bounce was gone.

He was one of two UUP candidates in the new Ormiston District Electoral Area - his old Victoria DEA had been done away with in recent boundary changes - and wasn't sure he would win a seat.

In the 2011 council election he had lost more than 1,000 votes, although he argued at the time that it was "more of an anti-UUP vote than an anti-Rodgers vote".

But he was worried this time because he thought that his recent remarks about a Papal visit - remarks that were out of line with the UUP's official position - could cost him votes with the middle classes in Ormiston.

This is what he said on The Nolan Show: "I am a churchman myself. I am a Methodist and was brought up a Congregationalist and I am not opposed to the Pope, even though he is described by some people as the anti-Christ.

"To me, there are other places in Northern Ireland that may be appropriate, but not Belfast - where we still have hatred, sectarianism and bigotry and when we still have members of the loyal orders who have difficulty marching along arterial routes either out of or into the city. In many of the border regions there would be a large Roman Catholic majority and you wouldn't have the same divisions there are in Belfast. There are two elections coming up and this is the SDLP playing politics."

A week later, he topped the poll, as well as gaining the highest vote of any UUP candidate across Belfast. Not bad going for someone who had recently turned 71 (he was born in January 1943) and was also celebrating his 21st anniversary as a councillor (he was first elected in 1993).

In that time, he has been deputy Lord Mayor, Lord Mayor twice and now High Sheriff of Belfast: one of only a handful of people to have held all three offices.

He can, thanks to an extraordinarily high media profile and a very distinctive voice, lay fair claim to being Belfast's best-known councillor.

Surprisingly, he has never been able to climb the next rung of the electoral office by securing an Assembly seat. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum (formally known as the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue) for East Belfast in 1996, along with Sir Reg Empey, but didn't hold the seat when he contested the Assembly election in 1998. He lost out again in 2003 and 2007.

On all three occasions, he polled lower than when he was contesting the smaller electoral areas for Belfast City Council; leading some observers to conclude that he was being "punished" for being on the anti-Agreement wing of the party in a constituency where the DUP ruled the electoral roost.

That said, he remained a popular figure within the party and was elected on a number of occasions as an honorary officer of the Ulster Unionist Council, coming in behind Jeffrey Donaldson, but outpolling senior party figures like Dermot Nesbitt and MP William Ross.

And even though he didn't support the Good Friday Agreement, he managed to keep very cordial relations with the pro-wing and didn't join the exodus to the DUP. Had he done so, he might now be sitting in the Assembly.

Rodgers, who is married and lives in north Down, was a former chief scout and youth development officer for Glentoran Football Club between 1975 and 1994. He played football for both Bangor and Portadown, as well as several junior clubs. He retains an interest in football and has worked closely with several Irish League sides to obtain better training facilities. In 2001, the-then Culture Minister, Michael McGimpsey, appointed him to an advisory board to plot the way ahead for local football.

He has also been the general manager of a training organisation in Belfast and he is presently a director of GEMS NI, which was established in 2002 to address long-term unemployment and economic inactivity in east and south Belfast. He has also worked in stock-brokering and the linen industry.

His fitness and build belie his age, and even close up he doesn't look like a man who is now 73. Indeed, it was that fitness which encouraged photographers to ask him - they probably didn't know that he was almost 65 at the time - to leapfrog over a council worker dressed as a tomato during an event when he Lord Mayor in September 2007. He injured her, leading to a £24,000 compensation payout three years later and a story that ended up in the national Press.

Shortly after being first elected to the council in 1993, a veteran UUP councillor noted of Rodgers: "This guy wants to be Lord Mayor and he'll make it. He understands the value of good publicity and he knows how to work the media to his advantage. He could be very good for the party in Belfast."

It was a shrewd and accurate assessment. Rodgers loves Belfast, that much is clear, and he has been a very good champion and promoter of the city.

He does get it wrong, though. His comments about the Papal visit came across as ill-judged and reactionary, as did his more recent objections to the Republic's football team being invited to an event in the City Hall.

And some UUP members and supporters believed that he and the other two UUP councillors at the time should have stayed clear of the leaflet campaign against the Alliance Party in December 2012/January2013 - believing that it would cost the party votes.

Yet in the 2014 council election, the UUP saw its numbers rise from three to seven, its highest number since 2005.

He was awarded the OBE for public service in the 2002 New Year's Honours list and said: "My mother is 95 and it was great to see her delight when I told her that her son was being honoured."

In an era when lord mayors are never out of the mainstream, or social, media, it's worth remembering that Rodgers held the post - in 2001/02 and again in 2007/08 - at a time when there was much more pomp and aloofness attached to the office.

He made it all much more relaxed, because he understood the cross-community role that the lord mayor had to play at that time.

With his soundbites, photo-opportunities and genuine friendliness, he blazed the trail for later populists like Mairtin O Muilleoir.

It may be a cliche, yet it is nevertheless true: what you see with Jim Rodgers is what you get. He is unfailingly civil, even when being barracked. He says what he thinks, even when, in terms of a possible Assembly career, it might have been better to keep a lower profile.

He loves Belfast and he speaks up for Belfast. He is, at heart, old-fashioned in his core beliefs, yet very up-to-date with the demands of a modern political career. He's a genuine character.

And, at a time when most politicians just tick the box and do what's required of them in a Press office tweet, genuine characters deserve to be cherished.

A life so far...

He was born in 1943

He played football for a number of clubs

He was chief scout for Glentoran

He was first elected in 1993

He has been deputy Lord Mayor, Lord Mayor and High Sheriff

Belfast Telegraph

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