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Sandra Overend: Losing my seat at Stormont was a big surprise for me, but life can change its course in a way you don't expect it to

 

Former Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend talks about her shock at losing her Mid Ulster seat, what she thinks of new party leader Robin Swann and how she is discovering there is life outside the political maelstrom, writes Stephanie Bell.

It is now some weeks since the Stormont Assembly election, and for former Ulster Unionist MLA Sandra Overend the shock of losing her seat in Mid-Ulster is still something she is coming to terms with. After 19 years in politics, the Co Londonderry mum-of-three has had to adapt to a whole new daily routine and while she is enjoying having more time with her family, she admits it has been a struggle to no longer be doing a job she loved.

Like other colleagues in the Ulster Unionist Party who found themselves out of work after the unexpected March election brought on by the 'Cash for Ash' scandal, she misses the cut and thrust of political decision-making at Stormont and the hands-on work for people within her constituency.

It has taken some time to wind up her office and it was just this week that the furniture was being removed as she shut up shop for good.

During her career Sandra was instrumental in driving a campaign within her party to get more women actively involved in politics. As Education Spokesperson at Stormont she was also a dedicated campaigner for local schools.

She readily admits she is still "sore" from losing her seat, but has ruled out standing in the Westminster election.

She was recently elected again as a Party Officer, which is a voluntary role within the Ulster Unionists. That will ensure her continued involvement with her party but she says she doesn't know if she will ever stand as an MLA again.

Being an MLA was a full-on, often 24-7 job. Adapting to no longer having demands on her time, she says, has been a challenge but as a mum to three young children, Nathan (11), Joshua (14) and Courtney (16), she is finding satisfaction in being at home again for her family as she decides what she will do next.

She says: "It really was a shock. I just thought I was going to be elected. I didn't take it for granted though, and worked really hard canvassing, and knocked so many doors.

"And yes it was a big shock but sometimes life changes in ways you don't expect. I just have to look at it as an opportunity to do something different and change the balance of my life again.

"I suppose in a way it couldn't have happened at a better time.

"Nathan is in P7 and will be changing schools this year. I have been able to pick him up at school and that's something I won't be able to do next year when he will be getting the bus home.

"Courtney is doing her GCSEs and it is good to be at home and be around for her during the stresses of her exams. It's good to be here to give the support.

"I have completely changed my focus but I suppose I am still sore from it. I miss the job too, being part of the team at Stormont. I miss that, but life changes and life goes on."

Sandra is supportive of Mike Nesbitt, who resigned as party leader after the election. He had faced criticism for saying he intended to give SDLP his second preference in the election and there was shock at the number of key Ulster Unionist politicians who lost their seats.

Refusing to be drawn on the controversy, she said: "I really think in the years that Mike was leader he led from the front and he inspired a lot of people to support the Ulster Unionist Party."

However, she says she does feel a certain amount of anguish at the election results and the fact that Sinn Fein and the DUP were returned as the two biggest parties.

She says: "When I lost the election my first thought was not my own loss but the loss for Northern Ireland. It wasn't 'poor me' but 'poor Northern Ireland'.

"I despair for Northern Ireland the way the vote transpired, returning the two extremes as the two largest parties. I don't think it bodes well for the future in bringing people together or for a devolved administration that delivers for all the people.

"If I was still an MLA, I would be frustrated not to be able to get on with the job especially as we are still facing problems with the National Health Service and schools are facing budget cuts. Not to be involved and not to be able to lobby or help is very frustrating.

"There was a real fear factor in the last election which motivated people to vote for the two extreme parties. I lost count of the number of people who said to me - people I know well and neighbours - that they felt they had to vote DUP to keep Sinn Fein out."

Sandra says she is delighted that Robin Swann was voted in as the new leader. She has known Robin for years since they used to mix in the same circles as members of the Young Farmers' Club. She also worked closely with him as his deputy when he was Chief Whip.

She says: "I am very proud of Robin now that he is leader. He will do a great job. He has taken the responsibilities in his stride."

Her involvement in politics came about largely through the influence of her father, former MLA Billy Armstrong.

She was raised on a farm near Stewartstown in Co Tyrone and is married to pig farmer and businessman Nigel (45). The couple live near Bellaghy in Co Londonderry.

Her father-in-law is former Vanguard politician Robert Overend.

Sandra worked in accountancy before taking up employment as office manager for her father on his election in 1998.

She says: "I suppose politics has always been in my life.

"I remember as a child my granny, who is my mum's mum, was heavily involved in the Ulster Unionist Party and she would have canvassed for them, and she always talked about the great craic after the meetings.

"I think as a child that's the kind of thing you remember; for me, it was my granny laughing rather than any serious political discussion.

"Then when dad was unexpectedly elected in 1998 I entered the world of politics full-time as his office manager.

"My dad had a huge desire to make Northern Ireland a better place. I remember him working hard as a farmer milking the cows at 8pm and then going out to work with the RUC Reserve and that was him trying to make Northern Ireland a safer place for his children growing up.

"We have a lot to be proud of here in Northern Ireland and dad had a huge desire to improve the lives of people and opportunities for our children."

Under Sir Reg Empey's leadership in 2008, Sandra was asked to stand as a party officer on the governing body of the Ulster Unionists.

She was duly elected and asked to take up the new role of Women's Development Officer at a time when the party had no female MLAs. She was given free reign to devise ways to attract more women into the party and encourage them to run for election.

Sandra, however, had no notion of becoming a politician herself having been put off by the pressures she witnessed her father facing.

Yet having encouraged other women to step forward she decided she should practice what she was preaching and stood in the General Election in 2010, taking 11% of the vote.

In 2015 she stood again in Mid-Ulster at the 2015 General Election, taking 15.4% of the vote and second place - and overtaking the DUP.

She says: "Daddy was retiring and I thought there is no way I am standing in your place as I didn't have a thick enough skin.

"I had seen all the flak he had to take and I thought I wouldn't be able to take it.

"I had been public speaking at conferences and lots of other things and I felt that I had already been stepping out of my comfort zone yet I had a desire to see the Ulster Unionist Party move forward and achieve its aims and goals.

"Eventually I came to the decision that I might as well stand for election.

"It was a big change to see your name on the ballot papers and your face on posters on the lamp posts and it was really exciting.

"It was a big step and I felt that I had big shoes to fill to take daddy's place.

"I had the support of my family which is the only way I could have done it.

"My mum and my mother-in-law offered to help look after the children and Nigel himself was there for them in the evenings. It really was a family commitment."

Sandra was elected to Stormont in 2011 and re-elected in 2016.

Despite her reservations it was a job she loved and she soon settled into a routine whereby she could serve her constituents, sit in committees at Stormont and be at home as often as she could for her children.

She converted her garage into an office so that she could continue work after her children went to bed and while life was busy she found it very fulfilling.

Sandra says: "I did really enjoy it. First of all, I enjoyed helping my constituents. Usually people only come to you as a last resort if they can't figure out how to help themselves.

"It was a whole range of issues from planning to education and health and there was great satisfaction in getting the right answers for them or if it was a policy issue taking it the whole way to Stormont.

"I also enjoyed getting really engaged in the nitty gritty of Stormont and working on policy. There was such variety and I loved it.

"It was tough balancing those two aspects of the job and sometimes you had to remember to go home at the end of the day.

"And it could be very difficult to take your work hat off when you went home and after the kids went to bed I would have gone to my office in our garage and worked on emails and would have been up until all hours.

"I always tried really hard to have dinner with my family a few nights a week.

"It wasn't always possible and sometimes it had to be just breakfast. The kids really were fantastic and I really felt I had their support."

Now, Sandra is looking at a number of options for work and doesn't know if she will stand for election again or if her career as an MLA is over for good.

She adds: "I can't say yes and I can't say no as to whether I would ever stand for election again. I've changed the focus of my life - that is on my family at the moment and I'm enjoying that.

"I know I need to get a job sorted but I am looking at my options. I am positive and I see it as a chance for other doors to open, I just have to decide which one I want to go through."

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