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Trevor Lunn MLA: 'A man was politely holding the door for my wife when a no-warning bomb went off'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Trevor Lunn, Lagan Valley Alliance MLA, on life in the Troubles and changing his stance on same-sex marriage.

Q. You're 71, married to seamstress and dressmaker Laureen ("who's about the same age") and have two daughters Cathy Flack (43), a classroom assistant, and Stephanie (40), who works in an employment agency. You also have three grandchildren, Calum (13), Joel (10) and Ava (8). How did you and Laureen meet?

A. Through table tennis. Railway Street came to visit Lowe Memorial one night for a match in the late Sixties and Laureen and I became friends. It was love at first sight. We got married in 1971, in Railway Street Presbyterian Church, and went to Majorca on honeymoon. We try to go back there once a year if we can. We celebrated our 46th wedding anniversary on August 27.

Q. You live outside Lisburn; is that where you grew up? Did you have a happy childhood?

A. I was born in England. My father, who came from Dunmurry, was over there during the war, married my mother and brought her back. We grew up in Finaghy. I was a child of the Sixties; life was simpler then. There were no iPads or mobiles. We had the Boys' Brigade and the church activities and it all seemed to flow quite well.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. My father, Stanley, was 71 when he died in 1974. He suffered a stroke and developed pneumonia. My mother, Viola, died five years ago at 89. My father was quite a few years older than my mother. There's a small doubt about his real age - the birth records indicate one age and the marriage certificate another. We joke that my father didn't want my mother to know just how old he was. My older brother, Brian, who worked for NIE, died 10 years ago at 63, after a second heart attack. My younger brothers are Richard, a retired office worker, who's 69, and Ulster Bank employee Chris (58).

Q. You were against same-sex marriage and then famously changed your mind. Tell us about that.

A. I took a long time to come to terms with this. It started off with civil partnerships, which I wasn't keen on, but I managed to accept that they were valid and legal and weren't harming anybody. In fact, I was the councillor who finally proposed that Lisburn Council should allow civil partnership ceremonies in any part of the Civic Centre, including the famous Cherry Room wedding suite. One of my original objections to civil partnerships was that it would be an inevitable progression towards a demand for full marriage, which didn't sit well with me. But over the years you talk to people and you're entitled to move your views along and that's what happened. I didn't come under particular pressure from the party, although I know they weren't very pleased with me at times. But I wasn't the only one who had difficulty with this.

Q. Specifically, what made you change your mind? There must have been a defining moment.

A. Two things happened. I became uneasy with some of the comments from people who I was being associated with as holding the same view. The other thing was that I went to a meeting of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Psychological Society. They highlighted the effect of social prejudice on gay and transgender people and the level of self-harm, suicide and depression amongst that section of society, and that weighed with me as well. I came to the conclusion that this is what I should do so, at a meeting of Amnesty during the West Belfast Festival, I came out in support. Subsequent to that, the Assembly went in favour of same-sex marriage by one vote. I got the credit for that but, frankly, I wasn't the only one who changed their mind and I can think of one person who abstained who had previously voted against.

Q. What's the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to you?

A. My wife worked in Belfast in the early days of the Troubles and was going into a bookshop in Callender Street when a no-warning bomb went off a few yards away. A very polite man had been holding the door open for her; he was seriously injured. She was very lucky, but lost her hearing in one ear. I got the call to come and get her. That was a terrible day.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. Just about. It's the way you're brought up. I was brought up in the Church of Ireland. I still attend church, but not as often as I used to. I'm not trying to become a non-believer. It's just as you get older you question things.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No, but it really hit me when I lost my elder brother. He'd had a previous heart attack five years before he died but had tidied up his lifestyle. Brian went through two marriages but had formed a very friendly relationship with a lady we both knew from childhood. They were very happy but only got a short time. Brian had been looking forward to a long, happy retirement and it didn't happen for him.

Q. When you were on the Policing Board you employed your wife as a researcher. Do you think it's unfair for politicians to be castigated for employing family members?

A. The rules allow for it. It used to be quite loose but as it stands now, an MLA can employ one family member. Apart from the brief period when my wife helped with confidential police papers I've never employed a relative - not through business or politics. I don't think it's conducive in an office atmosphere to have a direct relative of the boss.

Q. Did you feel hounded at that time?

A. I think I got hounded perhaps because I didn't explain the situation very well. But no rules were broken. I subsequently came off the Board after a party reshuffle, then later went back on but didn't re-employ my wife because the person I was replacing had a perfectly adequate assistant in place.

Q. Tell us about playing the piano at the Stormont Christmas service.

A. I've played the piano since early childhood. The Speaker organises a service every year and I've been playing since I became an MLA.

I've also been playing the church organ for most of my life. I played in the Church of the Epiphany in Finaghy for about 20 years and for the last 15 I've been a nomadic organist - if anybody wants me to fill in, I'll help out.

Q. Is it just Church of Ireland?

A. I don't care which church it is. In 2003 I did a Christmas carol service in the chapel at St Patrick's in Lisburn. It was a nice service and there were about 700 people there because they'd combined two Masses. I played that one at 9pm and then went down to Finaghy and played the Midnight Communion; there might have been 35 there. I remember commenting: "I think I know who's winning here ..." It was a most enjoyable Christmas Eve, I must say.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life.

A. My wedding day. You could compare it with when the children were born, which was equally exciting. The day I was elected mayor was a big day too.

Q. How do you feel about the current Stormont stalemate?

A. Totally frustrated. When I got re-elected last year I anticipated a five-year term, which would take me into my mid-70s. I would be perfectly happy to stand aside at some stage and let somebody else get their feet under the table but there were things I wanted to do. The last year has been a total washout. The Assembly that was elected in May 2016 never really got going. We're being led by factions who can't seem to get their act together but at the same time can't really explain why not. They've combined in the past. If we're going to hold things up over an Irish language act - which I would support - it's a sad day for Northern Ireland. The two governments need to turn the screw here. It's been too easy for DUP and Sinn Fein.

Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. We're not overpaid in a normal way, but at the moment we're being paid full salary and not fulfilling our full obligations. We do our best to run a good constituency service but the 'L' in MLA stands for legislative and we're not legislating.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. Music. I used to play a lot of golf too, and I like gardening. I grow my own vegetables and fruit. I do quite a mean stir fry.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. My wife.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I have friends who are Protestant, Catholic and other faiths and plenty with no faith at all.

Q. What's your favourite place in the world?

A. Portsalon in Donegal. We had a wee flat there for 20 years but sold it last year.

Q. You went to Finaghy Primary and Malone Public Elementary School before moving on to Belfast Royal Academy. What happened next?

A. I went straight into the insurance industry and ran a brokerage for 25 years before entering politics.

Q. You went onto Lisburn council in 2001 and served as Deputy Mayor (from 2005/06) and then Mayor (2006). You became an MLA in 2007. Why politics?

A. I was drawn into politics and the Alliance Party through my association with Seamus Close, who was my predecessor as MLA. I served on the council with him for a number of years. Seamus was a great mentor to me. When he stood down in 2007 the party asked me to take his place. If anybody from unionism had bothered to ask me, I might well have actually joined the Ulster Unionist Party but I think that I found my niche with Alliance.

Q. What is your greatest achievement?

A. I'm very proud of my daughters and grandchildren and if I've had anything to do with the way they've turned out then I regard that as an achievement.

Q. Have you ever had a nickname?

A. I was called by my initials TJ (J for John) when I was growing up and at school they called me Cheam for some reason. I have no idea what that means.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. I did a paraglide a few years ago in Austria. I had an instructor behind me but I still had to jump off a mountain. I didn't much enjoy the landing. It took me six attempts before I stopped. I also parascended down the side of the Civic Centre - twice - for charity when I was Mayor of Lisburn.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next for you?

A. Retirement.

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