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Robin Swann: 'I have always been inspired by those who have stood up against people with power'

By Suzanne Breen

In just 18 days' time new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann will be facing the verdict of voters in a make-or-break election that could see his party lose its two MPs.

But, playing pirate games with his children in the garden of his North Antrim home in the late evening, you would never guess that such a big political moment awaits the 45-year-old.

If his kids were deciding the outcome, he would have no cause for concern.

"My dad's brilliant," says six-year-old Freya.

"He doesn't shout and he gives me as many cuddles as I want before I go to bed.

"He is the best cuddler in the world."

Four-year-old Evan, who has undergone open heart surgery, showers his father with the daisies he has picked from the rather untidy lawn.

And Gyp, the family's Jack Russell, jumps all over the UUP leader.

If there's one quality which defines Swann, it's his ordinariness.

He has lived his entire life within a two-mile radius of the village of Kells, where he was born in 1971.

His father Brian was a plumber until bad knees forced him into early retirement.

His mother Ida was a hospital cleaner.

"I come from a very working-class background," Swann says.

"My early childhood was spent in an old rented farmhouse so damp that I developed chronic asthma.

"Thankfully, we were able to move into a Housing Executive house.

"There were no silver spoons in our family.

"It frustrates me when the UUP is portrayed as 'Big House' unionism.

"I'm as far removed from that as possible."

His father was a keen pigeon racing man but neither Swann, nor his younger brother David, had any interest in the sport.

"We proved a huge disappointment to him on that one," he jokes.

"Dad's now trying his best to get Evan interested."

Growing up, he never dreamed of becoming a politician.

"I came home one day when I was 16 and declared that I wanted to be a joiner," he recalls.

"My father said: 'Under no circumstances are you going onto building sites'.

"His own experience meant he was determined that I'd take a different path.

"He was adamant that I stay in school and get a job doing something else."

Swann secured the grades to study agricultural chemistry at Queen's University, Belfast, but didn't go: "I'd had enough of books. I went to work for McQuillan Meats in Antrim instead.

"Later, I did an Open University science degree but it took me eight years to finish.

"I don't believe in rushing things!"

He never pined for the craic of life on campus.

"I joined the Young Farmers' Club (YFC) when I was 12 and it offers a great social life," he says.

"I made the most of it, remaining involved until I was 35 - some people even hang on until they're 40!"

He held several posts in the organisation, including president.

It took him all over Europe.

But it wasn't Vienna, Berlin, Brussels or Rome which appealed to Swann.

"I loved Estonia," he says. "The rural plainness and settledness of it. I'm just a country boy through and through."

He met his wife Jenny, who is seven years younger, at a YFC musical evening.

He was playing the bagpipes and she was on the bass drum.

Their first date was to a Twelfth night disco.

A year later they got engaged.

"I surprised her and picked the ring myself, one with a diamond.

"She didn't bring it back and try to exchange it.

"She's easy-going that way!" he jokes.

They married in 2008.

Evan was born with congenital heart defects.

"He had three heart chambers instead of four and one valve in his heart instead of two," his father explains.

"He also had bowel defects and only one kidney.

"He spent the first year of his life in the Royal Victoria Hospital and we were with him all day. Jenny would do the mornings and I'd go from Stormont to do the evenings.

"We'd pass each other in the ward corridor.

"It was very tough but we came through it."

Evan had emergency bowel surgery just after he was born, and open heart surgery in Birmingham when he was eight months.

"Even when he finally came home, it was nerve-racking," he says.

"I'd wake up every two hours with worry."

Evan was fed intravenously and he was on all sorts of monitors and lines.

"We had to be trained how to connect him up. He has a pacemaker now and he will need further operations," Swann explains.

"He still can't eat proper food.

"He's fed enriched milk every other night through a PEG tube that goes into his stomach.

"Evans tires easily but he knows when to sit down and turn on the TV.

"He's a brilliant wee boy.

"He's starting P1 in September and the headmaster is making arrangements that he will have somewhere to chill out when he needs to."

Evan's condition means the family can't holiday abroad, but the UUP leader says "a night or two in a Co Down hotel every summer does us fine".

The Swanns live in a three-bedroom detached house which is, first and foremost, a family home.

Nursery rhymes and dozens of the children's paintings line the walls of every room.

The only nod to the adults is the snow globes that Jenny loves and ornaments of animals that hark back to the UUP leader's days in the Young Farmers.

The children have a big fish tank, although the stock has recently been depleted by Hannibal, who ate many of the smaller fish.

Relaxing for Swann is a Chinese takeaway and reading ancient historical fiction - "anything with swords and spears".

Although not a regular drinker, he has an occasional beer or glass of red wine.

He loves to jive and enjoys all sorts of music from the Seventies and Eighties. His favourite artist is Chris de Burgh.

Every Sunday he cooks the family roast dinner - "beef, spuds, sprouts, carrots and Bisto," he jokes.

Jenny works part-time in administration for the Northern Trust.

He admits that he doesn't do his equal share around the house, although "I do all the washing-up so we don't need a dishwasher!"

Swann says that politics means sacrificing some family time, but accepts "that's just the way it is".

He finds the public perception of politicians as lazy chancers "unfair and annoying" and not reflective of reality.

"I work 14 hours a day, five or six days a week," he says.

"Most nights, I nod off on the sofa watching television with the wife.

"The demands on politicians are very high in this social media age.

"People expect an instant response.

"A woman contacted me on Facebook at 1am asking for help.

"When I hadn't replied by 3am, she messaged: 'You obviously can't be bothered'."

Swann joined the UUP in 1997 because he "wanted to be part of a changing Northern Ireland".

Until then, political involvement in his family was restricted to "my father shouting at the TV and my mother trying to keep his blood pressure down".

His father has been a "great convert" to the UUP and, although not a member, canvassed very hard in March's Assembly election, and vociferously defended his son when friends accused him of "speaking too low" in a recent party election broadcast.

Swann is an active member of the Orange Order.

"I carried the strings of my local lodge's banner from when I was five," he says.

"My six year-old daughter does it now.

"Being in the loyal orders isn't something to be afraid or ashamed of.

"It doesn't in any way mean I'm insular or narrow."

He would have "no problem" attending a Catholic funeral or wedding.

A Presbyterian himself, he attends church regularly but not weekly.

As a bagpipes-playing Orangeman, his profile couldn't be more different from that of his predecessor, the very urbane and cosmopolitan Mike Nesbitt.

"If anyone wants to put me in a box, it will be a traditional unionist one but that's who I am," he says.

"My father was in the Orange Order.

"It's what we do, it's who we are, around here.

"I make no apologies for having lived all my life in Kells.

"I never thought of leaving once.

"I love village life.

"I don't think it's in the slightest boring."

Many political observers believe that Swann is out of his depth as UUP leader and will be eaten alive if the DUP turns on him.

But he insists that he isn't worried about that prospect.

"At five foot three, I am - to put in politically correct terms - vertically challenged," he says.

"So I have always been inspired by the underdog, the person who - despite the odds - still stands up to the more powerful force.

"When I was growing up, people tried to bully me, but I never allowed it.

"I'm not impressed or intimidated by any big corporate machine.

"I will be standing up for what I, and my party, believe."

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