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After I was told that I had bowel cancer, I realised there was much more to life than high-profile jobs

By Rebecca Black

Published 25/07/2016

Ship-shape : Steve Aiken was in the Navy before becoming an MLA
Ship-shape : Steve Aiken was in the Navy before becoming an MLA
Ship-shape : Steve Aiken was in the Navy before becoming an MLA
Victor: The Ulster Unionist Party's Steve Aiken gets elected for South Antrim

Submarine commander turned politician Steve Aiken discusses his years in the Navy and why he gets claustrophobic in Marks & Spencer.

Q. You have worked in high-profile jobs around the world, from commanding submarines to writing Ministry of Defence (MoD) policy and leading the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce. So why Stormont?

A. My family and I had been living in Dublin on a big salary - a pleasant lifestyle but hugely expensive when you are paying 54% tax, €2,000 in rent and then water charges. The childcare was the same cost as rent, and we felt it was completely unsustainable.

I was working as the chief executive of the Educational Trust at Dublin City University. I was very proud of what the university was doing, but I am a person who goes in to change things, and the university didn't really want changes.

I had retained a home in Northern Ireland, and had a few healthcare scares. I was very lucky being identified with bowel cancer very early on, and I managed to get it sorted out. They got it before it got into the lymph nodes, and I got the all-clear. I saw that there was more to life than high-profile jobs.

The quality of life in Northern Ireland is excellent. We could have lived anywhere in the world, but we chose to move home for the environment, the schooling system and the healthcare system. I was ready for a change, and I was more than happy to take a considerable drop in salary and a change in circumstances to do it.

Q. Tell me about your background. Where are you from?

A. I am from Newtownabbey, just outside Carnmoney. I went to Ballyrobert Primary School and then to Belfast High School. At the tender age of 17-and-a-half, I decided I didn't want to stay in Northern Ireland, I wanted to see a bit of the world. So I applied for all three armed services. The Royal Navy responded first, so I joined the Royal Navy. I started with the Britannia Royal Naval School in Dartmouth in September 1980 and went on to have a fantastic career that lasted 32 years.

Q. Were you continuing a services history in your family?

A. Not at all. My father used to be number two in the General Transport and Workers Union in Ireland.

Q. And where was your first posting to?

A. The first time I was in the fleet, I served on the Type 21 frigate HMS Amazon. I was very glad that we managed to arrive in the Falklands about four weeks after the war was over because Type 21 frigates were not the most robust.

After that I looked at career options and I saw what the submarine service was doing - like most people in my generation, I was very impressed by it. Then I went on submarine training in 1984 and stayed in the Submarine Service on and off until 2006.

I had the privilege to command two of them, and served in diesel submarines and nuclear attack submarines. I worked as the submarine long-term programmer during the start of the whole 9/11 crisis and was very much involved in the operations and planning, launching missiles in Afghanistan and things like that.

Then I was sent on a staff course - surprising as someone who didn't come from an academic background - and did very well. I was then sent to the maritime battle staff, and I spent the next two years working in the Middle East, planning and being involved with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, embedded with the American forces in Bahrain and on board some of their big aircraft carriers at sea, including the USS Abraham Lincoln - which is where I was when the war started. I was awarded the OBE and the American Meritorious Service medal for my service.

Q. You trained on the HMS Caroline?

A. She was always used as the training ship for the Royal Navy Reserve here. She still had two attached mine sweepers, or vessels that worked with her, so the ship was the training vessel, and then you went to sea on the mine sweeper, which was attached to the ship.

Q. Are you pleased to see the ship preserved?

A. Yes, they have done a really good job on her. I was down the other day. Funny, a ship is a living thing, and it is a bit clean at the moment, but as more of the artefacts go back in it, it'll go back to the living ship that it was. It sits up there with what has been done on the SS Great Britain in Bristol, which is another great maritime museum. They should be very proud of what they did.

Q. The hammock hooks really illustrate how closely men live and serve together on a warship, but it must be even more so on a submarine. Did you get claustrophobia?

A. I do get claustrophobia. When you are working on a submarine, everyone is very disciplined and used to working together, so nobody gets in anyone's way. I always got claustrophobic whenever I went to Marks & Spencer's underground food hall because it was like drowning in motion - everyone going back and forth, bouncing into each other. That's my excuse anyway, and I am sticking to it.

Q. What was the longest you were ever on a submarine without surfacing?

A. One hundred and five days was the longest.

Q. And what was the toughest part of that?

A. Not having contact with home. You were limited to a 40-word message once a week that you knew was vetted before it even arrived to you. So you would get this 40-word message and try to read between the lines about what was actually going on. Being cut off that way was quite difficult. I used to find it very hard when I came off a long trip. You would be in places like airports where everyone was milling around you. (It was) very disconcerting.

Q. When did you leave the Royal Navy?

A. I came out in 2011. I had been working, running the Global Strategic Trends (report). We had four years of fascinating work. We were very involved with policy. Even though we were the MoD, we did an awful lots of things on climate change, and I went from someone who was a sceptic on climate change to being passionate about the environment and what we need to do to reduce global warming.

We worked a lot of places - Cabinet Office, MoD main building, Home Office, and the end of the Gordon Brown era was completely dysfunctional. It... made Stormont look good. Nothing was getting done and everyone knew there needed to be a change. Policies were lasting as long as it took to print them.

Then the Tories came in, and I spent quite a lot of time with the spawn of Cameron - all the special advisers and MPs were coming in. I was part of the drafting team on the national security policy, and I had reached a point in my career where I was wondering, "Am I really going to be spend the next 10 years fighting in Whitehall, producing endless plans and briefings that no one is going to end up reading?"

I believe healthy scepticism is a good thing, but once you become cynical it is time to go. I started turning into the old man who sat in the corner saying, "It wasn't like this in my day".

At that time my third daughter had just been born, and I thought, "I can't do this any more". Luckily enough, the Navy had sent me to Cambridge a few years earlier to do an MPhil in international relations, and from that I have done a Phd in international relations, focusing on India and India's growth as a great power.

It has been submitted, so I'm just waiting for the process, which will take as long as Cambridge wants it to take. I spent a lot of time in India and was absolutely fascinated by it.

Q. So what happened next? What did you do then?

A. I was hired as chief executive of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce in Dublin. It was a start-up organisation, but I grew it from 20 to 250 companies in three-and-a-half years.

We shifted the focus in Anglo-Irish relations to not solely about Northern Ireland and the peace process, but onto trade. I spent a lot of time promoting companies' interests and how policy could be worked. I set up focus groups on a range of topics and I learned an awful lot in a very short period of time. I got to know most of the key players across these islands. Then I was head-hunted to be CEO at Dublin City University Educational Trust.

At the same time I was involved in lots of North-South and British-Irish committees, and I was very involved with the British-Irish Association, which gave me a great insight and let me talk to a lot of politicians across these islands. We tried behind the scenes to try and make things better. That is where I started meeting people like Mike Nesbitt and got a sense of what politicians were trying to do.

Q. Did he approach you to stand as a candidate?

A. Well, sort of. In my work with the British-Irish Association I spent a lot of time trying to bring in the business community. I couldn't understand why Northern Ireland was steadfastly stuck in the doldrums, whereas other parts - the Republic of Ireland, the south east of England, Scotland and Manchester - were booming.

It became clear to me it had nothing to do with the talent of the people because everywhere I went I met Northern Ireland people doing brilliantly well, so why couldn't they do that at home? That was one of the questions I started engaging Mike Nesbitt with.

I did a bit of finger-pointing and asked, "What are you going to do about it?" And he turned round to me and said: "Steve, what are you going to do about it? Unless people like you get off your proverbials and become engaged with the political process in Northern Ireland, nothing is going to change." That was last September. I wasn't even a member of a political party then. I said, "Okay, if you are willing to put your faith in me I'll do my best". And that is how I got involved.

Q. So you then ran for the UUP in the Assembly election in May?

A. Yes, we ran three candidates in South Antrim, which was always going to be challenging. I needed around 3,500 first-preference votes, so in January I knocked on around 4,500-5,000 doors. At the count I got around 3,200 first-preference votes, so I knew we were there. Indeed, we just lost the second seat by a few hundred votes.

Q. Was it difficult after you won a seat when sitting UUP MLA Adrian Watson lost his seat?

A. I was very disappointed for Adrian because Adrian is excellent as an MLA.

Q. Would you like to see Trident come to Belfast Lough?

A. It's not deep enough, we can't do it. I tried to bring my submarine, HMS Sovereign, to Belfast towards the end of its time. Because you need deep water at all states of the tide, even though entrance to Belfast Lough is dredged to 10 metres, it's not deep enough. You can't bring it into Larne because there is a rock sill coming into Larne Lough which you would have to blast out. (It's the) same for Carlingford Lough, and Lough Foyle is too shallow.

I would be delighted if the Poseidon aircraft which are meant to be going to RAF Lossiemouth would be based at RAF Aldergrove.

I'd also be delighted if the joint strike fighters that are going to Lossiemouth would come to RAF Aldergrove, and I' be delighted if those 6,000-7,000 top aerospace jobs that go with those aircraft were based here.

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