Belfast Telegraph

MLA John Stewart: 'We lost what would have been our first child. Even the nurse who performed the scan was crying'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: John Stewart, East Antrim UUP MLA, on his passion for cricket... and why he has more pairs of shoes than his wife.

Q. You're 34 and married to Deborah (33), who is a social worker. You have two children - three-year-old Cohen (named after your favourite musician Leonard Cohen) and Harrison, three months old. How did you meet?

A. Deborah was friends with a friend and the relationship developed over time. We met in 2006 and got married on May 5, 2011. We didn't move in together until the day after we got back from our wedding in Cyprus.

I wasn't here for the local council election day. My team were still campaigning for me while I was in Cyprus. I flew back, went straight to the count and found out I had been elected. The wedding had been planned a year in advance so I didn't know I was going to be running. I always get the wedding day and election day mixed up.

Q. Tell us about your parents.

A. Robin (60) is CEO of Robinson's Shoemakers, the only shoemakers left in Ireland, and Anne (60) is managing director of her shoe company in Carrick, Robinson's Ladies.

We have the only brand of Irish men's footwear, with little Carrick castles on the bottom and green soles. It's very traditional, high-end stuff. We export to 100 countries. Since we went online eight years ago the business has grown significantly.

Q. What about your siblings?

A. I'm the eldest of four. Laura (32) is a cabin crew worker with Flybe, Stephen (30) is doing his PGCE to become a teacher and Sarah (28) works in PR.

Q. Are you originally from Carrickfergus? What was your childhood like?

A. Yes - and proud to be. We go back seven or eight generations. I had a very happy childhood.

Q. In 2009 you became sales director of Robinson's Shoemakers. An inevitable development?

A. My dad was in the process of changing the business from a traditional shop into something much more high-end and when they opened new premises in Carrick I suggested that we dabble online.

We started off testing the market on eBay. I helped develop the first website a year later and the business took off. The majority of the staff now are online staff. I stayed in that role until I became an MLA.

Q. Do you buy shoes from any other retailers?

A. No, I couldn't possibly. These are my ostrich shoes (he says, giving me a demonstration). You can see where the little feathers were plucked out of the ostrich. I suppose when I was a child we probably went to Clarks or something.

I can't get trainers from our shop because we don't sell sports shoes. But when it comes to my suited and booted look, everything comes from our shop. I get pretty good rates. Deborah cracks up because I've got more shoes than her. At the last count I had 25 pairs of brogues. It's a bit excessive. I take pride in having a different pair on every day; I match them to whatever I'm wearing.

Q. What made you go into politics?

A. I had done a little bit of political lobbying and campaigning in Cardiff and when I got back here I was really interested in town centre regeneration and in developing and lobbying for small and medium-sized businesses.

When I joined the Ulster Unionists in 2009 I didn't intend to run but I was asked to and I did. For me, that was the best way to try and change things. I took the last council seat in 2011 and was on Carrick Council from 2011-2015 when the new councils took over. I was deputy mayor in 2014.

Q. You ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly in May 2016 but benefited from March's snap election to take a seat in East Antrim. Were you annoyed when they forgot to include your name on the UUP MLA page?

A. It was just a complete oversight. They phoned me to apologise. They wouldn't forget me I'm sure - certainly not deliberately. It was quite quickly fixed. It was more funny than a serious story.

Q. Can you understand public anger at MLAs getting paid for not working?

A. If they really weren't working I could, but we are. On the ground there is work constantly going on. I'm always doing surgeries and visiting constituents.

I'm hugely frustrated that I've only sat in the chamber once and that was to sign the register. I ran to legislate. I feel like I'm treading water. My pride and delight at getting elected has now dwindled away and it's so frustrating that it can't be sorted out.

Q. One of your first memories of the election would have been Mike Nesbitt's decision to stand down. How did you feel about that?

A. I was on the stage when the news came up on TV, so I was literally getting elected as he was resigning. Prior to that there was no indication that it would happen. Mike was a great leader and I was sad to see him go because I know how much work he had put in. Mike doesn't do anything by halves. Unionist leaders have always been the victims of trying to move things forward.

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

A. I have a personal relationship with God and I go to church. I never talk about my faith, but it's strong.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you and does death frighten you?

A. On the rare occasions I think about death it does. In January 1991 my grandad Jackie Stewart died from leukaemia in his early 60s. I was really heartbroken about it. He was in hospital coming up to Christmas and I remember crying to my mum one night, aged eight or nine, and knowing something really bad was going to happen. I used to go his house, he'd have walked me to school; he had a boat and we used to go fishing together. I was hugely emotional about the loss.

I also lost my mum's parents Annie and Billy Robinson within the last five years. They were in their 80s.

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

A. Our boys being born. I remember tears dripping down my face, especially with Cohen in the early hours of April 21, 2014. His birth was a 28-hour ordeal. He would not come out. It was a forceps delivery. They had a crash team come in. There were about 16 people in the room, at that moment in time I really thought we were going to lose him.

Q. And what about the worst day of your life?

A. We lost a child the year before Cohen was born. Debs had a miscarriage the day of our 12-week scan. She hadn't felt any movement for a while.

We had a scan and there was something there. She went to the toilet and she knew something had happened and it turned out to be what would have been our first child. I remember trying to be strong for her. She was absolutely distraught, as was I.

Even the nurse who was performing the scan was crying because of the circumstances - one minute it was there and the next it was gone; it was terrible.

We hadn't told a lot of people, just immediate family and friends. People were very supportive.

At the time it was awful and I felt like I had to be a tower of strength for Deborah, but inside I was breaking because I was going through that.

It was hugely traumatic.

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

A. My dad.

Q. You're in the Army reserve (formerly the TA) and a soldier in B Squadron (North Irish Horse) of the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry since 2014. What was your last mission?

A. I've just been on training. I haven't been deployed yet.

I regretted not joining the Army as a regular soldier when I was younger so this gave me an opportunity to taste what I had missed out on.

I absolutely love it.

Q. You're a Carrick Rangers and Tottenham Hotspur supporter and a keen Northern Ireland fan. You've been to 26 countries with the Green and White Army. Is your wife a football widow?

A. Most of those were prior to us getting married. In my early days I went through a phase where I couldn't miss an away game but now I'll wait for something a bit more bizarre like Andorra or the Faroe Islands to pop up and then head there.

I have to be a bit more selective because I have a wife, two kids and responsibilities.

Q. You're also a passionate amateur historian. Tell us about that.

A. I wrote a book last year - The Carrickfergus Roll Of Honour. I spent five years researching it.

It profiles 1,100 men from the area who served in the First World War. I self-published it last April and sold a few hundred copies; all the profits went to the British Legion Poppy Appeal. I'm starting a book on the Second World War now.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I've got friends from every background, especially through sport and the Army.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has given you?

A. My strapline is 'The core of man's spirit comes from new experiences'.

Q. You went to the Model Primary School before heading on to Carrickfergus Grammar, then studied history at Cardiff University. Give us a brief resume of your career to date.

A. I did a degree in history and archaeology. I intended to be an archaeologist but soon realised that there weren't many jobs in it.

After university I got a job in a Wetherspoons in Cardiff, ultimately living above a pub I was managing. I spent two years doing that. I was 21; it was every young man's dream. But I was always homesick so I came back and got a job in a call centre. I was then a salesman for Travelex for a short time before moving into the family business in 2008.

Q. Do you have any bad habits?

A. I enjoy going out for a drink with the guys at the weekend and in the past I've probably had one too many. I'm also a notoriously bad timekeeper.

Q. You've been playing cricket for Carrick since you were eight. Is that how you relax outside politics?

A. I've played cricket for 26 seasons now. I'm average. I played for Carrick First XI for a couple of seasons. I was captain of the seconds up until last year, now I just play for them.

We're top of the league at the minute. I also like running, hillwalking and going to the gym.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. Getting elected this time around.

Q. What will you do if there's no Assembly?

A. Go back into business or run for council.

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