War hero injured in Helmand joins UUP's Assembly team as MLA
An Afghanistan veteran who lost both legs and was partially blinded in a Taliban bomb has been co-opted into the Assembly by the Ulster Unionist Party. Andy Allen replaces Michael Copeland who retired from his East Belfast seat due to ill-health.
Mr Allen was 19 when he had his right leg blown off and left leg shredded by a makeshift bomb while on an early morning patrol in Helmand province. He had only been in Afghanistan for two months before the attack.
He recently said: "It is still difficult every day to physically adapt to be in a wheelchair, from potholes in the ground to damage on the footpath that sends you flying if you hit it the wrong way, or something being high up in a cupboard."
Mike Nesbitt, his party leader, said there were also issues about disabled access at Stormont. He pointed out that the voting lobbies at Parliament Buildings were not wheelchair friendly. Now that Mr Allen has been appointed, he intends to raise this issue with the speaker.
Andy Allen is the second high profile forces veteran to have been put forward by the UUP in recent years.
The other is Doug Beattie, a former Royal Irish Regiment captain and a winner of the Military Cross. He is a Craigavon councillor in the new ABC council and highly tipped for an Assembly seat.
Mr Allen suffered his traumatic injuries while serving with the regiment in Helmand in 2008.
Mr Allen only joined the UUP last year and said it was a "huge honour" to join the party's Assembly team, albeit at a time of great uncertainty for the crisis-hit power-sharing institutions.
The party will be hoping that once he cuts his teeth at Stormont, he will be ready to take on Gavin Robinson, the sitting DUP member, for the East Belfast Westminster seat.
"I have served my country and want to continue to serve my community," he said.
"That's why I'm here. I look forward to getting down to work as soon as possible because it's work on the ground that can make a difference. There may be doubts about the future of this Assembly, but while it's here, I'll be a dedicated public servant for the people of east Belfast."
He intends taking up veterans' issues.
"For too long, veterans in Northern Ireland have been ignored. I fully intend to use my position to highlight the needs of veterans and try and make sure they are not sidelined," he said.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: "I think it is a valid criticism of the Assembly that we need more people with life experience beyond the political bubble. Andy ticks that box."
He added: "The Ulster Unionist Party believes the country must always come before party political interest.
"In Andy Allen we have a man who knows all too well about service and sacrifice for his country and I am delighted to say he has accepted my invitation to join us here at Stormont, succeeding Michael Copeland as MLA for East Belfast.
"Andy was born and bred in the east of the city and I have no doubt he will serve all the people of the constituency well."