Belfast Telegraph

Is Gregory Campbell a potential future leader of DUP?

He will forever be remembered for baiting Sinn Fein with his cod-Gaelic remarks. But behind Gregory Campbell's attack-dog persona lies a savvy political brain. Is he a future leader of the DUP, asks Alex Kane

Some local politicians will always be remembered for a particular phrase, just one line from a long list of speeches and statements over the course of a political career. Like David Trimble's "constructive ambiguity", Ian Paisley's "never, never, never", John Hume's "two balls of roasted snow", Gerry Adams' "they haven't gone away, you know", or Harold McCusker - speaking in the House of Commons a few days after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement - "I felt like a dog".

For Gregory Campbell, it is "curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer." Every overview, or obituary, will be hung on that mangling phrase. Friends will say that it was a throwaway line in the rough and tumble of politics here ("better than lifting a brick or cocking a rifle," as one of his colleagues told me at the time), while his political opponents will insist that it was typical of the mindset of a "type of anti-agreement unionism that doesn't actually want reconciliation, or equality".

He followed it up, a few weeks later, by telling a DUP conference that he would treat Sinn Fein's wish list like "toilet paper" and last Monday the Assembly Speaker imposed another speaking ban on him for "blatantly yawning" while Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane had been speaking in Irish.

When asked why he seems to go out of his way to get under the skin of Sinn Fein he replies: "I don't. They seem to be able to handle unionists who live in Sinn Fein's past, or others who ignore it. But they can't handle unionists who will do neither."

But one thing is clear: Campbell hasn't been on a solo run with these high-profile interventions. Indeed, he seems to have replaced Sammy Wilson as the DUP's vehicle of choice for knockabout: the type of old-style political street-fighter who can land the sort of blow that keeps the activists and core vote happy.

He's been with the party since the earliest years and been at the electoral coalface since he was first elected as a councillor in Londonderry in 1981.

And, at a time when the DUP has been forced to change and make some very difficult decisions, Campbell is an important reminder that the pioneers are still on board and still rattling the cages.

Gregory Lloyd Campbell was born in Londonderry on February 15, 1953. He is an only child: his mother was a factory worker and his father was with the Royal Navy.

He describes his upbringing as happy and "in a religiously mixed area". He was educated at Ebrington Primary School, Londonderry Technical College and Magee College and spent a few years in the civil service before full-time politics. He is married to Frances and they have four grown up children - three girls and a boy.

There was no history of political involvement in his family and he says he drifted into it "purely down to frustration and anger at Irish republican attacks on Northern Ireland and old-style unionist inability to confront the issues head on".

At that point, the DUP didn't exist and the teenage Campbell had to look elsewhere. In a recent history of the DUP (The DUP: From Protest to Power), he explains the early stage of his political journey: "I suppose I had three choices - I was 15, 16 at the time of the start of the Troubles - to join the loyalist paramilitaries, because I could see mayhem, destruction and protests: but that wasn't for me. I didn't want to go down that route.

"Once I was closing off the paramilitary, violent route, or the response to violent route, or however you would describe it, then there were two choices: either the Young Unionists (the youth wing of the UUP and the training-ground for succeeding generations of the party), or to go off to some of these fringe groups that were cropping up in the late 1960s and early-1970s."

He chose the Young Unionists, but clearly regarded them as a waste of time. "I just didn't feel at home in the party of the upper and middle classes, the retired generals and the big business people and the large farm holdings. None of that fitted my social class.

"Moreover, the UUP was the proverbial rabbit in the headlights - didn't respond, took everything in its stride and lazily. There was a need for a DUP, or something like it, a party that said this is what is happening out there and we need to oppose it and confront it."

Campbell belongs to that breed of politician who is much more savvy and laid-back than he likes to let on. That's why he's trusted by the DUP and it's why he has had such a high media profile down the years.

He's rarely off radio and television and there are moments when he sounds more like Stephen Nolan's co-presenter than an interviewee. He has a sense of humour and he can give as good as he gets in debate.

That's not to say that he doesn't get it wrong: winding up people rather than unpicking their arguments. And his recent attacks on the Irish language are beginning to sound like an irritating idee fixe rather than a rational response to what he views as "the use of the language as a political tool".

It's also hard to avoid the sense that he's in danger of wandering into that territory in which people are laughing at you rather than with you: or, at the very least, no longer accepting that you're trying - albeit failing - to be funny rather than provocatively nasty.

That impression may be something to do with the fact that his East Londonderry seat (he won it from the UUP's Willy Ross in 2001) is safe. In other words, he doesn't need the sort of image he has been building over the past few months in order to keep his seat. So why is he, as one DUP MLA put it, "constantly messing with Sinn Fein's head"?

He's of the opinion that "it will probably take Sinn Fein at least a generation to normalise. This generation of post-terror republicans is only beginning and they have a long way to go. It's about ensuring that no one rewrites the past as we move into the future."

The suggestion that his present tactics may actually hinder the process of normalising is met with, "I can't think of a better way of doing it". It's as if he believes that a measured silence makes it easier for Sinn Fein - who he is prepared to work within government - to escape the moral consequences of their relationship with the IRA.

Yet he fails to mention that, in turn, maybe it will take a new generation of DUP representatives a generation to "normalise" their own relationship with Sinn Fein.

What about the leadership: would he like to succeed Robinson? "He hasn't said when he is stepping down, so the question is premature."

So he's not ruling it out, then. He left the UUP about 45 years ago and I'm not sure he would be happy to see the DUP led by more recent converts like Arlene Foster, Simon Hamilton, or even Jeffrey Donaldson.

There's certainly a wing of the party that would be very keen to see Campbell as leader: "There from the start and one of our own."

But that would require him remaining in the Assembly - something that new rules will not allow if he's also an MP: "I like both the Assembly and Westminster. They are different roles, but I haven't made a decision yet." Again, keeping open the leadership options.

Away from politics, he enjoys football, reading and walking - "leisure as well as cultural and historical". He also has a fondness for "thriller films like The Taking Of Pelham 123 and bank heist plots".

Within months of the general election - and assuming he wins - he will have to make a huge personal decision about remaining in the Commons, or the Assembly. Sinn Fein will be delighted if he chooses London. I suspect he won't give them that pleasure.

A life so far

Born February 15, 1953 in Londonderry

He began his political career as a member of the Young Unionists

He is a former civil servant

He is married to Frances and they have four grown-up children

He was first elected as a DUP councillor in 1981

He won his East Londonderry parliamentary seat in 2001

Within the next year he has to make the choice between remaining as an MP, or an MLA

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