When it comes to the environment, Sammy Wilson does not do orthodoxy
Just two days before Christmas, Mr Wilson was challenged to agree to a little piece of environmental ‘gospel’.
Terry de Winne, of Allied Biodiesel Industries in north Down, asked the Environment minister to accept that the oil and other fossil fuels are running out. Standard stuff in such circles.
“Nonsense,” said Mr Wilson in his reply, sent a few weeks later. “We have heard this story since the 1960s and today fossil fuels reserves are higher than they have ever been.
“If we look at coal alone there is enough to do us for the next 500 years and there are reserves of oil to do us for the next 150 years. As prices rise and technology improves other fossil fuel opportunities will be available to us.
“Personally, I would rather Kilroot burn coal, oil or gas than pollute the atmosphere by using energy from 300 wind turbines located in some of the most pristine parts of Northern Ireland’s countryside.”
And so, with Sammy, it goes. When it comes to the environment, our Environment Minister doesn’t do orthodoxy. His critics, of which there are no shortage, counter that for a teacher — at Grosvenor Grammar School he was head of economics and became assistant chief examiner for A-Level Economics in Northern Ireland — he has a lot to learn.
He can have his own department officials tearing their hair out as when he criticised them for rejecting plans for the high-rise £90m Aurora building project in Belfast last month. “There’s no doubt they were rattled,” a senior source said.
For a minister, Mr Wilson goes solo with eye-raising regularity. When he first wrote a climate change newspaper article on becoming Minister, it had not been sanctioned.
The Belfast Telegraph’s revelations of his lobbying efforts on planning projects, while not outside the rules, have also caused consternation.
Likewise his view that jobs should go to local people rather than foreign nationals during a recession, or his ‘mollycoddling’ criticism of school heads for shutting down during last week’s snowfalls, draw headlines for Mr Wilson but headaches for others, not just civil servants but staff in his party.
And so when it emerged this week the minister had blocked Government adverts on fuel efficiency from being screened on UTV, it was the DUP stalwart defending the decision rather than his department. In just a few hours Mr Wilson was interviewed on BBC Radio Four, Drive on Radio 5 Live, Europe Today on the World Service and Newshour on the World Service as well as the full phalanx of local outlets: and he was up for all of it.
Mr Wilson works long hours, often late into the evening and over weekends.
Now heading towards his 56th birthday, he can maintain a blistering pace. And while he has said he intends to ease out of Belfast City Council, on which he has served 28 years, he remains an MLA and MP — spending two days a week in the House of Commons, where he is a member of the Transport Committee.
At tomorrow’s Executive meeting he hopes to get a chunk of the agenda to gain the go-ahead for consultations on the massive issue of reforming the planning system. Also at the top of his in-tray is a decision on the runway extension at the George Best City Airport, expected at some point in the spring, and the proposed national park in the Mournes.
He does things his way. At the time the Westlink underpass flooded last summer, he surprised Sinn Fein Executive Minister Conor Murphy by agreeing to go into hardline nationalist areas with the Regional Development Minister and the city’s Lord Mayor, Tom Hartley — and was warmly received.
Mr Wilson himself was, of course, Belfast’s first DUP first citizen, twice over, the year after the Anglo Irish Agreement, 1986/1987 when Ian Paisley’s daughter, Rhonda, acted as his mayoress and again for the Millennium in 2000/2001.
An avid gardener — he is currently starting a forest near his remote east Antrim home — and motorbike enthusiast (he was caught on camera and fined for having no MoT or tax on one of his bikes) he also maintains an intense interest in animals and birds and, some would say, nature itself, having been famously photographed frolicking au naturel in a foreign field.
He is even better known for his banter and sense of humour. At a joint event with Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew promoting horse mussels in Portaferry a few weeks he suggested the headline would be ‘DUP and Sinn Fein ministers muscle in’ — and unlike a few Executive colleagues, appears to enjoy the meet and greet part of the job.
Speculation is growing, nevertheless, that he will not survive Mr Robinson’s next ministerial reshuffle, expected towards the end of this year.
While Mr Robinson defended him in the Assembly on Monday, others mutter that he raises his own profile often at the expense of the party and is too undisciplined.
“He even manages to make me look dull,” joked Ian Paisley jnr.