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Doug Beattie: ‘Not once did my dad tell me he loved me. But on his deathbed he handed me a little note..."

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Doug Beattie, Upper Bann UUP MLA, on the tragic death of his baby grandson, serving in Afghanistan and relationship with his father.

Q. You're 52 and married to homemaker Margaret (52), with whom you have son Luke (27), a former soldier turned factory worker, and daughter Leigh (30), a homemaker. You also have two grandsons, Tristan (10) and Bradley (six). How did you meet Margaret?

A. We were introduced in December 1985 and started dating after I came back from a tour of Cyprus. We got married on August 8, 1987, and honeymooned in Lake Garda, Italy.

Q. You have three older sisters, Edwina, Tanya and Donna, who are homemakers, and two brothers, Robert (55) (ex-military) and Stephen (54) (still serving). Your dad, William (although he was always called Bob), was a career soldier. Tell us about him.

A. We didn't have the greatest relationship. He never had the ability to tell me that he loved me, never once said well done for me making it in the military. I never got the sense that he was proud of me until five years ago, when he was dying from cancer. He could no longer talk, so he wrote something down in a small black notebook and handed it to me. It read: 'I'm incredibly proud of you, son." I found that very moving.

Q. Tell us about your mum, Evelyn, who died in her 40s.

A. She got lung cancer when I was 13. I vividly remember the day she passed away in my father's arms. I'll never forget the look on his face. He was deeply depressed at losing her.

He took to drinking and would wake me up to sit with him until the early hours because he was lonely, then I had to get up and walk three miles to school. That became routine. I don't blame my father, but it was tough for me as a child.

Q. You believe in God but don't go to church. Do you have a strong faith?

A. I have issues with organised religion. I lay in a half-dug grave in Afghanistan for five days. At a time like that, I connect to God at my level. But my spiritual side is competing against things that have happened, such as the death of my grandson.

Q. September 11, 2006, is the date you first killed an enemy in a combat situation. Does it still haunt you?

A. It does. I can picture his face right now. He had a weapon, he was firing at me, I was in a war and I killed him. I went on to kill many others and I'm not proud of that. The problem comes when you leave the battlefield - the rationale for what you did is not the same. But you can't have hindsight on the battlefield.

Q. Does any incident particularly stand out?

A. Holding a six-year-old in my arms and watching her die. I was the one who had that child handed to me in northern Helmand 10 years ago. I was looking at her beautiful face, her brown hair, her ruby lips and I was watching the life ebb out of her. Her name was Shabia. She'd been hit by shrapnel.

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

A. The birth of my daughter because it created my family.

Q. And what do you consider the worst day of your life?

A. My youngest grandson Cameron Tindale's death. Having my daughter recount - even though he'd been dead for some time - how she tried to resuscitate him was harrowing. It's never going to go away. The pain I feel is also for what my daughter and her husband are suffering.

Q. The last time we spoke you were waiting for the coroner's office to report back about Cameron, who was only 15-months old. What happened? How are Leigh and your son-in-law, Mark, doing now?

A. The Coroner's Court said there were opportunities missed in dealing with what was affecting Cameron, but we've never got a diagnosis, so we don't know what killed him. That's difficult. There's no closure. We had his birthday last month. He would've been three.

The whole thing was incredibly traumatic... to see this healthy boy from the night before lying on the floor dead and having to stay on the floor until the police forensics team came.

Q. You've previously admitted to feeling guilty over being elected on the same day Cameron was buried. How have you coped with that?

A. There's a feeling of absolute shame that I could be progressing in life while my grandson's life is ending. Leigh and Mark were living in England, and I told them they'd have a better life here. I feel guilty that their family unit is not what it should be now.

Q. You're a proud military man, but how do you defend soldiers responsible for killing innocent victims of the Troubles?

A. Any soldier who has deliberately killed an innocent civilian should face the law. There's another context to this - the pressures that soldiers are under and sometimes they do make mistakes.

Q. Are you surprised that Tim Collins, the compatriot and commanding officer you stood beside 15 years ago when he delivered that legendary eve-of-battle speech in Iraq, hasn't gone into politics like you?

A. I exposed the skeletons in my cupboard in my books, so everything about me was out there and people could see it and make their mind up and decide. Therefore there was nothing to surprise people when I became a politician.

I'm not sure Tim has exposed that side of himself. He was a fantastic soldier and he would be a terrific politician. He has the ability to talk at the highest level and the ability to engage at the lowest level.

Q. You recently called Alliance Party leader Naomi Long the "Mother Theresa of Twitter". Why?

A. It just rolled off the tongue. I thought that it was quite funny. I really like Naomi. We've had our spats, but we're both grown-up politicians.

Q. You retweeted the controversial cartoon about the Kingsmill massacre by Brian John Spencer in the wake of the row over former Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff's infamous video. A mistake?

A. No. I posted that without comment because it's supposed to be viewed without comment.

I still stand by it. I wouldn't have taken it down but a friend asked me and I did it for him. No Kingsmill family member has ever complained to me about it.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. I've been called a war criminal, baby killer and murderer.

Q. Tell us something readers might be surprised to learn about you.

A. I shot my friend in the face, on the side of the mouth, when I was 15. I was messing about with my father's personal protection weapon.

Q. You were born in barracks in Hampshire, in 1965, and grew up in Gibraltar, Germany and Colchester before moving to Portadown aged 10, where you still live. Can you say it was a happy childhood?

A. I was affected by my mother's death and the IRA murder of an uncle (Samuel Johnston). I have a sense that I had a happy childhood, but I've no memory of it. There was a degree of travelling around a lot and making friends then losing friends.

When I was eight my friend Ronald Roe was hit by a speeding car in Colchester. I remember him spinning around in the air before he hit the deck. My mother was first on the scene to give him first aid. Thankfully, he lived.

Q. You went to various primary schools, including Hart Memorial in Portadown, and attended Clounagh Junior High and Portadown Technical College. You joined the Royal Irish Rangers when you were 16, served for 28 years and rose to rank of regimental sergeant major. You served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, you became captain. You also got the military cross for your time in Afghanistan. Tell us about your Army career.

A. I never wanted to be in the military. I feel like I was accidentally forced into it. In 1982, I went to the Junior Soldiers Battalion in Taunton, Somerset, aged 16. Then I went to Berlin, guarded [notorious Nazi] Rudolf Hess [former deputy to Hitler and, for 21 years until he died, sole inmate of Spandau Prison]. Then I went to Dover and from there I went to guard the cruise missiles at Greenham Common.

I ended up in Canterbury in 2000 and became regimental sergeant major. Then my unit was deployed to Kuwait for the invasion of Iraq. I left regular service in February 2009, but I ended up going back to Afghanistan as an Army reservist captain. I'm still in the Army Reserves.

Q. Do you ever feel lucky you got out alive?

A. I do, but there's a degree of shame that you carry with you because of that. I'm in good order, but others were left with mental and physical injuries. I have survivor's guilt.

Q. You joined Craigavon Council in 2014 and became an MLA in 2016. Mike Nesbitt talked you into politics. How did you feel about his shock resignation as leader?

A Mike left too early. He was going in the right direction. He was under extreme pressure, but he deserved better. I think he probably made the decision to leave before the election if it didn't go the way he wanted. He is a visionary and I think people would have warmed to what he was trying to do - reach out.

Q. What about his successor, Robin Swann?

A. There's a public perception that Robin is just hardline and moving the party to the Right. Not so. He has some ingrained views, but he's willing to reach out. I'm a supporter of same-sex marriage and Robin isn't, but he respects my views.

Q. You've written three books - An Ordinary Soldier [a bestseller], Task Force Helmand and Reaper. Is that how you like to relax outside politics?

A. If I leave politics, writing is what I'll do, but I have very little downtime.

Q. Which politician from another party do you most admire?

A. Daniel McCrossan, my opposite number in the SDLP.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My eldest brother, Rab, who was held in high esteem in the Army. He was the guy I wanted to be.

Q. And what about a nickname? Do you have one?

A. I was called Big Bird when I first joined the military. After that, Gunny.

Q. Can you tell us who your best Catholic friend is?

A. Charles Bennett, a Northern Ireland civilian I met in Afghanistan.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world?

A. Mostar in Bosnia. It's one of the most beautiful places.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. Lusty Beg in Fermanagh.

Q. If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

A. That I never had to go to war, never had to take a life and that I had lived a life away from violence.

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