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DUP MLA Joanne Bunting quit university at 18 after coming home one day and finding a fellow student trying to take her own life

The Big Interview

DUP MLA Joanne Bunting tells Rebecca Black about her life at Stormont, her deep connection with east Belfast, and why she loves nothing more than a bit of banter.

Q. Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

A. I was born and raised in east Belfast, and am very proud of it. I think that each part of the city has its own identity, and I associate myself very strongly with the east.

I am from the Lower Braniel Road. I went to Braniel Primary then onto Grosvenor. I only left east Belfast when I got married and couldn't afford to live there anymore.

Q. What was your first job and what age were you?

A. When I was 10 I worked where there used to be a sweet shop called Sam's on the Braniel Road, getting 90p an hour. I loved it. Then when I was at school I worked at an ice cream shop on the Belmont Road.

My first proper job was in the Connswater branch of the Northern Bank, when I was 20. Then at night time I worked in the BP garage on the Albertbridge Road, then I started to work up here (Stormont).

Q. Did you go to university, and if so, what did you study?

A. I did, but I wasn't able to finish. I had to leave, actually. I went to university to study human resources management and Spanish.

There were a number of girls on my floor in halls who had been victims of serious sexual assaults before university. One of them attempted to take her own life. It happened quite a bit.

One day I came home and found her in the middle of an attempt and had to rescue her. This was my first time away from home. I was 18. It reached a point where she was having really bad dreams and it all got a bit much. I needed the support of my family, so I took the decision that I would leave and just go and get a job.

I regret in some respects that I didn't get the chance to do that, but I suppose what is meant to happen in your life happens.

It meant a lot that the girls felt able to confide in me, but it was a very intense time. At one stage, one of the girls needed brought to hospital and I had to take her. Anything could have happened. I think things are different at universities now, but then there was not that much support.

Q. When did you move to working in politics?

A. Originally, I worked for the United Unionists because my uncle, Fraser (former independent MLA Fraser Agnew), had been elected.

I started to work for him at Stormont in 1998. I was with them for the first mandate, but then I joined the DUP in the late 90s and I was on Castlereagh Council for them in 2000.

At that stage, that swathe of unionism worked together really well. It was a great time - you really felt like you were watching history unfold.

Q. Were you part of the protests that were held outside Castle Buildings during the Belfast Agreement talks?

A. Not at Castle Buildings, but I remember being at Hillsborough. It was one of the times the Government had locked the Ulster Unionists in, and you would have seen them appearing at the window.

It was a serious time, but there was a nice atmosphere. It wasn't aggressive. There was no trouble with police, but people felt like they needed to take a stand.

The Government would bring them ( the UUP) in, keep them up all night, deprive them of sleep and impose deadlines. We wanted to say, 'Don't let them do that'.

Q. Are there better relations between the UUP and DUP now?

A. There is a lot of common ground, but I think some of them want to make a point. The UUP had a manifesto and had the numbers to deliver that, but they chose not to, which seems strange but that is their entitlement. They wanted to be in Opposition and we will have to wait and see how it plays out. I'm not sure it has had the desired effect.

However, I think unionist voters have a lot in common and they would like us to work more closely together for their interests. But that is above my pay grade - my job is in east Belfast.

Q. What was your role when you started working for the DUP at Stormont?

A. I worked in the general office from 2002 to 2007. Then, in 2007, I moved down to the Chief Whip's office.

Q. Keeping DUP members in line with the party sounds confrontational. Was it?

A. People focus on the Chief Whip's office being the office of discipline, but our folks are very disciplined because everyone believes in what they are doing. So the job was more making sure the party operated as smoothly as it could in the Assembly and that people knew what they were doing, what way they were supposed to be voting, where they were supposed to be and at what time. There doesn't need to be a lot of telling-off - people know the rules.

We watched other parties where it was more confrontational, but ours was never like that, even though there was a lot of them (DUP MLAs).

Q. How did standing for the Assembly election come about?

A. I was approached. I hadn't thought about it that much, and it had been 11 years since my name was on the ballot paper for council.

I had to carefully consider going back, and I loved the job I was in, but I think politics is in me. My dad was really politically interested and I have always been politically interested.

I believe in things and I like to vote for people who believe in things rather than those who are doing it as a career.

It was a big change, but I felt I would give it a go and put my all into it. I think I have tried to show that so far, but if it (the election) didn't work out well I was already in a job I loved.

Q. Was it daunting to run for Peter Robinson's old seat?

A. It wasn't the way I thought of it - you can't think of it like that. I couldn't even try to be Peter Robinson, and there is no point in even trying to impersonate him. I have to just try and be me and do things the best way I can. The skills I have are different to his.

Q Were you surprised that you ended up topping the poll?

A. It was a lovely thing, but the day was surreal. You are kind of punch-drunk from the night before. It's a weird kind of out-of-body experience - like it's all happening to someone else instead of you.

But now I have a responsibility to deliver because people put their faith in me. I have to listen and act to what people in east Belfast who voted for me - and those who didn't - want and see what I can deliver for them.

I think it is a real privilege to serve in east Belfast, and it is very important to serve those people well. I want to merit those votes.

Q. And what part of the job do you enjoy the most?

A. I love the interaction with people, I love the banter. People in east Belfast have such a great sense of humour.

You don't get that as much when you are a councillor because you are doing it on top of your full-time job, whereas now this is my full-time job and I can dedicate myself to it.

What you can do in council is limited and what you can do here is limited, but you certainly have more opportunity. You can't deliver everything, but you can give it your best shot.

There are serious issues going on in east Belfast, but there is so much good work and so many great people, and even through the rough stuff people in east Belfast are prepared to smile and laugh and just get on with it.

Q. Do you think east Belfast is still struggling with the aftermath of the flag protests?

A. I think that east Belfast is trying to come to terms with it. East Belfast is a unionist constituency. There are folks who don't want to associate themselves with that, but for me I am proud to be a unionist and I am proud that is my flag - I have no desire to distance myself from it.

East Belfast should not have to be ashamed of what it is. I think that east Belfast is more in line with my thinking on that.

I think that is also the thing about how well the DUP did in east Belfast in the election. The DUP has always had strong representation in east Belfast, and that is because our message resonates there and with those people who feel the same way that we do.

Unionism in east Belfast is not an aggressive unionism. We want to respect other people's culture and for ours to be respected and tolerated too.

Q. You say that you have always been politically aware, but do you remember the first thing that actually sparked that?

A. I really remember the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, even though I was only 10 at the time. I remember all the MPs standing down and the Doc (the late Ian Paisley) and Jim Molyneaux at City Hall. I remember the Bobby Sands election and Owen Carron going on the run.

You don't fully understand it all at that age, but you understand that there is something significant happening.

One of the most horrific things was the two soldiers that were killed after becoming trapped in the car. They had just gone down the wrong road.

I think that was one of the darkest days in our history. I think that was just horrendous - I don't think that will ever leave me.

Q. What are you getting your teeth into at the Assembly?

A. The things that I am focusing on now include mental health. It is such a huge issue in east Belfast. Some people are really struggling, and I have been there myself.

I am also interested in special educational needs and trying to do something about the huge waiting lists for assessments. Waiting lists in general are a huge problem.

Again, I have been there myself. My mum was bed-bound for a year waiting for a hip replacement. I knew if I could get her seen, things would move along, but I couldn't get her seen. When she finally was seen, she was brought in within a couple of weeks.

She was in horrendous pain. Even the gentlest touch of her skin (hurt). You could feel the grinding of her hip - it was horrendous.

My mum is one of the strongest women I have ever known - she never complains. To know there are other people going through that is stark.

I am also a big animal lover and very passionate about tackling issues around animal cruelty.

Q. What can be done to ensure those convicted of animal cruelty get tougher sentences?

A. From what I understand, we have some of the strongest laws in Europe. The problem is the sentencing.

Seeing the detail of some of the cases, I dare not read it. Stuff like that doesn't leave me. I can't deal with it - it disturbs me.

It's not that I want to bury my head in the sand - I am well aware that stuff is going on - I just don't need to know the detail of it.

There are issues too around registering animals. If someone is banned from keeping an animal, then how is that actually enforced?

There are guys who have been banned before and yet they're caught keeping animals again. These loopholes really need to be closed. It is just not acceptable.

Those issues where society doesn't feel the sentence reflects the nature of the cruelty, that damages confidence in the criminal justice system.

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