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DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley: 'My great-grandfather won a bravery medal after he picked up an IRA bomb and carried it outside so that the Army could defuse it'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Upper Bann DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley on being party's youngest elected representative, the deaths of his uncles and love for pigeons.

Q. You're 26 and the youngest unionist MLA. Do we call you Jonny or Jonathan?

A. Politically it's Jonathan, but the name I've always got is Jonny, after my grandfather. I was born on his birthday. Politicians from other parties say Jonathan, my own party calls me Jonny.

Q. You and girlfriend Jill Porter (23), a primary school teacher, have been together for almost four years. Any wedding bells?

A. Not at present, but you never know where these things go. We're both very laidback people and we'll see where the relationship goes.

Q. Tell us about your inadvertent first date.

A. We went ice-skating in Dundonald with two friends who were actually on a date. We were merely there for moral support, but it didn't work out for the other two. It was on and off between Jill and me for a while, but eventually we started going out.

Q. Your dad, Glen (51), is a factory operator, and mum Martha (55) a home-maker. You're the middle child of five. Tell us about your siblings.

A. Julie (28) is in her final year studying medicine, Robert (27) is an electrical engineer, Suzanne (25) is an occupational therapist and Stephen (24) is an electrical engineer.

Q. You grew up and still live just outside Portadown. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. I had the most fantastic childhood. I have the same group of friends today as when I was growing up. In the summertime we went out at 10am and didn't come back until 5pm. We didn't have mobile phones or computer games. We very much lived a rural lifestyle. I have some very happy memories of camping out with friends and building huts.

Q. You're a renowned pigeon fancier and have over 200 birds. How did you become interested in that?

A. It's a unique hobby. I believe I'm the only pigeon man in Stormont. Both my grandfathers, on either side, were pigeon men, and their fathers before that.

Pigeons played a vital role in the First World War and at the beginning of the Second World War, carrying important messages back from the front lines.

There's an equivalent medal of bravery for animals (the Dickin Medal), and pigeons have received the most medals of honour out of all the animals that served in the wars.

My father and I race under G Buckley and Son. We've been very successful - this year has probably been our best. We were crowned national champions of all Ireland for pigeon racing.

Q. And do you have a favourite bird in your collection?

A. Kildarragh Queen. She has won numerous accolades in the pigeon world and was regarded as one of the best in Europe. Pigeon racing is very big in China. There are more pigeon men in China than the population of Northern Ireland. A delegation of five came here to visit the leading lofts, and they came to ours. One of them wanted to buy Kildarragh Queen. I immediately said no. It was a funny encounter. To this day, he still writes to ask about the pigeon.

Q. You recently met Donald Trump and Mike Pence when you visited Washington DC. Who did you like best? What was Trump like?

A. I had a very short encounter with him, but I found him much more at the game than people realise. This is a man the media tries to label as a lunatic, but he's far from it. He's charismatic.

My meeting with Mike Pence was a deeply enriching encounter. We had a conversation about faith politics, Northern Ireland and Brexit.

He was very easy to engage with. I actually received a letter from him. I never expected to hear from him again. I couldn't believe it. I have replied to him ... pen pals, I hope, with the US vice president!

Q. You belong to Cranagill Methodist Church. Do you have a strong faith?

A. Yes. With my job, I'm constantly throughout many churches.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you?

A. I lost two uncles to farm accidents within eight months of each other in 2011.

Robert Wilson (45, his mother's brother), who was a manager at a pig farm, died on November 15 when a pig crate he was washing fell on top of him. He was the character of the family. He used to wrestle and carry on with us.

Keith Willis (49, his mother's sister's husband) was manager of Lord Caledon's estate (Lord Lieutenant of Armagh). He was cutting down a tree that repelled and hit him on the chest, killing him instantly. That happened the last weekend in August the following year.

In between that, my mum's dad, Jonny, died in his early 70s from Alzheimer's. I remember the tears in his eyes when he saw Robert's coffin. He was heartbroken.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No, but obviously I hope that it's not coming any time soon. I've got great faith, and whatever the future holds is not in my hands.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. Firstly, fortune favours the brave - you have to be brave in political life to get out there and do a tough job.

Secondly, you have two ears and one mouth, and you should use them in that proportion.

Q. Is bravery something that runs in the family?

A. My great-grandfather, William Hamill, actually won the Queen's Gallantry Medal for bravery more than 40 years ago. He was a security officer at the Crown Buildings in Armagh when the IRA planted a bomb there in 1975.

The security men were threatened and beaten to the ground, but when the IRA men left, my great-grandfather walked up to the bomb, lifted it up and carried it outside the Crown Buildings, where the Army diffused it.

Q. And who is your best Catholic friend?

A. The late Gerald Craney. He passed away last year from cancer. He was in his 70s. He was a great pigeon man who lived on Garvaghy Road.

Just two days before he died, he rang to speak to my parents and me. I suppose that it was his way of saying goodbye.

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

A. Becoming an MLA, although most Assembly members would probably say 2017 was the worst political year of their life.

Most of them stood for election again after just six months. It was a horrendous time for a lot of them and a very difficult time to be involved in politics.

But for me, I got my opportunity to represent the people of Upper Bann, and that's very dear to me.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. My uncle Robert's death.

Q. Which rival politician do you most admire?

A. The SDLP's Pat Catney.

Q. If you were in trouble, who's the person you would you turn to?

A. My granny, Margaret Wilson. She has always been a great source of encouragement.

Q. How do you relax outside politics? You're an Orangeman and a member of the Ulster Lambeg Drumming Society - do they take up much time?

A. They do, but I don't get as much time now. I have an extremely close group of friends, and it's important for me to spend time with them.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. Former DUP MLA Sydney Anderson. He's the man who gave me the opportunity to have a political career.

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

A. The United States.

Q. And your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. Co Armagh. There's something magical and tranquil about the Orchard County.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. I climbed inside a massive recycling bin at the front of the classroom in senior high during a school inspection. I got such an eating over it from my teacher after an inspector caught me.

Q. You went to Richmount Primary, Clounagh Junior High, Craigavon Senior High and Lurgan College to do A-Levels, before studying history and politics at Queen's. Tell us about that.

A. I told my careers advisor that I'd like to be a politician, but he advised me to become an electrical engineer, which is what my mum wanted me to be, so I embarked on a one-year apprenticeship at Southern Regional College.

It meant working for Linden Foods three days a week, but being a politician was still in my heart so I went back to do my A-Levels. I graduated from Queen's in 2014.

Q. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. After university, I went straight into politics. When I was 16 or 17, I was involved with Sydney Anderson's election. In the second year of my degree, Sydney gave me a part-time job as a researcher in the Assembly. I replaced him on Craigavon Borough Council when I was 22. At that stage I was a political researcher and councillor - and studying for my degree.

Q. You're a former chairman of Queen's Democratic Unionist Association and ex-chairman of the party's Young Democrats in Upper Bann. You first entered politics in 2013 as a councillor, then you were elected to the Assembly in 2017, which makes you the newest DUP MLA (and the only new one elected in the snap election). Why politics and why DUP?

A. I've always had a passion for my country and a belief and a desire to get involved and influence policy that is in the best interest of the country.

My family have had no political involvement, but I've always been interested in politics.

As a young unionist, I believed the DUP were standing up for the unionist people. I've been inspired by the late Dr Ian Paisley, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds.

I'm classified as the baby of the house up at Stormont. The party have all taken me under their wing, but I quite enjoy that because it can be daunting.

Q. You must be having a strange insight to the world of work - you have a job that's not really a job. What's that been like?

A. The role of an MLA is very misunderstood. There is constant media negativity - and it does have merit - but I'm deeply frustrated as a young Assembly member that I haven't had the opportunity to get into the debating chamber and air the views of my constituents.

That being said, it's also brought the challenge of representing the constituency, and I've been able to represent them to a level that previous MLAs might not have been able to do because of their commitments here. It's been a rewarding experience.

Q. And what about Stormont? Do you think it's finished?

A. I believe all roads lead back to devolved government. Sinn Fein have to adopt an attitude of realism that no culture - whether orange or green - trumps education, health and the economy.

Q. But if the Assembly collapses, what's next?

A. I'm an optimist, so it won't. But if it did, probably something business-orientated.

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