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DUP's Gordon Dunne: 'I found it hard to work with Sinn Fein, yet we were able to do that'

The most probing interviews: North Down DUP MLA Gordon Dunne on his love of being a public representative, enjoying motorsports and the importance of education

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Gordon Dunne MLA walking his dog along the coast

Gordon Dunne MLA walking his dog along the coast

Gordon taking part in an Orange parade

Gordon taking part in an Orange parade

Gordon with fellow MLA Mark H Durkan

Gordon with fellow MLA Mark H Durkan

Gordon Dunne with (right) DUP leader Arlene Foster

Gordon Dunne with (right) DUP leader Arlene Foster

Gordon Dunne MLA walking his dog along the coast

Q. You live in Holywood but that's not where you were born. Can you tell me about your early years.

A. I was born in Enniskillen and grew up in a family of nine. There were my parents and seven children.

We lived in two different farms in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone area.

My father, who was Mervyn, was obviously a farmer and he instilled in me the values of working hard and getting on with the business.

My mother, Mabel, was a health visitor in the area and she worked so hard and stressed the benefits of education to all of us and always told us we should get out and do our bit to help the community.

Q. Home is Holywood, which is quite a jump from rural Fermanagh. How did you manage to land in Holywood?

A. I came as a young fella of 17 to work as an engineering apprentice for the Ministry of Defence. I worked for the MoD for a number of years before going into politics.

I married Gillian in 1985 and we have two sons - Andrew, who is 31, and Stephen, who is 29, and who works with me in the office - and we have a daughter, Amy, who is 16. She is still at school.

We settled here and it is home for me.

Q. You have been a politician for 28 years now. What has been the most significant change in your view since you first entered the political arena?

A. I think the most significant change has been the move towards normalisation.

The return of Stormont has brought about significant change, unfortunately it hasn't been totally successful but there have been terrific changes for the better for everyone.

Q. You are not the only politician in the family, though, apart from your son Stephen, who is a councillor. Lady Sylvia Hermon is your cousin.

A. That's right. Her mum and my mum were sisters. I would see her at a fair number of public events here in North Down and I think she does a good job. Even though I wouldn't always agree with her politically, we are good friends.

Q. You were elected as a councillor for North Down Borough Council in 1981 but lost your seat in the 1993 elections before gaining it back in 1997. Did it hurt not to be elected?

A. Yes, it did. I had done 12 years at the time and I lost by about 50 votes over a local issue but I was relatively young and had the resolve to carry on.

During that period I moved house and went back to college to do a bit more studying so there were benefits from it as well.

Q. You previously stated you think there should be more public awareness of the Assembly. What would you like to see happen to make that a reality?

A. I think the education programmes the Assembly run which bring schools up to the Assembly are very good. The outreach programmes where they go out to schools are also very positive.

Q. What are your political ambitions? Would you like to hold a ministerial post, could you see yourself in the House of Commons or the Lords some day?

A. I am very happy with what I have achieved and thankful for what I have. I would just like to - God willing - continue on as MLA for North Down for a number of years.

Q. Of course there is no functioning Assembly at the minute. Do you think there will be again?

A. I believe the majority of people out there that we represent and continue to represent on a daily basis certainly do want to see us back. I think devolved Government up and running represents the best interests of everyone.

Q. People living here are growing increasingly frustrated and angry that politicians can't seem to reach an agreement while they get on with the day-to-day struggles of long hospital waiting lists, schools facing closures and budget cuts. Do you think they are justified in the anger and frustration?

A. I can fully understand it. When the Assembly was there, local ministers were able to use some influence, for instance with the private sector, to reduce the hospital waiting lists. That was being done by the DUP and Sinn Fein. That had a significant impact.

The local influence is something we obviously need to strive to get back to. The DUP is ready and willing to go back into Government.

The onus is on Sinn Fein and surely their electorate expect them to be doing what they voted them in to do. I think they have a responsibility to try and get back into talks and move the process forward.

Q. Your constituency office is in Holywood, which is one of the most affluent areas of Northern Ireland. Is life quiet there?

A. That is a perception of North Down but the constituency runs from Holywood to Millisle.

We have some of the largest estates within Northern Ireland - Kilcooley, for example, and Whitehill, so there is a whole mixture of people and a whole range of needs within the North Down area.

There are people who come into our office who are homeless and there are other people who come in wanting assistance to build a new development in the area.

We have all those challenges and we try to deal with them equally. The real challenge is there and we do face them every day.

We are no different to any other area of the province. We have the busiest section of roadway in Northern Ireland, which brings its own challenges. The social needs are the same as anywhere else.

Q. You sit on the Board of Governors in two schools currently and schools seem to have been a feature of your political life over the years. Is education a passion of yours?

A. I think education, as my mum instilled into me as a child, is so important for your future development and moving towards securing employment, so it is a valuable asset.

I think it is important that everyone does have access to good schools. In Northern Ireland I think the majority of people do.

I think we, as elected representatives, need to continue to make sure that proper resources are being put into schools. I do honestly believe that across all sectors we have very good schools and people, in the main, are doing well through them.

Q. What makes you angry?

A. The lack of recognition that elected representatives get from the media. If we take the main media sources that are out there, a lot of it is negative.

I believe we do a genuine day's work. People we make contact with on a daily basis do recognise we do a relatively good job so I do get angry at the media.

While the Assembly ran, there was a lot of good work from all the parties, there was common ground found within the parties.

At my committee level I found it somewhat difficult going in to work with Sinn Fein and yet we were able to do that, but we don't get the recognition for that.

Q. What has brought you most joy in your life so far?

A. My family and my faith and the contentment of having a stable family unit.

The joy I get from serving others and getting results.

Q. You are an advocate for maintaining Christian standards - what do you view those to be?

A. What I view those to be are the broad Christian values across the UK and in Ireland - those that families have traditionally stood for.

A strong family unit. That is a positive thing, it gives support and gives comfort and gives love.

I believe that is something that should be encouraged and should be cherished and maintained.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. You are good craic. I'll answer this way. A local journalist who I have known for many years and built up a good relationship with.

We exchange banter even through text messages. When the great Manchester United are playing we have a great rapport through that because we are both fans. I'll leave it at that and let people guess.

Q. One of your hobbies is motorsport - are you a bit of a petrol head?

A. I would see myself as a motorsport enthusiast. It comes back to my roots in Fermanagh. We lived close to the Fisher family and I remember watching Bertie Fisher taking part in motorsport events.

I remember there was a local motorsport event at St Angelo - my mum brought us to it but my dad didn't want us to go, but we went on anyway.

I think it is the buzz and enthusiasm that gets to me. I think people in Northern Ireland have a thing about fast cars and bikes.

There is something of an adrenaline rush you get if you are standing quite close to the track.

The number of people who do follow motorsport is underestimated. It is not a headline sport in the local media but it does have a huge following.

We are trying to ensure that the Government recognises the value of motorsport for what it does bring to the local economy and its potential to attract visitors.

Q. If you could sit on a park bench and have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, who would that be and why what would you say?

A. There are two people, Ian Paisley being the first.

I would like to talk to him about what he did for Northern Ireland and the influence he had on people.

My own family followed him from the 1970s. The impact he had and the Godliness he portrayed in the decision he made to go into Government with Martin McGuinness and how he developed that relationship.

I personally think he did the right thing at the right time and I think all the people in Northern Ireland have benefited from that.

The other person I would like to talk to is Colin McRae, who was a great rally driver - the ability he had to drive cars at high speed and on occasions when he went off the road, but he got the results.

He always talked about how he would rather win every stage rather than the event.

I would like to talk to him about the impact he made. He would be a hero of mine in motorsport. I would like to talk to him about how he got involved and how his family got involved.

They would be two interesting conversations.

Q. What book are you currently reading

A. The Bible. I read a section of it every night

Q. You were honoured by the Queen in 2016 for services to local government and the community, and had a day out at the palace. What was that like?

A. It was fantastic. A very memorable day for me and my family. I really enjoyed it.

You imagine you'll walk up and it will be over in two minutes but it's not. You go into the palace and meet all the other recipients.

We had a conversation with Charles and a bit of a laugh. It is all recorded on video and we bought the video and, in fact, showed it recently to some of our family.

It portrays the whole splendour and excitement of it. It was a very memorable day and something I will treasure.

Belfast Telegraph