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DUP's Paul Frew: ‘I didn’t fall out with my dad when he owned up to selling illegal cigarettes but I wasn’t happy. Crime is crime, and what he did was wrong’

MLA Paul Frew at his office in Ballymena
MLA Paul Frew at his office in Ballymena
Paul Frew with his wife Julie and children Jake, Sam and Rachel
Paul Frew (top row, fifth from left) when he was 12 years old in Kellswater Flute Band
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Paul Frew, North Antrim DUP MLA, on how working on building sites taught him a lot about life, jumping out of planes... and playing spoons.

Q. You're 43 and married to Julie (45), who's your personal assistant, and with whom you have three children - Jake (20), Sam (16) and Rachel (15). How did you two did meet?

A. We met at school. I was in a class with Julie's sister Ali; I was third year, Julie was fifth. It was a teenage romance and it escalated from there. We got married in First Broughshane Presbyterian Church on April 29, 1995, and honeymooned in Lanzarote.

Q. Your father Robert (65) is a lorry driver turned newsagent and your mother Esther (63) now helps out in the shop, although before the children came along she worked in Braidwater Spinning Mill. Tell us about your siblings.

A. I'm the eldest of three. Mark (39) is a painter and decorator turned van driver/courier and Linda (35) works in the shop. She's also involved in health, beauty and fitness.

Q. You're very proud of being from Kellswater, a hamlet near the village of Kells, but you now live in Broughshane. A happy childhood?

A. I started off in Kells as a toddler and moved to Drumtara estate in Ballymena for five years. We moved when my father had saved up enough money to build a wee bungalow in the country. Kellswater has a nickname; it's called 'Frew Town'. My father's family is from there; all my neighbours were uncles and aunts so you couldn't do anything growing up without getting a clip round the ear whenever you needed it. We had fields to wander in, a river to play in and wooded areas.

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Kellswater has a great flute band, I was in it when I was 12.

Q. You went to Ballee Primary and Carnaghts Primary followed by Ballee High. What about university?

A. My 'university' was the building sites of Belfast, which is something I'm very proud of.

Q. You joined Ballymena council in 2005 and replaced Ian Paisley Jnr as an MLA in 2010. Why politics?

A. I joined the DUP in 2000. I was a kid who always watched the news with my dad when he came home from work. The Troubles were raging at that time, people were dying, bombs were exploding and I had a real sense of where I lived at a very early stage.

If you follow the Troubles you follow politics, so that really did have an impact on me. Also, my father was a lorry driver so, by extension, he was a target because he would have worked in police stations and Army barracks. I can remember very vividly being 12 or 13, lying in bed hearing the gravel in the yard move and thinking 'is that them coming?'.

I was approached by a DUP councillor and asked to join the party. I could have run in 2001, but waited until 2005 because I'm a great believer in serving your time first. I became treasurer and it grew gradually from there.

Q. A judge recently dismissed a case brought against you by a 15-year-old girl for breaching her privacy after she was linked to anti-social behaviour on Facebook. What was that all about?

A. I put up a post after three houses were attacked during an incident of anti-social behaviour. The girl in question started to engage in a conversation about that and people on Facebook challenged her about being there. The anti-social behaviour started a month before Halloween and escalated through the winter. Kids were knocking doors and standing in people's gardens with hoods up and then throwing ball bearings, fireworks and eggs when people came to their doors. Houses in Broughshane and Harryville were being attacked at night. There was a sinister incident when an elderly couple's house was smeared with fast food. The blinds were down, they heard a noise and when they opened the blinds they saw a man with a hood up smearing a chip and gravy over the window. I was working with the police to tackle this, and going round houses talking to parents of children thought to be involved. The court case put at end to the anti-social behaviour in Broughshane.

Q. Were you worried about the court case?

A. I was worried about the impact to my wife and my family and it was a massive burden. But I was very confident that I'd done nothing wrong. I was annoyed at the process and at being thrust into the spotlight for trying to protect the community. I felt aggrieved at the way the case was reported; the initial headlines saying I'd outed someone on social media were unfair.

Q. Your dad Robert confessed to selling illegal cigarettes in Ballymena. As a fierce critic of cigarette smuggling, that episode was surely not only embarrassing for you, but also for the party. Did you and your father fall out over it?

A. We never fell out, but I wasn't happy. Crime is crime, breaking the law is breaking the law. I'm not my father's keeper, but what he did was wrong. My dad would tell you that. The party was very supportive. It's water under the bridge. I've never smoked in my life, I detest it.

Q. Have you had any bad personal experiences with the media?

A. The court case and my dad's issue. He wouldn't have been on the front page of a newspaper if it wasn't for me so it was an easy, low dig at me. Something's happened to the media; instead of reporting the news, they now try to make the news and that's completely different.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone close to you, and does death frighten you?

A. Death doesn't frighten me. When you've a strong faith you believe you're going to live forever. Death is just a vehicle in which to get there. I've lost my grandparents - Joe Andy and Margaret Frew and Gerard and Maud Magill - otherwise, I've been blessed.

Q. Tell us about the best day(s) of your life so far.

A. My wedding day and the births of my children.

Q. And what about the worst day? What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Losing my first grandparent, Maud, in 1986, at such a young age was very difficult. She was in her 60s and suffered a heart attack. It was very sudden. It sent shockwaves through me. I was in P7 at the time. When I heard the news it was as if the world came crashing down. It had a massive impact. She was my closest grandparent.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. My wife. If I've done something wrong, she'd need to know first.

Q. Which politician from the so-called 'other side' do you most admire?

A. The SDLP's Alban Maginness - he's sincere, very sound on moral issues and brave.

Q. Who would you say is your best Catholic friend?

A. I've a lot of Catholic friends so it'd be unfair to pick somebody out. I admire people of faith - whether or not I agree with their particular strand.

Q. What has been your greatest achievement?

A. I brought the child protection disclosure scheme into Northern Ireland (better known as Sarah's Law in England). It allows parents to formally ask the police if someone with access to a child has a record for child sexual offences.

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

A. I wish I'd had the confidence to work hard at school.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. Frew.

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

A. I play the spoons, that's my party piece.

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

A. On the side of a pitch watching my boys play football.

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

A. I enjoy running up Pollee hill outside Broughshane.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next?

A. I'll do something completely different.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. Confidence is everything. On my Twitter feed it says 'Invade the space'. No matter what you do in life, there is a space and you need to ensure you're in control. You must control your life and the space around you.

Q. You're a former Sunday School teacher. Do you have a strong faith?

A. I'm a Presbyterian and I do have a strong practical faith. I read the Bible nearly every day.

Q. You're a qualified electrician and were in the Royal Irish Regiment. Tell us about your career to date.

A. I served my time with JB Electrical in Ballymena and over a period of 20 years I've worked for between 15 and 20 companies, first as an electrician and then as a foreman for 10 years. I've worked on some of the biggest jobs - Causeway Hospital, the Gateway building in the Titanic Quarter and was the foreman on the drawing office refurbishment (it's now a hotel but it was previously an administration block).

I was in the RIR for seven years, served in Ballymena (C Company) and Abbotscroft (B Company), near Rathcoole. It was part-time so it was the best of both worlds. I'd always wanted to join the Army. Just weeks after I left in 2003, the Territorial Army was called up for a first tour of Afghanistan, and when I heard about that I asked if I could go but they wouldn't let me. There was a sense of guilt and missing something but also relief because no-one going out there knew what they were heading into.

Q. You're seen as a rising star of the DUP. What are your future ambitions within the party?

A. I measure myself by my constituency work. I think your ambitions should lie in how many people you've helped that week. I'm not ambitious about poster positions.

Q. Do you foresee a lasting solution between the DUP and Sinn Fein?

A. Sinn Fein have a habit of flipping over on you - look what they did on welfare reform. They put this country through the ringer, cost millions of pounds of penalties and over a weekend they flipped over on us and went back in and delivered welfare reform. They could well do the same again.

Q. There have been a few notable incidents recently, such as Barry McElduff's Kingsmill bread stunt, Gerry Kelly removing a car clamp and Alex Maskey's 'putrid statelet' comment. Is Sinn Fein in freefall?

A. For a political nerd looking in it's quite intriguing. Sinn Fein are perceived to be masters of media and PR, and preach integrity, respect and equality but they've been found out. There's no real appetite there to make Northern Ireland work.

Q. How do you relax outside of politics?

A. I love reading history books, I watch my boys play football on Saturday mornings and I listen to my daughter singing. She's always trying to get me to go on to X Factor with her because I love singing.

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

A. Jumping out of an aeroplane when I was in the Royal Irish.

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