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DUP's Poots could have become involved with paramilitaries 'but for Ian Paisley's influence'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Edwin Poots, Lagan Valley DUP MLA, on the pain of losing his mum and brother... and why health minister is Stormont’s toughest job.

Q. You're 52 and married to nurse Glynis (54). You have four children - Luke (28), a farmer and councillor, missionary Samuel (25), Anna (23), a nurse, and Lydia (17) who's doing her AS levels. Where did you and Glynis meet?

A. I was out canvassing for my dad near Hillsborough. I knocked a door and this girl answered it; I thought 'wow'.

Her eyes immediately caught mine. I knew she was the one. We fell in love very quickly.

We got married on September 24, 1988, and honeymooned in Canada.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your parents.

A. My dad Charles, ex-DUP politician and farmer, is 88. Mum Ethel, a home-maker, died in 1996 when she was 64.

Shortly after they got married, Mum got knocked down by a cow and was bleeding from her mouth. We thought it was to do with the fall but it wasn't. She had esophageal varices. She was only 25.

They then discovered she had cirrhosis of the liver, although she'd never touched alcohol in her life.

She nearly died shortly after I was born because of her medical condition; she went to London for treatment. My dad stayed with her; he said it was the 10 loneliest days of his life. Mum was there for six weeks.

Mum nearly died when I was 10, she nearly died when I was 20 and then she did die when I was 30. She fought it really well but was at death's door so many times.

Q. You have two older sisters - Angela (59), a teacher turned missionary, and Joy (55), a Sure Start coordinator. Older brother Stephen passed away eight years ago, aged 53. What happened?

A. He had a bad reaction to the injections he got as a new-born.

Mum kept asking the nurse what was wrong and she was told he was all right. A short time later he was taken to an incubator; he'd become starved of oxygen because of his response to the injections.

He was left severely learning-disabled. He was never able to communicate other than a couple of words. That was very difficult for my parents, on top of my mum's ill health. He went into care when he was five because of mum's health; that broke her heart.

Q. You have a very impressive political portfolio - member of the 1998-2003 Assembly; Culture Minister in 2007; Deputy Mayor of Lisburn 2008-2009; Environment Minister in 2009; Health Minister in 2011. What made you go into politics?

A. I joined the DUP at 16 after the murder of South Belfast MP Rev Robert Bradford. There was so much anger at that time.

Then there was an attempted murder on my dad, a DUP councillor, in 1976. An INLA gunman fired at him while he was driving. Mercifully he was uninjured, but that was a pivotal moment. I was angry and bitter.

But I learnt from my dad over the years that bitterness wasn't anything to indulge in; that it wasn't Catholics who shot him, it was a terrorist.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. I loved the The Big Man, Ian Paisley. I had a huge affection for him. He was a remarkably kind individual. His influence ensured that, as a young man, I didn't get involved with paramilitaries because I'd spoken about how angry I was at one stage...

Q. Was there a chance you'd have gone down that road?

A. It's possible, yeah. The circumstances were there - dad being shot at - a lot of things happening. But Ian Paisley assured me that my voice was being heard by a man who wasn't afraid to speak out on your behalf.

Q. In June 2011 you fired your legally held shotgun twice in warning to intruders near your home. Whatever came of that? Do you still keep a gun?

A. There were intruders at my father's bungalow at the bottom of the garden. Dad, who's well in his 80s and disabled, was in there.

I had options - confront them myself, call the police, which would've taken ages - so I let the firearm off to warn them and that did the trick.

I still have a gun - just to shoot the odd crow.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing that's happened to you?

A. Losing my mum. She went into hospital and deteriorated over the course of three or four days.

She was kept on a life support machine while my sister flew home. It was the most awful time possible.

I was actually glad when she died because she was all tubed up, her organs were shutting down and she wasn't coming back.

The real pain kicked in weeks later. I missed our conversations and her not being there. I was very close to my mum.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No, because I'm ready. I live a full life and I'm enjoying life. I've no desire to die, but neither do I fear it.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. Farming. I spent the Christmas break out on a digger, tidying up the place.

When I was in the back of the ministerial car I used to go past guys working on the motorways and I could've quite happily pulled over and started in with them.

I enjoy outdoor work and don't mind getting my hands dirty.

Q. What Ministry did you like best - Environment, Culture or Health?

A. Culture was the most fun - going to football matches, motorbike races, arts events etc.

I knew what I was about in DOE - I had a lot knowledge of local government and planning so that came easy to me.

Health was the really challenging one. It put years on me. It's the hardest post.

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

A. The SDLP's Patsy McGlone. I've always found him an honest big fellow; he's never done anything devious on me.

Q. And who is your best Catholic friend?

A.  John McConnell, a retired civil servant with whom I worked. We're very close. I ring him every two or three days and we'd go out for a bite to eat.

Q. As a creationist, you reject the theory of evolution. How did you come to hold this view?

A. I was brought up a devout Christian. We just accept the teaching of the Bible to be the word of God; that's how we live.

Q. How old do you believe the earth is?

A. I don't know exactly. But when I look round the beauty of this earth, at the complexity of our bodies and everything else, I can't believe that those things just evolved. There has to have been some intelligent design behind it.

Q. In the past you caused controversy by banning blood donations from gay people. Where do you stand on that now?

A. The ban was already in place; I just didn't lift it, and I believe that was a soundly-based decision. To me, it's about the recipient, not the giver. The testing regime is much better now; I totally accept that.

Q. Would it concern you if you had to have a blood transfusion from a gay person?

A. No. I said at the time that blood coming from a monogamous gay person would have been safer than what came from a promiscuous heterosexual.

We must screen out those who are engaging in unsafe sex.

HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea - all of these STDs are on the up and people are more irresponsible now than in the 1980s when, because of HIV, safe sex was more prevalent.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. There were threats to rape my son around the time of the gay blood thing. He was very annoyed about it.

We were more annoyed about the police response because they didn't do anything.

They said they couldn't trace the people; I don't think they tried.

Q.Have you changed your views on same-sex marriage or gay people?

A. Not on same sex-marriage, no. I don't have an issue with gay people themselves.

Marriage isn't the gift of any government. It's an institution of God between one man and one woman.

We created civil partnerships so that people wouldn't be discriminated against and that's where it should be left.

Q. In the rest of the UK the DUP is projected as being backward and fundamentalist. How do you respond to that?

A. It doesn't annoy me. We're supposed to be backward because we're opposed to abortion as well.

I can't understand why anybody wants to take the life of children.

My mum never, ever, regretted Stephen's birth. She loved him just as much as her other children. There's nothing more backward than snuffing out a human being's existence before they're born. There are bound to be better ways.

Q. You were criticised in 2016 when you said newly elected DUP leader Arlene Foster's "most important job" was as a wife, mother and daughter. Was she cross with you?

A. Maybe, but she didn't say so. That was taken completely the wrong way. When I was Health Minister, I used to say that it was my second most important job, the most important one being a husband, father and son.

When all of life passes away and I'm not in politics, who's going to be there for me?

Q. If Stormont collapses, what's next? You recently said you're actively looking for work - have you had any offers?

A. A couple of companies want to talk to me about consultancy advice. I've a lot of experience.

Politics was never my career in the first instance, so moving on from it won't be difficult if that's required.

Q. You've lived in the family home outside Lisburn for 51 years. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Long summer days down at the streams with my dogs, Shep, the collie, and Beauty, a wee Jack Russell. We've a stream that runs through the farm. I remember building dams while the dogs went hunting rabbits. They never caught anything.

Q. You went to Legacurry Primary, Wallace High and then Greenmount Agricultural College. Didn't you fancy university?

A. No. In the mornings I got up early and collected eggs, and when I came home from school I fed the calves. I was always more interested in farming than school work.

Q. Tell us about your career to date.

A. I farmed from 1983 to 1996. I also did a bit of labouring on building sites until my dad took a stroke in 1993. In 1996 I was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum. In 1997 I got onto Lisburn Council and then in 1998 got elected to the Assembly.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. Pootsy.

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

A. Reckless driving when I was young. We loved racing up and down the wee roads.

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

A. I enjoy singing in the men's choir at Hillsborough Free Presbyterian Church.

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