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For me politics was not just a job, it was a way of life. I worked very hard and I was good at it... I'm just devastated the way things worked out

In her first interview since losing her seat in last week's election, the UUP's Jo-Anne Dobson says she's still in shock, and has a few strong words for Arlene Foster and Mike Nesbitt

By Stephanie Bell

It is a week since Jo-Anne Dobson lost her seat at Stormont in what was a shock election result in Upper Bann and the reality that she is no longer an MLA is still sinking in.

At her busy office in Banbridge many people continued to call in as usual this week, seeking her support to sort out a variety of issues, seemingly unable to accept that their go-to politician is no longer in a position to help them.

It is this aspect of the job that Dobson says is the hardest to lose after six years as a hands-on Ulster Unionist MLA, helping thousands of people with a range of concerns from health to housing.

Her equally shell-shocked team was packing up this week while having to fend off queries and reluctantly explain why the office was closed and they could no longer help.

For Dobson, having already had to turn many people away and no longer able to use her powers as a politician to help them, has, she says, been the hardest aspect of losing her seat.

"It was such a busy office - we used to wonder where all the people came from," she said. "Sometimes they would be queued outside the door.

"We worked hard and we were good at it. I do worry where people are going to go now and who is going to be their voice and fill that void."

Known as a hard-working politician, who sat on a number of Stormont committees, facing her future without the busy, seven-day week schedule she is used to was taking some adjustment this week.

Yesterday she was not hiding the fact that she is still devastated to have lost her seat.

She revealed that she already had a number of job offers she is considering, although it is her work as an MLA where her heart still lies.

In her first interview since last week's election results, Dobson blamed Arlene Foster for the fact that five female MLAs are now out of a job, including two in the DUP leader's own party.

And she says her party leader Mike Nesbitt was right to stand down, and believes that his stance on transferring votes to the SDLP cost the Ulster Unionists dearly.

Still clearly shaken, Dobson revealed there had been "a lot of tears" over the weekend as the reality of her situation started to sink in.

She polled 5,132 votes - just 335 fewer than her UUP running-mate Doug Beattie, who was elected.

She believes that her party's approach to the election in her Upper Bann constituency contributed to her losing her seat, but despite the obvious disappointment and the inevitable post-mortems, it was an overwhelming sadness rather than bitterness that emanated from her.

"I was shocked and I'm devastated. It is a job I gave 24/7 to and a job I was so honoured to do and loved doing," she said.

"It's difficult. I am still checking my phone and still getting requests for help from people and it is hard to give that up.

"I worked so hard and, suddenly, life has changed and now I will have to rebalance my life. To a certain extent your own life takes a back seat as you get involved in other people's lives and I have met so many amazing people on this journey, who I have been able to help through difficult times in their lives and many have become firm friends.

"When people came to me with an issue, we saw it right through to a conclusion. The office was so busy that we would have had volunteers in answering phones. There is now going to be a void there, and I can't help worrying about that and what those people will do."

She added: "My last case was resolved just the day before the election when I got news that a young man of 21, who had to leave university and was bedridden with severe Crohn's disease, got a drug he needed, which his family had approached me to try and get for him. It was a drug available in other parts of the UK but not here, and I fought for him and succeeded in getting him the drug.

"That's the part of the job I loved and I made no secret of the fact that it was the most important part of the work for me. I always made sure I spent two days at least every week on constituency work, helping people with grassroots issues."

Born and educated in Banbridge, the 51-year-old lives with husband John (53), a farmer, in Waringstown. The couple have two sons, Elliott (25) and Mark (23).

The one positive she is taking from the situation is that she will now have more time for family and friends.

"Friends used to respect the fact that I wouldn't be able to go to things, and just the other day a friend called about an event and for the first time I was able to say 'yes, I can be there', which is very unusual," she said.

She has been the voluntary Press officer for the Northern Ireland Kidney Patients' Association for a number of years and yesterday supported the charity at an event in Belfast City Hospital to mark World Kidney Day.

Her son Mark received a kidney transplant in February 2009 and ever since he and his mum have talked and supported other families going through a similar journey.

She believes passionately in the promotion of organ donation and, in 2012, tabled a Private Member's Bill to propose a change in the law so that everyone is automatically put on the donor register unless they opt out.

In 2013 she was elected as chairperson of the newly created Northern Ireland Assembly all-party group on organ donation. She also chaired an all-party group on cancer and disability, and was a member of the health committee.

Relinquishing all of her roles is not going to be easy, but she plans to continue her charity work - both with the Kidney Research Association and also as a patron of the Hope for ME and Fibromyalgia Group.

She said: "I intend to keep busy. I am a passionate campaigner for organ donation and I will still be their voice and still push damn hard for them.

"I am chairing a conference in Stormont in May for the Hope for ME and Fibromyalgia Group and also have an event on April 1 for the Northern Ireland Hospice.

"I will be at the City Hospital for World Kidney Day later today. I couldn't just walk away. As a young mum, the association supported me, and one of my first jobs as an MLA was attending the launch of the World Transplant Games and one of my last now is to support World Kidney Day, which seems a bit ironic."

Turning to the election, Dobson has had time to reflect on why she lost her seat, and says that some of the blame lies with the vote management arrangement by her party in the Upper Bann constituency.

"Usually we have three people running and there are three main towns in the constituency - Banbridge, Lurgan and Portadown," she explained.

"This time we had only two and it was decided to split it up, so that Doug Beattie had two towns - Portadown and Lurgan - and I had one, which was Banbridge.

"We were trying to strike a balance, but that balance was a bit off on this occasion and I think that is something, as a party, that we need to look at in the future."

Overall, though, she blames Foster for the hit unionists took, losing 16 seats and putting non-unionist parties in the majority at Stormont for the first time.

"Arlene Foster has done more in my living memory against unionism by not stepping aside. The cost has been 16 unionist seats. One woman has also been responsible for five hard-working, good women losing their seats. She has weakened unionism and helped the Irish nationalist cause," she said.

"She projected an atmosphere of fear during the election."

She also had strong views on Nesbitt's approach to the election and his controversial stance on transferring votes to the SDLP, which she said was a shock to her party.

"I think he was right to stand down. His comments about transferring his vote to the SDLP were not helpful, especially without consulting party members and just two weeks out from an election.

"I've never seen the DUP jump on a 'get-out-of-jail-free' card as quickly as they did with that. It changed the whole dynamics. And, while I appreciate what he was trying to do, it wasn't how it was picked up by voters on the doorstep.

"The election was a hammer-blow result for unionists: why couldn't Arlene Foster have just stepped aside?"

Dobson has received thousands of messages of support from her constituents and a great deal of support from party colleagues in the past week.

While politicians struggle to find a way forward at Stormont, she says that it is the people of Northern Ireland who will suffer and she is sad that she can no longer do her bit.

"Life goes on and, for me, politics was not just a job - it was a way of life. I can say, hand on heart, that I dedicated my life to it and I will miss it.

"My family has had to take a back seat and now is the time for me to redress that balance.

"I've had a number of offers, which I am considering, and I hope to continue to be busy, but not in the 24/7 way I was before."

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