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'I enjoyed teaching Kyle Lafferty. I thought he was really brave to speak out about his gambling woes, and hopefully he’s managed to influence other people into taking a different path'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Rosemary Barton, Fermanagh South Tyrone UUP MLA, tells of her dream of being a great pianist... and shock at Wikipedia reporting that she's 74.

Q. You're 60 - although Wikipedia has you down as 74 - and married to retired civil servant Marcus (60), with whom you have daughter Diana (27), a tax consultant. Where did you meet?

A. 74? Really? That's shocking! Marcus and I met through Young Farmers Kesh in 1980.

I was a newly qualified teacher and joined the Young Farmers club, of which he was a member, because I wanted to get out and meet people. We married on July 28, 1984, in Clones Church of Ireland, my family church.

We went to Majorca on honeymoon; it was a lovely, relaxing two-week break.

Q. And Diana?

A. She's fond of travelling, and has been to Cambodia, Thailand, Brazil and Argentina. She works in Dublin and is still young, footloose and fancy free.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. My mother Jean, who was 85, died very suddenly from ovarian cancer on January 31, 2005. She was gone within three or four days of being diagnosed. It came as a big shock.

My dad William died in his early 50s when I was in my first year at university. He had prostate and bone cancer. My mother nursed him for quite some time before he died on February 5, 1977.

I'm the eldest of three - sister Valerie (who's in her late 50s) is a retired tailoress and brother Mervyn (mid 50s) farms on the family homestead outside Newtownbutler. We're very close.

Q. Following your retirement from teaching, you became a councillor for Fermanagh District in 2011, which morphed into Fermanagh and Omagh District Council in 2014. What made you go into politics?

A. It's something I've always had an interest in. I grew up along the border during the worst of the Troubles, and politics was a live issue, very much part of everyday life. It was a new challenge.

My late father had always been interested in politics as well.

Q. Northern Ireland football star Kyle Lafferty is one of your more famous past pupils. What was he like in school?

A. I knew Kyle from he was 11 to 16 and taught him GCSE maths for two years.

I remember him as a pleasant, happy, very funny pupil. He certainly enjoyed fun in the classroom. He was quick-witted too, but maths wasn't his first passion.

Even then, football was Kyle's number one passion.

Q. Earlier this year, Kyle came clean about a serious gambling addiction. He's clearly still a big hero with football fans, but do you think it's acceptable for younger people to regard him as a role model?

A. Kyle was really brave coming out about his gambling problems and, hopefully, what he has said will get other people who may be tempted by gambling to think again. Hopefully, they'll think about the problems gambling has brought to Kyle's life and turn away from that.

Q. A purpose-built casino in Northern Ireland is now a possibility. How do you feel about that?

A. I'm not in favour of anything that promotes gambling. It has ruined lives and has the potential to ruin more.

I know someone who took his own life as a result of gambling. I've seen it have a great impact on families.

It serves as a distraction for people who perhaps are having other difficulties in their lives, not necessarily financial.

Gambling is maybe even worse than alcohol or drugs because people have had to remortgage their homes in secret, and that has clearly caused many rifts within families.

Q. You're the only female UUP Assembly member left after Jo-Anne Dobson, Jenny Palmer and Sandra Overend failed to get re-elected. Do you ever feel outnumbered, or do you get special treatment? And who's your favourite UUP MLA?

A. It really isn't an issue. I'm treated fairly and equally.

I will say that the party leader (Robin Swann) is the MLA that I've known the longest. I knew him through Young Farmers many years ago.

Q. Which politician from another party do you most admire?

A. Claire Hanna of the SDLP. She's very clever and very much on her brief.

Q. You famously opposed former party leader Mike Nesbitt's plan to transfer votes to the SDLP in the Assembly election. Why?

A. As a pro-union candidate, I've always recommended that my votes be transferred to other pro-union candidates, followed up by the rest of the candidates of your choice.

Here in Fermanagh-South Tyrone I've worked with (the SDLP's) Richie McPhillips on several issues and during the 2016 election my transfers actually got him elected.

Then, in the 2017 election, his transfers got me over the line.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate at Stormont?

A. It's a very sad situation. We have long waiting lists in the health service and this has to be sorted out. Our country cannot be held to ransom over an Irish Language Act.

Q. Do you agree with the public perception that being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. In my job, I get phone calls from 7am until 11.30 at night, or even later.

Personally I'm working harder than ever, though obviously I'm not in Stormont in a legislative capacity.

I've two offices - Enniskillen and Dungannon, 45 miles apart, and we have a great deal of constituency work ongoing.

I also call with constituents in the evening, attend functions and go to social events twice a month.

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

A. I can play the piano, but not very well. I'm grade five at the moment, but my aim is to improve on that. I also represented my school at netball and basketball.

Q. Do you believe in God? And does death frighten you?

A. I'm a member of the Church of Ireland and attend every Sunday. I'm a secretary in the Diocese of Clogher. I'm not afraid of dying because of my strong faith.

Q. Apart from your parents, have you ever lost anyone else close to you?

A. I lost one of my best friends and teaching colleague from the maths department very suddenly one day in the classroom. She was in her 40s with a young family of four children.

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

A. I can't be anything other than my wedding day and, of course, the day my daughter was born.

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

A. The deaths of my parents and my best friend. That taught me to take each day at a time and give of my best for that day.

Q How do you relax outside politics?

A. I enjoy writing treasure hunts and then going on them, but these days my time is limited. I also like reading biographies and autobiographies. I'm reading about the author Barbara Cartland at the minute, although I don't actually read her books. I enjoy reading about different people.

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

A. Treat people with respect and integrity.

Q. .If you were in trouble, who would you turn to?

A. My husband. He's a quiet, calm, collected person whom I really trust for advice.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My parents. They were honest, hard-working and I'll always remember their kindness to people and animals.

Q. Who's your best Catholic friend?

A. In the teaching profession I've worked with a number of Catholics, not that I ever asked them their religion or denomination, and I've retained those friendships to this day.

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

A. Devon in the south of England for its lovely climate and terrific scenery. I'm not a sun-seeking person. I like going back to Wales, where I was a student. And I've enjoyed a number of Mediterranean cruises because I like exploring the various cities.

Q. What's your favourite place here?

A. Lough Erne and Fermanagh - when it's not raining.

Q. What do you believe is your greatest achievement?

A. Graduating and getting my first teaching job; that's the dividing line between being dependant and independent.

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

A. I just wish I was a little bit taller.

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

A. Sliding down railway slopes on old plastic fertiliser bags in the snow and ice when I was a mere eight years old.

That was unbeknown to my parents, who would have regarded it as extremely dangerous.

An old railway line ran through part of our family farm and my brother, sister and I used to play there as children.

Q. You grew up on the border, four miles from Newtownbutler and a mile from Clones, Co Monaghan, and now live in Lack, a village beside Kesh. What's your abiding memory from childhood?

A. I'm a farm girl -we had beef cattle and pigs. I had a really idyllic childhood roaming around the fields with the dogs.

Q. You attended Newtownbutler Primary and Enniskillen Collegiate Grammar before heading off to Bangor University in north Wales to study maths and geography. You went into teaching and are a former Head of Maths in Devenish College and Duke of Westminster High School. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. After graduating, I started at Duke of Westminster High School (a split site school in Kesh and Ballinamallard which no longer exists), teaching geography and mathematics.

After 10 years I became head of maths, and when the school building closed in 2005 and amalgamated with Enniskillen High School, becoming Devenish College, I was re-appointed head of maths there.

I retained that position until I took early retirement from teaching in 2011.

I was also president of the Ulster Teachers' Union in 2004/05.

Q. You're the Ulster Unionists' education spokesperson. Is Northern Ireland's reputation for having a really good education system deserved?

A. We do have a very good system, but we need to review education for pupils who aren't academic. Pupils still have to obtain a grade C at maths GCSE but if they want to be an electrician or plumber they'll not need the type of maths that's currently taught. The curriculum must be adjusted accordingly.

Q. Are you for or against the 11-plus?

A. An examination at the end of year 10 (when pupils are 13) would be better. At that age, a pupil has a better understanding of their capabilities. Parents will also be more aware if their children are suited to a vocational route or an academic pathway.

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

A. Take a well-earned break. I have a number of projects that I'd like to complete in my house, for a start.

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

A. No, because I'm always cautious about what I say - perhaps overly cautious.

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