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'I knew I'd been badly injured in a Shankill bomb blast when even first-aiders were fainting after seeing what had happened to my back'

By Claire McNeilly

Alan Chambers, North Down UUP MLA, on having a gun put to his head, being struck by a hammer... and trying to save his dying father.

Q. You're 70 and married to Linda (69), who worked in insurance. Where did you meet?

A. It was a blind date in 1967. I worked in the fruit market in Belfast for Hayes & Sons. Linda was a clerical officer whose job it was to place orders for all the Co-Op shops. My job was to take those orders.

One of the senior travellers suggested that I ask her out and got me complimentary tickets to the ABC Cinema. That was the start of it.

We got married at St Matthew's Church on the Woodvale Road on March 26, 1969, and honeymooned in London.

We didn't have any money. The rector gave us back his eight-shilling fee as a wedding present.

Q. You have five children - Deborah ("40-plus") an IT manager in the civil service, shop manager Jonathan (39), David (35), a leisure centre manager and UUP councillor, and 32-year-old twins Gillian and Susan, who both worked in the civil service before becoming full-time mums. You also have seven granddaughters and five grandsons (including twin girls). Tell us about your parents.

A. My mother, Mary, better known as May, and my father, Andy, a salesman, both passed away in their late 70s or early 80s.

My father had a heart attack, went to hospital, came home prematurely, then had another heart attack and died a week later. I performed CPR on him, but he was gone. That was 26 years ago.

Mum, a homemaker, also had heart issues at the end, and she died a few years later.

Q. What about your siblings? Tell us about them.

A. Two older brothers - development manager Billy, who passed away from heart failure aged 66, and George, a fitter, who's 70. My mother shocked everyone, including herself, by having my younger sister, Heather (46), when she was 48 or 49.

Heather went to university in Australia as a mature student and is now working as a senior social worker with responsibility for the welfare of Burmese refugees.

Q. You're from east Belfast and now live in Bangor. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Absolutely. I grew up under the shadows of the gantries of the shipyard and the noises of the aircraft factory in the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard.

Q. You went to Avoniel Primary - you were the only pupil in the class to pass the 11-plus - and then Annadale Grammar. How was that?

A. I left Annadale with eight O-levels, but I had no desire to do A-levels. At Annadale I started a newspaper, The Annadale Star, and got some great scoops. I interviewed The Rolling Stones, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry and The Pacemakers and Helen Shapiro. I also snatched a few words in the Kings Hall with The Beatles.

Then, as a schoolboy, I got a job reporting on sport every Saturday for the Sunday News. They offered me a full-time job as a cub reporter, but they couldn't give me time off to do my exams, so I said no.

My parents struggled to send me to grammar school and I felt I needed to get some qualifications to honour the sacrifices they made.

Q. What was next? I know you've had a family-run supermarket in north Down for more than 40 years.

A. I took a couple of jobs - in the fruit market and the Co-Op coal yard. Then, in 1966, I saw a job advertisement for Spar store management trainees. At 19 I was managing a Spar shop on the Shankill Road with 38 employees.

After that I went out on the road as a retail operations advisor, going round the shops. One of them was a Spar in Groomsport owned by a lady who was keen to get out.

I spoke to my brother, Billy. He sold his house and we took the business on together, although he was a sleeping partner. I was manager there. There are 5,000 people through the door every week.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. I was injured in a bomb blast in the summer of 1972 when I was manager of Spar on the Shankill Road.

There was a bomb scare across the road - a van was parked outside a pub. We were waiting on a young employee bringing our sandwiches back from a local bakery, but finally we decided to get offside.

We walked up the Shankill Road and were 50 yards beyond the security barrier when the bomb went off.

A big plate glass window came flying towards me and another man who was smoking a pipe. It was actually quite funny in retrospect. Afterwards he was still smoking it, but it was upside-down.

The window broke on his back and a two-foot sliver of glass, like an arrowhead, pierced my back. It missed my spine by a millimetre. I couldn't understand why people were fainting around me. First-aiders were taking one look at my back and fainting.

When I got to the Royal, I thought I was paralysed because I had no feeling, but they told me I was going to be okay. They gave me eight stitches. I still have a scar on my back.

Q. You've also had some other pretty violent episodes in the shop in the past.

A. We've had a lot of burglaries and robberies over the years. I've been attacked by hatchets and I've had guns put to my head. One guy got eight years for attacking me with a hatchet 10 years ago.

My wife was struck by a hammer, and my daughter had a gun put down her throat.

Q. Whose death have you been most affected by, and does death itself frighten you?

A. My first experience of death was my grandfather, William Woods. I was only about 11, he was 74.

I didn't want to go to the funeral. I sat in the car. It had a very big impact on me.

It was my first experience of someone being there one minute and not there the next.

In my mid-30s, I took this dread that I wouldn't live to see my children go to primary school. It lasted a short period.

Death doesn't frighten me now. I've come to terms with it and I feel I've achieved a lot in my life.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. I believe in God. I'm not a regular church attender, but I live my life by what I think would please God.

Q. You served in the police reserves and were a football administrator for 15 years. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I watch political programmes when I can get the remote control off my wife.

I also read newspapers. I have an affinity with the Belfast Telegraph from my early teens, when I delivered it every night.

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

A. The SDLP's Claire Hanna. She's very able, articulate, approachable, and she understands a bit of humour.

Q. What's your greatest achievement to date?

A. I persuaded Lady Jean Eisenhower - President Eisenhower's granddaughter - to come to Bangor to rededicate and rename the North Pier the Eisenhower Pier, given her grandfather's connection with Bangor in the Second World War.

He'd spent a number of days in Bangor and sailed from the pier out to the ships assembled for the D-Day landings in 1944.

Another major coup was my bringing the Sister Cities International (SCI) conference to Belfast in July 2009 through my position on the SCI Executive Committee.

It was the first time in their 53-year history that it had been held outside the US.

Over 900 delegates from around the world attended the event in the Waterfront Hall, alongside 200 young people holding a youth conference at Queen's.

Q. And who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I've made a lot of good friends. Where they worship is totally irrelevant to me.

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

A. The day I got married and the days my children were born.

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

A. I'm from a very humble working-class background - two up, two down, outside toilet. I've never forgotten that.

Q. You were in local government for 25 years. You served as an independent on North Down and then North Down and Ards councils, were Mayor of North Down in 2000-01, joined the UUP in 2015 and became an MLA in May 2016. Why politics?

A. When I was 12, Belfast City Corporation came out to erect a 'School Ahead' sign near our house, but instead of putting it on the lamp-post that was already there they stuck another post into the ground two metres away.

I fired a letter off to the town clerk saying how ridiculous that was and got a letter back agreeing with me. I'm not sure they realised the letter was from a 12-year-old. That was my first success in taking on bureaucracy.

At 15 I was a Labour Party election agent - probably the youngest ever - to the late Martin McBirney.

Then, I started the school council, and one of my big achievements was getting soccer introduced into Annadale.

In the early 1990s, the late MP Rafton Pounder told me he'd back me if I ran for council, and I won a by-election in 1991/92.

Q. Why did you switch from being an independent to the UUP after so long? Was it because you fancied becoming an MLA?

A. I felt I'd done as much as I could in local government, but that I had something more to offer in politics and that being an MLA would help fulfil that. I was approached about joining the Ulster Unionists and stewed on the idea for a year. The thing that really convinced me was the leadership of Mike Nesbitt.

Q. So you must have been very sad when he stood down?

A. He's a big loss. He had a lot more to offer.

Q. You "believe a touch of humour can ease most situations", according to your Twitter handle. Is there much fun in Northern Ireland politics just now?

A. Not an awful lot.

Q. You haven't had much of a chance to be an MLA after wanting to be one for so long. Are you worried about Stormont collapsing?

A. If I have to go back to being a geriatric shopkeeper, so be it, but I've always been a supporter of devolved government and it'll be a loss to Northern Ireland if we throw that away.

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

A. I wish I was 20 years younger.

Q. And have you ever had a nickname?

A. Al - and one or two people have referred to me as Big Al.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. I got trolled for supposedly being sexist, then, ironically, I got a torrent of ageist abuse - they called me a silly old fool and a geriatric head-the-ball.

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