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Robin Swann: ‘When I first got elected, I was called a political pigmy... people keep referring to my lack of height, but there isn’t anything I can do about that so I’m not bothered’

By Claire McNeilly

Robin Swann, North Antrim UUP MLA on his son's heart defect, jibes about his height, childhood asthma, Stormont's future and trolls on Twitter.

Q. You're 46 and married to  Jennifer (39), a clerical officer. Tell us how you met.

A. Through Young Farmers 15 years ago. We'd formed a pipe band; Jenny played drums, I played bagpipes. We got married on September 20, 2008, in Magheramorne Presbyterian Church and had a reception in the Dunsilly Arms in Antrim. We honeymooned in Mauritius.

Q. You have two children - Freya, who's seven, and Evan (five next month). Evan was born with a congenital heart defect and had to undergo open heart surgery. How is he now?

A. He's good at the minute. He'll need another operation at some stage; it's a continual six-monthly monitoring. He had two open heart surgeries, in Birmingham, in 2014 and 2015. He's at primary school and gets one-to-one support because he still has dietary problems. We haven't treated him any differently from Freya. He tires easily, but that's to be expected. He spent the first 13 months of his life in the Royal Children's Hospital so he's been through the mill. Looking back, it's hard to see how we managed but we're lucky to have had great support from both sets of grandparents.

Q. Tell us about your parents and younger brother.

A. My mother Ida (65) was a hospital cleaner and my father Brian (69) a plumber. David (39) works as a fitter at Wrightbus in Ballymena.

Q. You live in Kells, Co Antrim, where you also grew up. You suffered chronic asthma as a child, how did you cope with that?

A. I was born in an old farmhouse riddled with damp - that's where the asthma came from. When I was two, we moved to a housing executive house in Kells. You either carry the asthma with you or grow out of it; I was fortunate enough to grow out of it when I was 14 but up until that I was in and out of hospital, often staying overnight. My mother's parents had a farm and my summer holidays were always spent there. I was used to running about in the fresh air, but when the asthma hit it floored me for a while.

Q. Coming from Kells, you must have TUV leader Jim Allister as a neighbour. Do you two bump into each other much?

A. I have conversations with Jim quite often; he has a sense of humour that doesn't often come out in the public domain. Also in the Kells area we have David Ford (former Alliance Party leader) whom I bump into more often; one of his grandchildren is in the same class as Evan.

Q. How tall are you, and do you get fed up with comments about your height?

A. I'm 5ft 3in and although my lack of height is regularly mentioned it's never something that has worried me. Jenny's family is the opposite; full of tall men. I got teased at school, but never in a really nasty way. It's not something I'm capable of changing so there's no point in worrying about it.

Q. You're an active member of the Orange Order and play bagpipes. Why not piano?

A. My great uncle led the Cromkill Pipe Band. It's a small rural country band, no longer on the road. It was just an interest I took at 17 to do something different but I don't even remember the last time I played the bagpipes.

Q. To date you've made 50 blood donations. Should more be done to make others follow your lead?

A. I think so. I started giving at school. There's quite a bit made of organ donation, which is important, but that's a massive commitment whereas blood donation has the same ability to save life without the same physical commitment.

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

A. Yes. I have a personal faith; I question myself at times. I go to church almost every week.

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

A. I was 19 when my grandfather Samuel Mawhinney (68) died from a heart attack.

He was a farmer. It happened at home. We were very close; I took it very badly. He was my role model - honest, decent and straight.

Other people's deaths frighten me. It's more the worry or fear of the void that's left behind.

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

A. The SDLP's Nichola Mallon. She has a straight, forthright approach and there's an openness and a willing to challenge that doesn't come with any abuse or negative approach.

Q. Is it game over for Stormont after the Kingsmill stunt?

A. It's frustrating being a politician in Northern Ireland now. A lot of us want to get back and do the full job we've been elected to do. I don't think we can go on much longer the way we are.

The ball is now firmly in the court of new Secretary of State Karen Bradley. I still think that there's a will and a hope for devolution to work in Northern Ireland.

Q. So you think the Assembly will be back up and running this year? What will you do if it collapses?

A. Yes, but in what shape or form I'm not sure. We can't return to the status quo.

There needs to be a step towards voluntary coalition or a new way of running the Assembly, should it be a committee model or a council model the way the Welsh Assembly did at the start.

Otherwise, I'll go back into operational management.

Q. Do you think there is any point in having MLAs while Stormont remains in abeyance?

A. My constituency office is busier than ever. I still see a need for MLAs.

Q. Do you see a time when the UUP and SDLP could have more cohesion and appeal to the middle?

A. We've always had a working relationship. We're a centre right party, the SDLP is centre left; I can't see a point where the two merge but there's opportunities for us to work together and with every other party willing to make Northern Ireland work.

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

A. Jenny.

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

A. Be yourself.

Q. Who's your best Catholic friend?

A. I don't put a religious tag on any of my friends. I've friends across all religions and none.

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

A. It's a mixture of my wedding day and the days my two children were born. In Evan's case, the fact that he survived made it a great day.

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

A. Evan was diagnosed at the prenatal 20-week scan; we found out there was a problem with the heart, his bowel and he had only one kidney. He was born on February 8 - three days early - and immediately taken away for scans. They were looking for a number of conditions - Down's and Edwards syndrome, which is actually listed as a fatal foetal abnormality - but he was born with neither. We'd been told beforehand that if he'd been born with Edwards it was a life expectancy of two to three days. In the end, we had different problems to deal with.

Q. What has been your greatest achievement?

A. As the Ulster Unionist candidate in the last election (March 2017), and with North Antrim moving from six seats to five, I was widely tipped as not coming back. But I was the only unionist to reach quota and the first unionist elected.

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

A. The white hairs that have started to appear.

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

A. In 2004, I was part of a group from Fields of Life who went to Uganda to support agricultural journalist Ian Harvey when he rode across Lake Victoria to raise money for a hospital out there. We were in a back up boat as he went from island to island. We spent a week without radio/mobile phone signal. The BBC did a documentary about it.

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

A. At home in Kells. To be able to come in, close the door, be with the family and switch off.

Q. You joined the YFC aged 12 and stayed there until you were 35. In the past you've been president and Co Antrim chairman of the Young Farmers' Club of Ulster. How does that link to politics?

A. When I was in Young Farmers I wasn't directly involved in politics, yet it was them who led me into it. I was president when we moved from devolution back into direct rule. I saw then the change straight away in agriculture and youth politics in Northern Ireland. We'd Brid Rodgers dealing with foot and mouth and then it moved to a direct rule minister going on the advice of civil servants. I saw a big difference personally and realised we need NI ministers to solve NI problems.

Q. You went to Kells and Connor Primary, then Ballymena Academy, after which you got a job at McQuillan Meats. Why didn't you fancy university initially (although you later did an Open University science degree)?

A. I was actually accepted by Queen's to study Agricultural Chemistry but after my A-levels I started to apply for jobs... there was one going in a lab at McQuillan so I took the opportunity of a full-time job. I don't regret it; it was money, a car and freedom.

Q. You wanted to be a joiner but your dad wouldn't let you. Tell us about your career to date.

A. I stayed at McQuillan Meats for four years (1989-93), finishing off as production manager. Then I went to SGS - a multinational inspection and testing company based in Switzerland. I started off as a plant operator and finished up as the Northern Ireland branch manager just before I became an elected politician. When I was promoted to manager I was supposed to have a degree - hence the Open University.

Q. You became an MLA in 2011. From April 2012 until April 2017 you were UUP chief whip, becoming leader after Mike Nesbitt's shock resignation. Were you glad to see him go and did you see this as your opportunity to lead?

A. I never thought I'd be leader, but when the vacancy arose I was approached by a number of party figures to put my name in the hat. The night of Mike's resignation Doug Beattie was asked on TV about who he thought should be Mike's successor and named me. It came as a shock but I was flattered. It was something I hadn't thought of.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. When I was first elected I was called a political pygmy.

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