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Tories' only councillor in Northern Ireland on why as an 'unapologetic Christian' he supports same-sex marriage and abortion reform

David Harding with wife Barbara
David Harding with wife Barbara
With son Alexander

Not counting Secretary of State Karen Bradley, Coleraine councillor David Harding is the Conservative Party's only elected representative in Northern Ireland. A member of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council and a veterinary surgeon by profession, David also works nationally with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons dealing with professional conduct issues. While he says he "absolutely understands" why his party leader Theresa May did a deal with the DUP - "What was the alternative? Jeremy Corbyn?" - he is not happy about it. He talks to Lindy McDowell about the personal tragedy that overshadowed his life, his battle with depression and why he believes it is time for a new movement in local politics.

Q. You were born in Carlisle in England but where were you brought up?

A. My family moved to Dalbeattie in Dumfries when I was very young. My late father John and my mother Nancy, who is still alive, both left school when they were 14. My father started work at 14 in the iron ore mines. Later, he worked his way up in a company that sold milking machines. My mother came from a small farm.

Both sides of my family for generations lived in Moorsham, a small place in a very rural area of North Yorkshire. My sister Linda, who was the first member of our family, on both sides, to have gone to university, is a doctor in New Zealand. My other sister Ann runs a theatre in England.

Q. How did you end up in Northern Ireland?

A. I studied at Edinburgh University and after I qualified as a vet some friends in the Coleraine area told me there were opportunities for work experience here so I came over in 1984. Supposedly it was for three months...

Q. And you married a local girl?

A. Yes. I met my first wife Olive in 1989. She died in 2007 when she was only 47. Olive came from Portballintrae. She was very, very fit, very, very active. You couldn't have met anyone who was more full of life. But one evening she just collapsed.

Within two hours we were being told that she had an inoperable brain tumour and that nothing could be done. It was just devastating. Our son Alexander was nine at the time.

Olive was diagnosed in May and she died in November. It was very abrupt. It was a tough, tough time. But we did have some very good times within that space.

Q. How did you cope after Olive's death?

A. We had a rough time for a few years. We did have a lot of help, particularly from Olive's family, and from friends, who were all terrific. We went to live in Portballintrae. I was a partner in a veterinary practice but I left it to bring Alexander up, although I did do some part-time work.

Q. You've since remarried?

A. Yes, I'm married now to Barbara, who comes from a very well-known local family, the Dixons (from the department store Dixons of Coleraine).

We're very, very happy and very, very lucky. And we both know that. We have a very good life - very busy, and that's enjoyable as well. I work with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on conduct issues.

It's mentally very challenging but it's fascinating too. Alexander is now 20 and has just finished his first year at Liverpool's Hope University.

Q. You feel very strongly about mental health provision here. Does that spring from your own experience?

A. Olive's death had a profound effect upon me. I suffered from depression. I struggled with it for a number of years. I'm a very private person so I found it difficult to talk about. But it is something that will always be with me.

I think I am a better person having faced mental ill-health. I think it's made me stronger.

I believe that Olive's death made me a much more compassionate person. But then, if losing my wife didn't change me what sort of person would I be?

I do think we need to talk more and we need to do more about mental health issues. Depression is a disease that makes you think you're alone. It isolates you from within.

It's only by talking about it that you realise you're not the only person. It's so common. But so many people suffer in silence. And sadly, so many take their own lives.

Within my own profession there is an especially high suicide rate because as vets, we know what to do. We have the drugs. Vets rarely attempt suicide - they're usually successful. That's something the profession is working on, trying to help people, especially young people.

Q. When and why did you get involved in local politics?

A. I've always been fascinated by politics and I think I would have been involved at a much younger age if I hadn't moved to Northern Ireland.

Given the nature of politics here I didn't think I would ever become involved.

But after the Belfast Agreement I could see that things were changing. I joined the Ulster Unionist Party. In 2009 I was co-opted onto what was then Coleraine Borough Council.

I also stood for Westminster in the Foyle constituency on what was at that time the UUP/Conservative ticket.

I didn't win but I was one of the few candidates to improve the vote. Although if you start with virtually nothing it is quite easy to improve!

I was mayor of Coleraine in 2013/14 and that was a fantastic year. As a mayor you really get to know the whole community in a way that you wouldn't otherwise.

Q. Why did you leave the UUP?

A. I realised that I just couldn't wholeheartedly support the way politics are in Northern Ireland. I still have a very good relationship with people in the party.

Thank goodness I have good relationships with councillors in all parties. I just felt the UUP wasn't going anywhere.

And I felt this country was just getting more and more divided. I effectively became an independent.

And I did think about leaving politics.

Q. So why did you choose to join the Conservatives?

A. I was hearing again and again from people: "Oh, there's no one to vote for. I just don't want to vote for the same old sectarian politics."

I'd been a conservative with a small 'c' all my life - as indeed, I believe, are most parties here. UUP, DUP, SDLP...Northern Ireland is quite a conservative country.

We value the work ethic, we value education, we want to create businesses, we want to see people succeed. I decided: "Let's give this a real go for a couple of years. Let's see if we can generate electoral interest in the Conservative Party". I was always aware, however, of the issues with the Conservative Party here.

There's a hangover from the Seventies even, from the days of Sunningdale. We're a country with very long memories. But I also have an awful lot in common with the Conservative ethos.

We're absolutely non-sectarian and, in Northern Ireland terms, we're quite socially liberal.

Q. How do you explain the party's poor electoral showing?

A. The truth is there's a lot of sympathy for what we're saying, there's a lot of support for what we're saying, but to get people to go to the point of actually voting for the Conservative Party seems to be possibly a step too far in our society as it is.

Q. So where do you go from here?

A. At the moment, along with a number of people, especially in business, people who are not involved in politics at the moment, we're taking a serious look at what we can do to promote centre-right politics with a socially liberal element.

Entrepreneurial politics. It's not an easy one. Basil McCrea tried it with NI21. There were issues with NI21 but people did like the message. At some point we have to believe that through time that type of politics will be ingrained in Northern Ireland.

It's something that I'm looking at very carefully along with other people. How can we promote that sort of responsible conservatism with a non-sectarian, non-denominational, progressive ethos?

Q. You sound like you're talking about a new political movement, a new political party even?

A. I think it's something that has to be given very careful consideration. NI21 has failed but at some point I think there has to be a movement... I'm not sure that a political party is maybe the right way forward, but maybe a movement.

As I say, along with a small group of people we're talking seriously about these things. The way that people can express support for groups of politicians who want to move Northern Ireland forward.

There have been no formal talks. But it is more than just dinner party talk. I have said I'm committed to the Conservative Party. That's where I'm at.

But I'm a pragmatic politician. I understand the issues with the Conservative Party as it stands. And I don't think rebranding it is right.

It needs something more fundamental. If we could promote the notion of responsible capitalism. That's where I'm at.

Q. You describe yourself as socially liberal. Where do you stand on issues like gay marriage and abortion?

A. Why should I as a politician dictate to any individual how they should live their lives? I support gay marriage. I believe that people are better together.

I've been on the same journey as an awful lot of people in terms of attitude. When I was young, homosexuality was seen in a very different light. Now, I just think it's wrong to stand in the way of people who want to create a solid family life.

I am an unapologetic Christian, I am a church-goer, I sing in the choir and I do understand the issues that some people who go to my church (First Coleraine Presbyterian) might have with my views. But it is what I believe. I believe that Christianity should be a compassionate religion.

The same applies with the issue of abortion. Also, if you are a unionist you must accept what the majority of the Union decides. And it is clear that the majority of the Union have decided in favour of the abortion legislation.

I think the abortion laws that apply in England are about right. I don't think that any woman undertakes abortion lightly.

And who am I to impose my views on a woman in what must be a very difficult situation? Who am I to judge?

Q. Do you think, then, that Theresa May should go ahead and introduce the legislation here?

A. No. I think that would be a mistake politically. We need Stormont under way again. We need politicians here to get on with the job. We need people to face up to their responsibilities.

Q. Do you think the social conservatism of the DUP is reflecting badly on the Conservatives?

A.Yes. It's very hard to promote the idea of an independent Conservative Party in Northern Ireland when the Conservative Party has done a deal with the DUP. That said, I absolutely understand why they did it.

Politically there was no option. What was the alternative? Jeremy Corbyn? In reality the short-term future here is the DUP and Sinn Fein.

For anyone like me who wants to stay in politics the answer would seem to be to join the DUP and then change it from the inside. But that to me would be dishonest.

My political career is what it is. To me it wouldn't be the end of the world if I didn't get elected. It would be the end of the world, though, if I stood for something I didn't believe in.

Q. What do you make of Arlene Foster?

A. I had great hopes of Arlene when she was elected. Personally I've always had a lot of time for her. But it's clear that the DUP are not going anywhere.

They've become entrenched back into their old ways. It's a black and white choice again. You either take Sinn Fein or the DUP. The outlook for the UUP and the SDLP is bleak.

To introduce any new type of politics is very difficult.

There's many a time I've wished I never got involved in politics. But I don't think I had any choice. I think we all have to be involved. We can't give up. Northern Ireland is too good. The people are too good. Some say why bother? But... this is as good as it gets? Surely not.

It's very difficult in politics here not to make it personalised but I know politicians from every party who are really good, genuine, decent people. I believe in Northern Ireland. I will never move anywhere else. And unlike Arlene, it wouldn't matter who the government was. I will always live here.

Q. What would you say was your best achievement?

A. My son Alexander.

Q. And how do you relax?

A. I sing in my own church choir in First Coleraine and in the choir of St Columb's Cathedral in Londonderry. And I'm a very keen golfer, I'm a member of Royal Portrush. I just give thanks every day I play Royal Portrush. I just think how lucky are we to live in such a beautiful place.

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