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Mervyn Storey: We profile the new Finance Minister

Mervyn Storey
Mervyn Storey

By Alex Kane

He's relatively new to the Executive so Mervyn Storey's appointment as Finance Minister surprised many people. But this astute politician is destined to remain a key player under Arlene Foster's leadership.

The shifting of Mervyn Storey from his position as Minister of Social Development to Arlene Foster's replacement at Finance took most people by surprise. He had only been in the Executive for a year - having been an MLA since 2003 - and was reckoned to be doing a good job.

Yet the promotion is a canny one. Storey's personal and family links with the DUP go back to his childhood; he worked in Ian Paisley Snr's constituency office and he is connected to an evangelical grassroots that has been at the heart of the DUP since day one.

In other words, he is old school DUP, the sort of person Foster needs on board.

On a personal level, he is also enormously likeable and surefooted. One very senior civil servant in Social Development notes: "While I would disagree with his personal beliefs when it comes to religion and young earth creationism, my experience of him was that he read deeply and thought broadly. He was prepared to listen. And he never struck me as someone who bore grudges or wanted to settle scores. Actually, he was easy to work with and much more astute than many of his critics - particularly those who oppose his religious beliefs - would know."

Robert Mervyn Storey was born at home, Number 5, Main Street, Armoy on September 4, 1964. He has one brother, Raymond. His father, Nat, is a retired engineer. His late mother, Tilly Carson, was a cousin of John Carson, a former Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast and MP for North Belfast from 1974-79.

He says: "It was a joy to spend my early years in the village of Armoy. Those days were filled with watching the Armoy Armada practice on the roads for the next motorbike race. Armoy was a mixed community. Our nearest neighbours were the Molly family. Just across the street was their famous ice cream shop and the more famous TV Molly (Tilly Veronica).

"Tilly and my mum were very close friends. Indeed, I was recently at an event in Armoy to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the community association and I said that I believed they both were the first two community police officers for the village, as there was nothing that went on in the village that they did not know about."

Storey's interest in politics began early: "Yes, very much so. I owe my political interest to my dad, who was a founder member in our area of the Protestant Unionist Party, the forerunner of the DUP. He subsequently became a founder member of the Ballymoney Branch of the DUP, of which we are both members to this day. Dad worked at elections for Dr Paisley from 1970 until the last time he stood for North Antrim in 2005. I can recall when we lived in Armoy, Dr Paisley coming to our home and all the excitement that surrounded those visits."

When he left school in 1980, aged 16 - Armoy Primary and then Ballymoney High School - he went to work in the Agivey Bacon Plant (Lovell & Christmas Ulster Ltd).

"I started as a factory operative, progressing to charge hand, supervisor and finally production manager. Unfortunately, there was a very extensive fire at the Ballymoney plant in June of 1999 and this resulted in the company moving first to Ahoghill and then finally to Cookstown. I stayed with the company until early 2000 and then went to work for Dr Paisley in his North Antrim constituency office in Ballymena."

The move to politics and to the DUP was no surprise. "It was undoubtedly the influence of Dr Paisley. He was my MP for 40 years and I grew up in that era of Dr Paisley's leadership of the DUP.

"I saw there needed to be a voice for working class unionists, who felt ignored and used by the Official Unionist Party, as it was more often called at that time. Dr Paisley and the DUP had a work ethic, representing and working for the people in a way I thought the Official Unionists didn't."

In September 2000, he served as William McCrea's campaign manager in the South Antrim by-election, caused by the death of UUP MP Clifford Forsythe, which saw a majority of 16,611 overturned by a DUP majority of 822. It was a huge defeat for David Trimble, with some observers suggesting that it "indicated the DUP's ability to finally eclipse the UUP as the majority voice of unionism". For Storey, personally, it was a very impressive first entry on his political CV.

A few months later, in June 2001, he was elected to Ballymoney council, running his own campaign as well as serving as campaign manager for Gregory Campbell in East Londonderry (who unseated the UUP's William Ross) and Ian Paisley in North Antrim. With this sort of success, it was no surprise that he was selected to contest North Antrim in the 2003 Assembly election; or that he should win.

Although he earned a reputation as a hard worker in the Assembly, particularly in his role as chair of the Education Committee, his public profile wasn't high.

But in February 2009 he found himself at the centre of a controversy when he argued that the Ulster Museum should "balance out" a proposed exhibition on Darwin and evolution.

"In the past, when I have written to the museum about the necessity to show the public an alternative to Darwin's theory (and let's stress, it's still only a theory), they have been quite dismissive. They could be subject to a legal challenge under equality legislation within Northern Ireland, if they chose to ignore alternative views that many people here in the province believe."

Yet the more interesting aspect of the story was the revelation that Storey, along with a number of other DUP members and supporters, was linked to an organisation known as the Caleb Foundation. The foundation brought together a group of evangelical Protestant groups, mostly to lobby on issues like creationism, abortion and same sex marriage. "It is now becoming very clear that, if some have their way, Northern Ireland will soon be a cold house for evangelical Christians. We are on a very dangerous and sinister road, and in such circumstances it is vital that we elect representatives who are not afraid to stand up for Bible standards." (Foundation website)

He is married to Christine and they have three children, Lydia, Phillip and Jonathan.

He describes the day Lydia graduated in 2014 (from Ulster University with a degree in geography) as the "proudest moment of my life, because she was the first Storey to do so".

And for all of his deep roots in the party and his links with the evangelical base, it is clear Storey has also moved on in political terms. "We have to work with whomever the electorate chooses. Yes, it's a challenge. But we collectively still need to focus on those issues that are the day-to-day concerns of the people here, whatever their political allegiances: concerns such as health, education and employment. And more good quality housing. If I have seen and learned anything from my time in DSD, it is the worth of building good quality homes for our communities."

He seems fairly sanguine when asked whether unionists and republicans need to do more to understand each other's history: "We all can learn from history, and looking at history can help us understand other people's viewpoints, even if we do not necessarily agree with their political philosophy. We are not bound by history, however, and most people want politicians with their focus on the future; they are more interested in 2016 than 1916."

Storey's task before the Assembly closes in March for May's election is to steer the budget through its final stages.

There are hurdles ahead, but his own history suggests that he will clear them. One thing is certain - he is going to remain a key player under Foster's leadership.

A life so far

He was born at home in September 1964

He left school at 16

His personal and family roots in the DUP go back 45 years

He relaxes to the Statler Brothers (country music and gospel)

He met Muhammad Ali in Louisville, Kentucky

He masterminded one of the DUP's most famous victories over the UUP

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