Gavin Robinson: 'I wasn't joining flag protests but working to end them...'
Barrister-turned-politician Gavin Robinson is the DUP's candidate for East Belfast. He tells Deborah McAleese about his pride at being mayor, his strained relationship with Naomi Long and how the flag protests hurt Belfast.
Q. You have just turned 30 and you were only elected to council four years ago. Do you honestly think you have enough experience to be a Member of Parliament?
A. I think rather than judge it in years, because you could easily be 30 years older and maybe less capable, I think look at what I have been able to achieve thus far. Look at the tenure I had as Lord Mayor of the city. In an extraordinary year, in which we had three completely different issues and events for the city, people can judge me by how I handled myself.
Q. How do you think you handled yourself?
A. Well the Belfast Telegraph were able to praise me for handling what were tricky issues in a comprehensive and competent way. I'm happy that other people can look back over the course of that period and make that judgment for themselves.
Q. What sort of reaction are you getting on the doorsteps?
A. It has been great. There has been a great level of enthusiasm over the last year or so. I think people are frustrated over the representation they have had in East Belfast at Westminster.
Q. Are you ever mistaken for Peter Robinson's son on the doorsteps?
A. Sometimes. But people that know me in East Belfast and people that know my family know I have a good mother and father of my own that aren't involved in politics.
Q. Does it hurt your chances of election success that people think you are Peter Robinson's son?
A. No. I never disassociate myself from Peter. Peter is a great leader. He has been great for us in East Belfast and great for the party in Northern Ireland as a whole.
Q. But are you concerned there are electorates out there who think you are Peter Robinson's son?
A. Well, I think the more folk like you ask me the question I can put them right. I'm happy for them to meet my mum and dad.
Q. You trained as a barrister and worked at the Bar for three years. Why go into politics?
A. Politics is where my passion is. I started as a barrister in 2008. In 2010 I joined council. I found the more I got involved in council issues and the community that's really where my heart lay. When I had the opportunity to get involved in politics full time in 2011 I jumped at it. At that stage I was working as a special advisor for the First Minister.
Q. Where do your politics come from?
A. I was visiting my uncle in New York in 1998. I was 13 years old. Belfast came on the news because the Belfast Agreement had been signed while I was there. I wanted to find out what that was about so I came back and in a nerdish way wrote off to all the parties and asked them what their positions were and what this was all about. So at an early stage I started formulating political views of my own. When I went to university then I joined the DUP.
Q. You are trying to unseat a sitting MP. Do you need a political pact to win?
A. I haven't got involved in the discussions around a political pact because I think to focus them solely on East Belfast would be a mistake. For my part we are standing confidently as democratic unionists. I think the overall thrust in East Belfast has been the belief that East Belfast could be better represented. With the potential of a hung parliament there are specific opportunities for East Belfast to benefit with effective representation as part of a wider team. Whether there is a pact or not I think there is a clear choice for people who want to see change.
Q. So if the UUP doesn't stand aside that won't damage your chances?
A. No. In our most recent poll, whether in the European election or local government election, DUP were ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party in East Belfast. People have continually backed us and placed their trust in us.
Q. Naomi Long has said the gap is closing and has maybe already closed.
A. She said it but there's no basis for it at all. The Belfast Telegraph poll gave me a 6% lead. And the gap has increased because if people are unhappy with the representation they have in East Belfast there is only one choice and that is the Democratic Unionist Party.
Q. One of the issues Naomi Long raised in a recent interview was concern that business owners in the area were having to sell up because of loyalist paramilitaries. Do you agree?
A. It has been an issue in the past. What was most disappointing about that article is that it portrayed East Belfast in a negative light and an unfair light. There didn't seem to be any recourse to PSNI to confirm if what our MP was saying was true. There was no recourse to talk to individuals to see if that is what they were experiencing. It was a negative portrayal of what is a brilliant part of our city.
Q. I have been out and about in East Belfast and I have spoken to business owners who have sold up because they are fed up with the control the UVF has so I know it is happening. Are you afraid to speak out against the UVF in case you lose hardline unionist votes?
A. I haven't been behind the wall being critical or standing up for vulnerable members of our community whether it is people who feel pressure in business or individuals. I have never been reticent on that. The portrayal three weeks ago of East Belfast is not one I see now.
Q. You're afraid to take on the UVF?
A. I have only ever been attacked by one section of our community and that has been from within the extremes of loyalism. I have been physically attacked and threatened so I am not scared of anyone. That has not stopped me from speaking out in the past and it wouldn't stop me speaking out in the future again but ask the PSNI if they believe this is a current issue in East Belfast and they would tell you that they don't.
Q. So you don't believe there is a problem with the UVF in parts of East Belfast? I know plenty of residents and business owners who would disagree.
A. That's not what I'm saying. I'm talking about extortion.
Q. OK, what about their drug dealing?
A. Drug dealing is a scourge. The pressure drug dealers put on our community is abhorrent. There is no doubt about it. Cast your mind back to a year ago. I don't think there was anyone in unionism who was stronger in speaking out against the UVF than me.
There is no reticence on my part in doing that and I would do it again.
Your interest is not in my view. Your interest is in what the PSNI say, what law enforcers say. What was portrayed a few weeks ago, they say is not the case.
Q. If elected, what would you do for East Belfast?
A. There are a number of things. First thing is to get East Belfast back on a positive footing and to build on the great momentum.
As a positive team in East Belfast - whether with Peter, Robin Newton, Sammy Douglas at the Assembly - to build on the great levels of investment that we have been chided for by Alex Attwood in West Belfast who believes East Belfast is getting too much.
I want to see the benefits of peace and a strong economy and the benefits of inward investment and I want to see those benefits trickle down throughout the community.
Q. That's what the other parties want too?
A. I would be part of a bigger team, and this is an issue, one MP has no voice in Westminster. A strong team, currently the fourth largest party in Westminster, has the ability to exert influence, not only for East Belfast but for Northern Ireland as a whole. It is something more and more people are getting to grasp the potential for what we can deliver in East Belfast.
Q. You talk about inward investment. Tell Bill living on the Beersbridge Road how you'd get him a job?
A. Well currently at the minute there has been an issue with a shopping centre in East Belfast (Connswater). There has been a negative portrayal of that as well. There has been a view put out there by some elected representatives that the story is all negative. Yet I have been involved with investors and potential tenants over the course of the last number of weeks which will see investment and jobs in East Belfast. That's something we're doing already.
Q. What else are you doing for East Belfast?
A. While others are happy to portray a negative image there is something positive we are currently engaged in. Not only the Connswater Community Greenway as an infrastructure piece, I've been heavily involved as a local representative working with them in development of their new tourism centre which is being built currently, the potential to reconfigure the Strand Cinema to a Strand Arts Centre which will completely regenerate what is the last remaining art deco and traditional cinema into a multi-use space for community use, for drama, for the arts. That will involve significant financial capital and investment from city council and government but the potential is there.
Q. What is the likelihood of getting investment in the current financial climate?
A. It is already secured. I tend not to focus on the negatives in life. I tend to toil away in the background and make sure we are delivering.
Q. A lot of what you are saying is similar to what Naomi Long has said. What can you do that she can't?
A. Over the course of the last five years can our MP highlight one thing that she has delivered in East Belfast that didn't involve other politicians or government agencies in Northern Ireland? I suspect not.
Q. Do you regret the flag protests and how it all turned out?
A. At the time I was Lord Mayor so I wasn't involved in party politics at the time. The role I played was to stand up for the city of Belfast. Despite how difficult it was in not speaking for a section of the community that I represent, I was speaking for the city centre as a whole.
I can recognise that the city centre, the opportunities at Christmas, the time for businesses to thrive, the time for people to enjoy themselves was being unnecessarily curtailed. That is not to ignore the deep sense of hurt and anger there was for probably the most emotive political decision to be taken in a way which didn't reflect community balance.
You take a decision in Stormont like that and you're going to have to get agreement from both sides of the community.
In Belfast it seems to be that once you could get 50% plus one people are prepared to ignore a significant part of the community in Belfast.
That's not the way I do politics. That's not the way I believe Northern Ireland will succeed in politics.
Q. It was not a good time for Belfast.
A. I recognised it was damaging for the city and community relations as Lord Mayor and I put my efforts and the efforts of this council into redressing what was a particularly difficult time for relations in the city. I as a unionist wasn't associating myself with flag protests, wasn't joining flag protests, but was working to bring them to an end. And successfully worked to bring the parades to an end and to make sure the city could thrive again.
Q. It caused a lot of distress to members of the Alliance Party who found themselves under attack and the threat of attack. How did you feel about that?
A. I find it very uneasy. I think it was particularly difficult and I don't think in standing up for your beliefs anyone should feel under threat or fear of attack.
Q. What is your personal relationship like with Naomi Long now?
A. Naomi has not spoken to me in three years.
Q. Why has Naomi Long not spoken to you?
A. I don't know. At the time of the flag protests I sent a letter and a Christmas card to Naomi and Michael (her husband). In the letter I said I recognised how difficult a time it was and that I hoped it would be resolved soon. I didn't get a response. For three years she has gone out of her way to ignore me. She has even changed seats so that she didn't have to sit beside me. That's not the way I am. Even when I have fundamental differences with someone I still have a civil relationship with them. I always try to say hello and be civil with Naomi but she has not acknowledged me in three years. I think it is sad.
Q. You were the first DUP politician to join the panel in Pride Talks Back. Did it cause difficulties for you among some party colleagues?
A. Whilst there might have been some nervousness before I attended I think in the way in which I engaged and the fact I was prepared to share exactly the views that they would hold then afterwards there was an acceptance that it was the right think to do. In that sense I suppose I broke some ground.
Q. You have been touted by some as future leader of the DUP? Is that where your ambitions lie?
A. No. And you can put down that I'm laughing at that. I don't know who has touted it. I suspect someone who wants to undermine the Democratic Unionist Party.
Q. So you've never thought that one day you could lead the party?
Q. I heard you once worked as a clown?
A. I have had a myriad of jobs and the first was as a children's entertainer. I was 13 and I worked on the HSS and provided entertainment for people travelling to and from from Scotland on Saturdays and Sundays.
I did magic shows, balloon modelling that sort of thing. I have been a clown, a shop assistant, a butcher, a delicatessen, a car park attendant, a paper boy with the Belfast Telegraph.
Q. And you want your next job to be?
A. Member of Parliament for East Belfast.