Belfast Telegraph

Alliance's David Ford on same sex marriage furore

'Being removed as an elder over my views on same-sex marriage never caused me to question my faith. I'm exasperated though, and I think they made a bad decision'

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: David Ford, South Antrim Alliance MLA, on honeymooning in a tent, singing badly in Welsh... and why he was right to quit after 15 years as party leader.

Q. You're 66 and married to Anne (who's "a bit younger"). You have four grown-up children (three girls and a boy) and six grandchildren. What does Anne do?

A. She's a full-time homemaker and keeper of her husband in line, having been a teacher (biology and environmental science) and college lecturer.

We met at an event at Corrymeela, got married in the Second Donegore Presbyterian Church near Templepatrick on June 20, 1975, and honeymooned in Switzerland.

Given that I was at Jordanstown doing my social work course at the time, and Anne had just finished her education professional qualification, we went on cheap student tickets. We travelled around for two weeks and stayed in a tent.

Q. Your father is Welsh and your mum is from here. Tell me about your parents and your sisters Shelagh and Alison (both of whom are in their early 70s).

A. My father Eric was an accountant. He passed away aged 77, when I was 40, on January 15, 1992.

He had a heart attack. It happened at home. It was big shock for my mother Jean; she came home to find him. They'd been married 51 years.

Mum was a resilient woman and she coped remarkably well. She'd worked in the Civil Service but didn't have any full-time work while we were growing up. She was 92 when she died on May 28, 2007.

Q. You now live in rural Co Antrim but grew up in Kent, went to Warren Road Primary School in Orpington and Dulwich College in London, but spent your summer holidays on your uncle's farm in Gortin, Co Tyrone. Tell me about that.

A. I had a very happy childhood; no great traumas of the kind other people talk about in biographies.

From an early age I was following my uncle around the farm and getting in his way. He had milking cows, other cattle and sheep. I enjoyed that.

Q. You moved to Northern Ireland permanently in 1969 when you went to Queen's to study economics and got involved with Alliance. What made you go into politics?

A. I'd always been interested in politics. The week the Alliance Party was formed, a friend said he was joining and suggested I should too. I thought it was a way of putting into practice the positive side of life that I saw in terms of people just getting on working together regardless of background.

Q. In April 2010 you became Northern Ireland's first Justice Minister for 38 years. Did you receive any death threats?

A. There were some specific issues, but it was more a matter of general concern rather than specific phone calls or letters.

There were two PSNI officers with me every day but I did my best to ensure it didn't affect my constituency work. It was more of a time problem than a 'going out and meeting people' problem.

Q. Did police officers ever have to intervene to stop anyone from getting close to you? Were there any scary moments?

A. An intervention from police officers came long before I was Justice Minister, when people in the street in Crumlin were a bit heightened over a parades issue.

I had a gentleman berating me, pointing his finger in my face, and was pleased to see a police officer gently walking towards us.

When somebody is standing yelling at you, wagging a finger in your face, you do wonder what's going to happen next.

Q. You were Justice Minister at the time of Robert Black's funeral and were criticised for the secrecy surrounding it. Do you think you let Jennifer Cardy's parents down by the way it was handled?

A. The Prison Service handled it entirely appropriately. Any person, no matter how reprehensible their crimes, is entitled to a decent committal and this was done in a quiet, sensitive way without publicising the arrangements and without any notice of where the ashes were disposed of.

There was no need for transparency to that level. People were told that there had been an appropriate committal and disposal of the ashes and that was all that needed to be said.

I wouldn't expect the Cardy family to be happy about anything to do with that, given the trauma they had suffered, but I think that what we did was likely to be as easy for them as anything else.

It certainly prevented other people from hyping up the issue.

Q. One of your biggest battles as Justice Minister was with certain parts of the legal profession over plans to slash the legal aid bill. Would you say you won that fight?

A. I certainly had support, quietly, from some solicitors and barristers who felt that the changes I was making were entirely appropriate.

It was probably a score draw. We didn't save the expenses of legal aid as much as we hoped but when the Lord Chief Justice suggested a compromise route I certainly thought it was the appropriate way to go.

It was the first time in many years that there'd been any serious attempt to address the costs of legal services.

Q. You were an elder in the Second Donegore Congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland until you stepped down in 2013 before being formally removed last year because of your support for gay marriage. You remain, however, an ordained elder. Did the fuss over that make you rethink your allegiance to that church?

A. I continue to worship in the congregation regularly.

I regret that others were unwilling to work with me, given that the views that I expressed around marriage included protection for the rights of churches to define and practise their own beliefs.

It never caused me to question my faith.

It certainly has created difficulties in relationships, but this is part of the challenge which faces those of us who hold views of a more liberal nature in the way most of our mainstream denominations are structured.

Q. Does it make you cross that a church that's supposed to be all-encompassing doesn't accept someone in your position trying to embrace others? Did they make a bad decision?

A. I'm exasperated. I certainly find it difficult that both the session of the church, the Presbytery, and the Judicial Commission of the General Assembly took the view that I was at fault even though I was operating within the liberty of conscience which is allowed by the General Assembly.

Clearly I think they made a bad decision.

Q. Was your faith tested by your church's intransigence?

A. My faith certainly wasn't. My relationship to elements of the Presbyterian Church was.

Q. You stepped down as Alliance leader after 15 years; had you had enough of being boss or were you feeling a bit overshadowed by Naomi Long?

A. (Laughter). That laugh is on the record. We have a good team in the Assembly, and a particularly good team from 2011 which involved Naomi and Stephen Farry as Minister for Employment and Learning working with me.

We had a good understanding but, being something of a mathematician, I thought that the 15th anniversary of the day I was elected leader was the time to step down.

Most political parties don't see leaders lasting much over 10 years. But I thought we did need the opportunity for moving forward under a new leader.

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

A. To thine own self be true.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. I don't think so because I have a faith. I believe there is something better hereafter.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. The odd visit to the rugby at Ravenhill (now rebranded Kingspan Stadium).

One time a group of us were suggesting that the referee should put his glasses on, and a fellow standing nearby said: "You're the Justice Minister, you sort him out." I pointed out that my remit didn't run to on-the-pitch at Ravenhill.

I enjoy the open air, walking, jogging, and I ran the Belfast Marathon twice in 2009 and 2010.

Q. That must have great fun for your police protection officers.

A. They didn't actually have to run the whole way; they did it in relay stages.

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

A. I'm not sure I admire many outside my own party. I have good relationships with a number of people across a range of parties.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I don't know the religious background of many of my friends because that's the kind of party I belong to.

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

A. There are so many but they mostly revolve around family issues - births and wedding days are all important days.

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

A. The point at which I got a phone call from my father's friend, who was with my mother, to say he'd died. It was the middle of the day. I was in a meeting in party headquarters and I was called out to take that call.

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

A. Grindelwald in Switzerland, where we spent most of our honeymoon.

Q. And your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. A combination of where I spent my summer holidays, the rural area around Antrim town, the north Antrim coast and Rathlin.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. It's for others to decide what my achievements were in politics, especially as Minister of Justice.

I'm proud of my family and what they have achieved and like to think I played a part in bringing them up as well as their mother.

Q. Do you have a nickname?

A. At school I got called Fordy. I'm not sure what people call me behind my back.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. The Belfast Marathon.

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

A. I sing badly in Welsh.

Q. After graduating you worked as a volunteer at the ecumenical Corrymeela Community in Ballycastle before starting work as a social worker in 1973. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. I spent 17 years as a social worker; 15 of them working for the Northern Board in Antrim, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, and two years as community services officer of Carrickfergus Council.

This was very similar kind of work to the final job - senior social worker (community work) - I had in social services, which was support for a range of voluntary organisations which were partners of social services.

Q. How do you feel about the current political stalemate at Stormont?

A. It's intensely frustrating that we haven't seen Stormont functioning properly for months.

It's annoying that those of us who are prepared to do our job are being criticised the same way as those who are actually causing the blockage.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next for you?

A. Retirement.

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