Belfast Telegraph

DUP MLA Alex Easton: 'I was badly bullied at school and had my face bashed in when I was 12. It affected me for years until I bumped into the guy who did it.'

The most probing interviews: North Down DUP MLA Alex Easton on his difficult childhood and why he gave notorious UDA commander Dee Stitt a glowing reference

By Claire McNeilly

Q. You're 48 and married to Denise (52), a shop assistant who also works for you part-time. You have a step-daughter, Lauren (25), who's a care assistant, and two grandchildren, Carson (5) and Casey (3). Where did you and Denise meet?

A. At a friend's house. We got to know each other over time. We were together for years before we got married on August 5, 1999. We honeymooned in Cancun, Mexico.

Q. Can you tell us about your parents, brother and sister?

A. My South African daddy Alexander Henry Knight (78) is a retired engineer. He worked abroad - in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Bolivia - for most of my life when I was growing up. He helped to design and build carpet factories. My mum Anne (78) has always been a home-maker. My brother Christopher (58) is a Church of Ireland minister and Lorraine (53) is a sister at Lagan Valley Hospital.

Q. You still live in Bangor, although you moved to England briefly when you were growing up. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. I lived in Bangor until I was two-and-a-half, when we moved to Blackburn, then Halifax. We moved to Newry when I was about six, then to Warrenpoint. We returned to Bangor when I was 10. It was a difficult childhood because my dad worked away all the time. I didn't really have a father figure. My mother had to bring me up, so I didn't really know my dad as well as I should have or would have liked to. My brother was very good to me - he played football with me and did things with me because my dad wasn't there.

Q. You attended primary schools in England before then going to Warrenpoint PS and Kilmaine PS. You then went to Gransha Boys High School before doing O-levels at Bangor Technical College. Did you like school?

A. Gransha Boys High was very difficult. It was a hard school. I was badly bullied. I was small for my age and always found it difficult to mix, probably because I moved around so much.

It wasn't a happy experience at Gransha for me. I absolutely hate bullies. I got badly beaten up at Gransha for absolutely no reason when I was 12. It happened just before school started one morning. My face was severely bashed in. It affected me really badly throughout my entire life. I actually remember wetting myself at the time.

It used to bug me until a year and a half ago, when by chance I came across the guy who did it. We stopped and chatted. He was just talking to me as if nothing had ever happened, but I actually brought the issue up. Something that was life-changing for me barely registered with him. He apologised, which brought some sort of closure for me, so I'm glad that I actually stopped and talked to him.

Q. Your connection with UDA commander Dee Stitt brought you negative publicity. For the record, what is the exact nature of your relationship with the controversial chief executive of Charter NI (who successfully rode out calls from politicians of all shades for his resignation after the revelation that the community group had been awarded substantial sums from the Social Investment Fund)?

A. All I do is work hard in the local community and with community groups. We all have to work with people with pasts and I enjoy working, in particular, in working-class communities to try and make a positive difference. That's the only way we're going to move Northern Ireland forward, and that's the only relationship we have.

Q. You gave him a glowing reference - calling him "outstanding" - and said you didn't know he was a paramilitary. Alliance's Stephen Farry challenged your account. What do you say to that?

A. When I was asked for a reference, I checked with local community representatives including Mark Gordon, who was in charge of the Kilcooley Community Forum in Bangor. I was given assurances that there would be no problems giving a reference. That's the only reason I gave it, but I stand by what I said at the time.

Q. Do you regret giving that reference now?

A. It has certainly taught me a lesson - to maybe look into things a bit further in the future.

Q. In light of the raid on Stitt's house and his interview with The Guardian newspaper (in which he described his loyalist flute bandmates as "homeland security"), would you still give him a glowing reference?

A. I would have to think twice about that.

Q. You must have been under a lot of stress when all that came out. How did people in Bangor react to you? How are things now?

A. Not many people actually ever raised it with me. I think people recognise that I work hard on the ground and that's what they're interested in - me trying to deliver for them, not the negative stories.

Q. And how was it for you personally?

A. I found it stressful. It affected me quite badly. It's made me more cautious and wary of how I deal with people in general.

Q. Do you think loyalist paramilitaries are involved in drug dealing and criminality in Bangor?

A. I wouldn't be surprised if there were bad elements involved, and if anyone knows anything about that they really should bring it to the police. I'd be happy to support them.

Q. You belong to the Church of Ireland. Would you say you have a strong faith?

A. I believe in God and I have a strong faith, but I'm not perfect and I make mistakes. I go to Ballyholme Church and attend the Church of the Nazarene the odd time.

Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you?

A. I was very close to my grandfather, Richard Benson (his mother's father), who died when he was 89. He was a Church of Ireland minister. He was probably my biggest inspiration growing up. He used to take me out for day trips. We would have gone out into the country. He was always somebody I could talk to about anything.

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

A. The day I got elected to the Assembly for the first time because I wasn't expected to get in. It was such a big achievement as the odds were against me. The DUP went from not having any seats in North Down to having two. Other great days were my grandchildren being born.

Q. And what about the worst day in your life?

A. Finding my father collapsed on the kitchen floor of his house recently was one of the most traumatic things that I've ever been through. My brother was with me at the time. Dad's not very well at the moment. He has been suffering from diabetes for at least 20 years, and he has just lost part of his right leg as a result. He's in hospital at the minute. We're all going through a terrible time right now.

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

A. Probably my brother because I have a very close relationship with him.

Q. And who is your best Catholic friend?

A. Paddy Hunt. He's also my solicitor. We've known each other since 2001.

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

A. To be true to myself.

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

A. I would like to have more confidence in myself.

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

A. Abseiling in the middle of the jungle in Mexico.

Q. Have you been trolled on social media?

A. I'm not on Twitter. I had bad experiences on Facebook with people calling me names.

Q. Didn't you get a hard time on Twitter after you wrote a letter riddled with mistakes against an Irish Language Act?

A. That was years ago.

Q. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. My first job was in a carpet sample-making factory which no longer exists, back in 1988. Then, from 2000, I held various positions in the health service - I worked as a clerical officer in the accident and emergency department in Newtownards, then in the Ulster Hospital. From there, I got a job in the medical records department, working between the Ulster and Newtownards until 2013.

Q. You first became a councillor in 2001 when you were elected to North Down Borough Council, where you served until 2013. You became an MLA in 2003. What made you decide to go into politics?

A. I didn't agree with the Belfast Agreement or with prisoner releases and what was going to happen to the RUC. Having terrorists in government was very difficult for me to accept at the time and I was pretty vocal about it. The now retired DUP councillor Alan Leslie picked up on it and asked me to join the party in 2001, just before the council elections. I was asked to stand and got elected to represent Ballyholme and Groomsport.

Q. Which of your contemporary politicians from a rival party do you most admire?

A. Patsy McGlone, from the SDLP. He's somebody who makes the effort to chat to me, we've a good rapport and he doesn't do anything to wind me up. He's a pleasant character.

Q. You've been in politics for a while. How do you feel about the current stalemate?

A. Very frustrated. I want to be able to do my job to its full potential, but I'm certainly working hard on the ground in my constituency.

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

A. I have no plans as such, but I know I'll have to look for another job. I think it'll be a great loss for the people of North Down because they'll lack a lot of representation, especially with work on the ground.

Q. How do you relax outside politics? I know you're in the Orange Order.

A. I attend lodge meetings. My favourite hobby is doing family history and ancestry stuff. It's a big passion of mine. One of my ancestors was a belted knight, a rank given to him by Queen Elizabeth I, and he was given land around the Newry area.

I also did my DNA test for ancestry and discovered that I've actually got Jewish ancestry. It comes from my dad's side. That was a really interesting discovery.

I like going for walks and spending time in the countryside, and I also like reading fantasy fiction novels like Tolkien's books.

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

A. South Africa. I've been five times. Most of my family live in Fishhoek, outside Cape Town.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. The Mournes.

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

A. I'm really into gardening. I also have two cats, a moggy called Socks and a Persian blue called Ellie.

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