Belfast Telegraph

DUP's Gary Middleton: '25% of our workload is from nationalist community'

"We don't check people's identity when they come into us because we don't care"

By Donna Deeney

The most personal and probing interviews: Gary Middleton, DUP MLA for Foyle, on marrying his childhood sweetheart, religious faith and his political work.

Q. You're in the spotlight as an MLA for Foyle, but tell me about your life before that. What was your childhood like?

A. I grew up in Newbuildings and I lived there all my life, right up until two years ago when I got married and myself and Julie settled down in Bready.

I loved Newbuildings, there was a great community spirit and we grew up going to all the local organisations. I went to the cub scouts, the cadets, the youth club.

I was born in 1990 and we were just coming to the end of the Troubles era and I remember seeing soldiers patrolling through the streets so I have those memories, but it was a great time.

Q. Are you from a large family?

A. I have one brother who is five years younger than me and works for E&I Engineering in Burnfoot in Co Donegal, so he is more practical than I would be. He is great and we have a great relationship.

My mum and dad brought us up wanting for nothing and we are a very close-knit family.

My mother worked in the factory and when that closed she went to work in the supermarket where she still works. My father worked in Coolkerragh Power Station and now works in the water service.

My mother and father separated when I was 18, which was a difficult time because we were close, but it was an example of where sometimes adults can fall out of love and decide it is best to be apart.

I understand that more now but it was difficult at the time and we have managed to get through that. I have a good relationship with them both, which made it hard at the start, but they are both really good friends.

Q. You got married yourself two years ago, aged 25, so you were a relatively young groom. Was Julie your first love?

A. She was. We met in 2010 a few days before my 20th birthday so Julie, who is four years older than me, always jokes she was going out with a teenager.

When we first met I played guitar in the church youth club, which she was a youth worker in.

For a few weeks we just passed by each other and Julie would try and make conversation by asking if I wanted any crisps or juice but my answer was always "no".

Then I received a friend request from her on Facebook and from there we started to talk. I remember sitting up until three or four o'clock in the morning sending messages back and forward.

I would then be fit for nothing at work but then when I went back into the youth club we still wouldn't have the courage to speak to one another.

One day Julie asked would I teach her the guitar and that was the way in. She never did get that guitar lesson but we have never looked back.

Q. You have very recently become parents for the first time when your baby boy David was born. How has life changed?

A. It really was the best day of our lives. Nothing can prepare you for it, it was such a surreal experience when David was born.

We are loving every minute of it. It makes you tired at times, worried and anxious that we are doing things right but we have great support around us.

I am a hands-on father, both of us are up with him at night. We take turns where one of us makes the bottle and the other changes the nappy.

I enjoy it, especially the feeding when you see his wee eyes looking up at you - it is a great feeling.

Q. Do you see yourself with a large family?

A. Julie has her own ideas but I think we should take things one step at a time.

I would definitely like to have more than one. They are such a blessing, I am not going to put a figure on it but Julie definitely has different ideas so we will probably go for one more any way.

Q. You said the birth of your son David was the best day of your life, what was the worst day?

A. I don't know if there was one absolute worst but there have been a few bad times.

One of them was the death of my grandfather - my father's father - last year. I was that bit older than when I lost my other three grandparents and I was very close to him.

He had dementia and had deteriorated over a number of years, which was hard. He was very proud when I told him I got elected and I remember the election of May 2016 when he was very unwell, but I remember the smile on his face when I told him I was elected.

He wasn't able to communicate that much but the fact that he was listening was amazing to me.

Julie's grandmother passed away the week of our wedding from cancer which was also heartbreaking. To me the loss of family is the worst thing

Q. Religion plays a big part in your life. Where did your faith come from?

A. When I was young I was brought to Sunday School and I went to the cub scouts, which encouraged my faith.

I attended Carlisle Road Presbyterian Church and I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the fellowship with other people but it really became important to me when I was going through that difficult time when my parents separated.

I relied on my faith, I prayed a lot and I believe my faith encouraged me to get through the sadder, more difficult times and it is something that plays a role in my life at this moment in time as well.

Q. What is your best quality?

A. I like to see myself as a caring person.

I understand that can be difficult in terms of the political sense, because there are people who differ from me in terms of politics, but it is about understanding I really do have the caring nature.

I take a lot of things to heart, I mightn't show it, but I would be quite soft-natured.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I have a lot of friends who wouldn't identify with any faith.

I have friends who do identify as Protestant and friends who identify as Catholic but we don't tend to discuss that.

If you had asked me who is my Protestant friend, I couldn't answer that either because I don't have a hierarchy of friends. Some people wouldn't want me naming them either.

Q. You entered politics at a very early age - you were just 20 when you won your first council election. Where did your interest stem from?

A. It was developed through community work and through friends, it wasn't through family.

I saw some of the work the DUP was doing in our local area and they were looking for assistance around election time so I started helping them out when I was around 18.

I remember helping out in the 2010 Westminster election, which was a difficult election because of the MPs expenses scandal at that time. I remember going to the doors and being terrified.

I had little experience, so I was relying on people to put their faith in me.

I found that at the doors we went to, people weren't asking about what colour was the flag you were standing behind, it was what are you going to do to help the community. The fact that I was from the rural area I was looking to represent helped, but it was a real culture shock because I am not a natural public speaker.

Q. You are the lone voice for unionists in this constituency, do you feel that responsibility on your shoulders?

A. I do, and the difficulty we have is that our office is overflowing with case work and it's not just from the unionist community.

We have people coming here from Creggan, the Bogside - from all over the city.

Without exaggerating I would say 25% of our workload is from the traditionally nationalist community.

People might be surprised but that's the reality. We don't check people's identity when they come into the office, because we don't really care - if we can help we do it.

There is definitely the responsibility of being the only unionist MLA but we are also picking up case work from right across the community.

Q. The Assembly election campaign in 2016 saw the DUP in Derry embroiled in a very public spat with former member Maurice Devenney. How did you find that?

A. It was a difficult time, there is no doubt about it.

Difficult in a personal level because Maurice Devenney as far as I was concerned was one of my closest friends, someone who brought me through the party, a colleague.

In all of these things, it is best to sort them out in meetings without raising the ante in the public domain because when things are said out there they can be difficult to take back.

May 2016 was a difficult election, there is always a risk that the unionist seat could be lost in Foyle, and I think that would be very dangerous and very sad, so that was a risk.

Having said that it was by no means as difficult as the March 2017 election. We were in a real difficult situation. In March 2016 I was elected first and in 2017 I was elected last, it was between myself and Eamonn McCann - and there were only a few hundred votes in it.

Q. At the time of the RHI scandal your party leader, Arlene Foster, found herself under pressure. You were very vocal in defending her. Tell me about that.

A. I have great respect for Arlene Foster and I feel very strongly about that.

I knew the RHI situation, and there are issues around it, but I felt that there was a particular political motivation in targeting Arlene.

I think we could have had an Executive at Stormont in place and alongside that run an inquiry and try to get to the bottom of the issues but for me I was going to stand behind the leader, not because I was told to or because I am looking for some sort of favouritism, but because I genuinely believe in what she is saying.

Q. Calls have been made for MLAs' pay to stop because of the political impasse. Does the idea of having no income coming into the Middleton household concern you?

A. At the minute it doesn't concern me. My number one concern is that my constituents are represented at Stormont.

But it would be very dangerous if the decisions we were taking in Stormont were motivated by money. If that was the case, deals would be done left, right and centre and I think it would be dangerous for anyone to be thinking that way.

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