Belfast Telegraph

How working class Catholic from west Belfast broke the mould as an Ulster Unionist


Catholic UUP Cllr Stephen McCarthy.
Catholic UUP Cllr Stephen McCarthy.
Stephen McCarthy’s grandfather Mickey Lenaghan, who was shot dead in 1991
Catholic UUP Cllr Stephen McCarthy. Pictured is Stephen McCarthy's grandfather Michael Lenaghan [far right] who was murdered during the troubles
Pictured is Stephen as a child
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The Ulster Unionists' latest councillor is a west Belfast Catholic whose grandfather was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. Stephen McCarthy is the first public representative from a working-class nationalist background for a mainstream unionist party in Northern Ireland.

His grandfather Mickey Lenaghan was a taxi driver shot dead in 1991 by the UVF with, the family believe, security force collusion.

In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the 29-year-old revealed how he had joined the party as a teenager despite growing up on the Falls Road.

"A few eyebrows were raised at home but nobody told me not to. I'm stubborn so even if they had, I'd have done it anyway," he said.

"I joined at 19 and my experience in the UUP has been nothing but positive. I certainly don't hide where I'm from. Some rural members look a bit shocked when they hear my background but they're inquisitive, not hostile."

The new UUP representative, who was co-opted on to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council in October, said he was speaking out about his roots to challenge the stereotype of what a unionist had to be.

"There are many de facto unionists in the Catholic community. People who don't consider themselves unionist because they associate unionism with Protestantism and all the baggage from the past," he added.

"But they don't want a united Ireland. Many like me think the Union makes great sense for economic reasons - that Northern Ireland's best interest lies within the UK - although Brexit is unfortunately changing that a bit for some."

Mr McCarthy grew up in the St James area of the Falls Road. An only child, his parents split up when he was a baby and he was raised by his mother Paula, a nurse.

His grandfather Mickey, who was a taxi driver in a city centre depot, was shot dead in March 1991. "The UVF used a scanner to listen to the depot's radio," Mr McCarthy said. "When my granddad reported that he was free to take another fare, they phoned in to order a taxi.

"He was forced to drive to Heather Street, off the Woodvale, where he was shot half a dozen times in the back and head. His killers rang the house and laughed down the phone before my granny knew he'd been shot."

Weeks earlier, the 50-year-old grandfather had challenged another Belfast taxi driver Colin 'Crazy' Craig, who was second-in-command of the West Belfast UVF. The loyalist, who the UVF has since acknowledged was a Special Branch informer, was killed by the INLA in 1994.

Shortly before he was murdered, Mr Lenaghan had visited childhood friend and senior republican Bernard Fox in Crumlin Road jail. But he himself had no connections with any paramilitary group. Indeed, his grandson said he had clashed with the IRA at the start of the Troubles.

"My granddad had been in the Territorial Army in the late 1960s," Mr McCarthy said. "Along with fellow ex-servicemen, he set up a shebeen in St Katherine's Road. Republicans asked for protection money and he refused.

"The IRA made them take off their shoes and march down the Falls Road in their socks as punishment. My granddad was a colourful character and always his own man."

Mr McCarthy explained how a cavalcade of taxi drivers from both sides of the community led his funeral cortege.

At his inquest, a letter of thanks was read out from the mother of a young Protestant whom Mr Lenaghan had seen being viciously beaten. He had stopped his taxi, chased the attackers away, and then driven the lad home.

The UUP councillor explained that his family was never bitter about the murder.

"Cross-community influences were very strong in my life. My mum had a friend in Woodvale and I played with her sons three streets away from where my granddad was murdered," he said.

Mr McCarthy was 10 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

He added: "We were an SDLP family. David Trimble wouldn't have been popular in our house when he walked down the Garvaghy Road with the Rev Ian Paisley.

"But I remember my granny praising him after he took to the stage at the Waterfront Hall with John Hume and Bono to urge a yes vote in the referendum. What Trimble did stuck in my head."

The family later moved to the nationalist Short Strand area of east Belfast where Mr McCarthy was an altar boy in St Anthony's Church on the Cregagh Road.

"I'm no longer religious," he explained. "Religion brings comfort to many people, although not to me. But my political role has taken me to Presbyterian, Methodist and Elim Pentecostal church services."

He learnt Irish at school, adding: "I don't remember much except the Hail Mary because we said it so often. I grew up seeing Irish as the native tongue but I don't support an Irish Language Act.

"There's a vibrant Irish scene here already so it's not needed. Sinn Fein's hijacking of Irish, which is the collective cultural property of us all, only causes some in unionism to feel uncomfortable with the language."

Mr McCarthy has family links to Sarsfields Gaelic Athletic Club in west Belfast but isn't involved himself. He supported both Northern Ireland and the Republic in the World Cup qualifiers.

Former North Down UUP MLA, the late Sir John Gorman, was a Catholic but had a military and prosperous business background.

"Mine is very different," Mr McCarthy said. "My granny, who was intelligent and ambitious, worked in a west Belfast factory. She asked if there were any jobs in the office but was told she was more suited to the shop floor. Her perception was that the good jobs weren't for Catholics.

"Friends of our family had fathers, uncles, and brothers in jail for IRA activities. Our family's attitude was 'That's for them, not for us'. But I don't in any way reject my identity as a Catholic who grew up in west Belfast.

"I was in the Felons for a drink one St Paddy's night but I've been in loyalist pubs too. I once worked as a tour guide in Belfast city centre and many of my workmates were from Sandy Row.

"They were incredibly good guys and I attended loyalist band competitions with them. We drank in the Royal Bar in Sandy Row. Working-class people in this city have so much in common and I was brought up to see the person, not their religion."

Mr McCarthy has never been at a Twelfth parade.

"I've joked with other party members that I used to go with other kids from the Short Strand to throw stones at them. But it wasn't true - my mum would have whacked me if I'd even thought of doing that!" he laughed.

The councillor is set to marry his girlfriend Laura next year. The couple met when they were both students working in Primark.

"I proposed to her in Moscow, which is my favourite city in the world. I've been there three times. We're getting married in New York, which is Laura's favourite city," he added.

Mr McCarthy graduated with a degree in journalism from Ulster University in 2015. He hoped to work in the media but was offered a job running the Westminster election PR campaign for the UUP's Danny Kinahan in South Antrim that year.

After the candidate was elected, he hired Mr McCarthy full-time. "I was thrilled to work in Westminster," he said.

"Filling in the form for a security pass raised a smile.

"You're asked if you've ever been in the company of anyone involved in terrorism, espionage or actions to overthrow the state. I thought realistically how do you answer that negatively if you've ever lived in west Belfast or got into a black taxi?"

Mr McCarthy said he had "absolutely never" considered joining the DUP, adding: "It doesn't represent a brand of unionism I espouse. It's a mix of Ulster nationalism and fear unionism. I'd be uncomfortable in the party.

"I find the DUP at times sectarian, although there are DUP representatives I know and get on with incredibly well. The same is true regarding Sinn Fein councillors, even though I'm totally opposed to that party's ideology."

As well as serving as a councillor, Mr McCarthy also works for UUP South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken whom he describes as "a fantastic mentor". He is also a big admirer of former party leader Mike Nesbitt. He added: "When Mike said he was giving his second preference to an SDLP candidate in June's Westminster election, I told him that was the sort of politics I wanted to see.

"Unfortunately, the message was lost in the event and Mike became the story. I heard some people remark 'Sure we give our second preferences to the SDLP anyway, he didn't need to say it out loud'.

"But why shouldn't Mike have said it out loud? I know it divided the party deeply. There were those who viewed it as a huge betrayal and are disgusted and there was a centre ground which wants co-operation.

"Perhaps it's an age divide as younger members were genuinely enthusiastic about what Mike said."

Mr McCarthy is also a strong supporter of new UUP leader Robin Swann. "I'm 100% behind him," he said. "The knee-jerk reaction when Robin became leader was that it was a step away from liberal or moderate unionism. He was judged by his surface characteristics - the fact he's from North Antrim and viewed as a blast from the past. That does him a great disservice. He is a working-class unionist from a trade union background who is very liberal."

Mr McCarthy lives in north Belfast and voted for his party's candidate, Robert Foster, in the March Assembly election. He then gave his second preference to the SDLP's Nichola Mallon, and his third to Alliance's Nuala McAllister.

The UUP councillor supports marriage equality and abortion law reform.

"I'm not in favour of the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland as I think it goes too far. But I support reform for cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality," he said.

"I think it's disgraceful that at a traumatic time in their lives, women are forced to travel to England and potentially criminalised. Our abortion legislation is Victorian."

Mr McCarthy describes himself as "left-of-centre". So what does he make of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn?

"His past associations with the republican movement are unfortunate," he revealed. "But I'd share his views on social and economic issues, particularly welfare reform and the lack of social housing. I find myself in agreement which many Labour policies. It's a shame they've never contested elections here."

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