Belfast Telegraph

I couldn't save victims of house fire - that is the one thing I can never forget: MLA Robbie Butler

The most personal and probing interviews: Robbie Butler, Lagan Valley UUP MLA on a day that will forever haunt him, why he got into politics and his love of fostering

By Claire McNeilly

The most personal and probing interviews: Robbie Butler, Lagan Valley UUP MLA on a day that will forever haunt him, why he got into politics and his love of fostering

Q. You're 45 and married to nurse Belinda (41), with whom you have two children, Robyn (18) and Adam (16). Where did you meet?

A. I first saw her when we were schoolkids. She was nearly four years younger than me, so the age gap wasn't good when I first noticed her.

Then when we were older I met her at Lisburn swimming pool one night. I asked her out and that was it.

We got married in Lisburn Cathedral on September 6, 1996. We went to Gran Canaria on honeymoon - it was possibly one of the worst holidays. It was a cheap hotel, we weren't party animals and our room was right above the disco, which went on to about 5am.

Q. Your wife and you have also been fostering children for the past decade. What got you into that?

A. We provide emergency and respite care primarily for primary school-age children, although we've also helped a couple of 16-year-olds.

Even though our kids were still young, we could see there was a need in the community for fostering.

Initially I didn't think we'd have the space or time as we both work full-time, but the way the fostering is set up we found we could.

We haven't been able to do it for 18 months with me changing jobs, but we've recently been reassessed and we'll probably be fostering again very soon.

Q. Does any one child stand out in your mind?

A. Our first experience was with a two-and-a-half-year-old boy. He was still in nappies, wasn't speaking and had behavioural issues.

But just two weeks after being placed in a caring, stable environment, he was toilet-trained, was starting to talk and had stopped the wee behavioural things he had.

It was really good to see how quickly you can affect a child positively, regardless of their background. We had him for two months. That's our fuel for continuing to do it.

Q. You went into local politics (with the old Lisburn Council) in 2014 before becoming an MLA last year. Why politics?

A. All my life I've had a desire to see Northern Ireland succeed and to see political representation for everybody.

I was aiming to do it when I retired around 55 because I enjoyed the fire service so much but, genuinely, looking at the political situation and the MLAs at the time, I thought that I could do a better job.

Q. You left school at 16 to become a butcher before entering the Prison Service and finally the Fire and Rescue Service. Briefly detail your career to date.

A. I was a butcher for eight years. In 1996 I started working as an auxiliary prison officer and then joined the fire service in 2000. I started as a recruit fire fighter and left as a watch commander to become an MLA.

Q. Did you meet any notorious criminals during your time as a prison officer in Maghaberry? Did you get any threats or feel threatened?

A. I was meeting people I'd seen on the news face-to-face, like Billy Wright (visiting) and Johnny Adair. That was strange. I really enjoyed working in the prison service.

There was a lot of pressure internally and externally and there was always a threat. You had to be aware of your personal safety. There was guilt about putting your family through that.

I also got verbal threats - "We know where you live" - and they did know where I lived.

Q. As a fireman you must have saved plenty of lives. Which incident that you attended has affected you most?

A. It was in 2001 at a well-developed fire in a house in Belfast. There were two people inside. We could see somebody, but it was too late. Despite our best efforts it was obvious that the fire had been burning unreported for a time, and the people perished.

You join the fire service to protect and save life, so it's the worst instance. The fire is absolutely secondary to saving lives and making a difference.

When you extinguish a fire it's an empty feeling because you feel like you failed to do what you wanted to do and you run through a series of choices - if only there had been an alarm, if only someone had alerted us earlier.

Seeing someone at a window trying to get out and not being able to save them is something that stays with you.

Q. You're a deacon at Maghaberry Elim Church. Do you have a strong faith?

A. Yes. I go to church twice on Sundays. As a deacon I carry out certain duties - taking collections and giving out communion - and I have a say in the direction of the church.

Q. What does God mean to you?

A. I became a Christian when I was eight. My Sunday School teacher convinced me that God loved all of us and had a plan for each of us. Even now I'm convinced that he was right.

Q. And what about death? Does it frighten you?

A. Death doesn't frighten me, because of my faith. It would frighten me if I thought there wasn't something better on the other side.

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

A. They were the days that my kids were born.

Q. It wasn't plain sailing with the birth of Robyn, your first child. What happened?

A. I was totally unprepared for childbirth. When I saw what actually happened with Robyn I promised my wife that I wouldn't put her through that again. I had a shock.

We actually had to wait two or three hours for a consultant to come in. The baby was stuck and the midwives seemed comfortable with it, but as a first-time dad-to-be I was panicking. I was really worried for both mother and baby until the little one finally came out. She didn't even cry. I have no idea why she didn't after all she'd gone through.

Q. Was that the most traumatic thing you've been through in your life?

A. My wife lost her mother, Vivian Vallance, on July 2, 2004. She was only 60 and died from ovarian cancer. She had 18 months from diagnosis until death. I'm very proud of how my wife dealt with it, but at the time it was very hard.

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

A. Nichola Mallon, the SDLP's new deputy leader. The fix for Northern Ireland would be in establishing relationships with people you trust. It doesn't always have to be with someone who shares all of your views, but people who you believe are genuine and who are reasonable in the articulation of their position and allow you to have that same room.

These people are precious and at the minute they're rare in Northern Ireland. I think Nichola is one of those people.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate?

A. I thought we'd moved beyond putting personal agendas above the health, wellbeing and wealth of all the people.

But it looks like we're moving back into a very politicised agenda, which is very disappointing and validates my reason for getting into politics.

I'm not here for comfort - I got into this because I thought something needed to be done.

Q. You are UUP spokesman on mental health. What role to you think social media plays in mental health, and how do you feel about bloggers using it as a platform for their issues?

A. Mental health is a complex issue and there's no silver bullet. For some people the ability to share will probably help. There is, however, an argument that, because it's not controlled, some people with a mental health condition may be vulnerable.

What I have learnt in my life is that good people do good things. Northern Ireland needs a mental health prevention strategy and it should start in schools.

Q. How do you relax outside politics? I understand you're a Boys' Brigade (BB) officer.

A. These days, fitting in the BB once a week is sometimes a struggle, but I love it because I really believe in trying to champion young people and giving them some sort of direction. I'm trying to be a role model. This year we have 29 boys aged 11 to 18.

Outside the church the most important thing for me would be if Liverpool or Northern Ireland are playing.

Q. Apart from your wife, if you were in trouble who is the one person you would you turn to?

A. My best friend, Bill Waring (73), a retired BT sales manager. I've been friends with Bill since I was 17. He gives sound advice and has been a tremendous help.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My mum. She sowed the seeds for my outgoing, positive, caring personality.

Q. And who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I've had Catholic friends since childhood. I genuinely have so many that it would be poor form to highlight one of them as a particular favourite.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. Robert (66) is a retired bar manager and Marylin, who's in her 60s, was a homemaker. I'm the oldest of five kids - William (44), a butcher, Pamela (43), a retail assistant, Sheree (39), a classroom assistant, and Gemma (34), a care assistant.

Q. You've always lived in the Lisburn area, first in Derriaghy and then Low Road. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Up until I was 10 we lived in Milltown and my memory is of going over fields and streams, doing boys' stuff. We moved house when I was 11. I went from a country upbringing to town and there was an adjustment to be made. It wasn't necessarily easy, but it was good.

Q. You went to Derriaghy Primary then Forthill Primary and Lisnagarvey High School. Did you ever go to university?

A. I went to Jordanstown in my 40s to study developing management practice. It was part-time over two years when I was in the fire service.

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

A. Komandoo in the Maldives. We spent six days there last year for our 20th wedding anniversary. It was the holiday of a lifetime.

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

A. I've a really romantic memory of Bangor. It was my Sunday School trip as a child and when I go there it takes me back to that happy place.

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

A. I would have a wider outlook on what I could have been in life at an earlier stage. I would've been a pilot, not a butcher.

Q. Do you have, or have you ever had, a nickname?

A. Bamm-Bamm, because I had a 'curtains' hairstyle when I joined the Prison Service in 1996. It's from the character Bamm-Bamm Rubble in The Flintstones - the one Barney and Betty adopt.

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

A. Pilot!

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