Belfast Telegraph

John Stewart: My maiden speech has lain in a drawer for two years now

 

John Stewart
John Stewart
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

John Stewart, Ulster Unionist MLA for East Antrim:

I was elected to the Assembly in March 2017, when devolution was suspended. I thought it would be restored long ago. I'm so frustrated at not being able to do the job I was elected to do.

I'm still incredibly busy. I have a full-time office in Larne and a part-time one in Carrickfergus. I also do home visits for elderly constituents who are seeking help.

I dealt with 2,500 individual cases last year - there were 400 in one month alone.

About 80% of my casework comes through Facebook. People contact you morning, noon and night about a wide variety of matters.

Half are social security-related. I'm dealing with over 50 PIP appeals at the moment. I'm in Belfast two or three times a week representing people at appeals. It's very time-consuming.

There's a shortage of housing in Carrick, so my office will be onto the Housing Executive two or three times a day.

I'd describe myself as a jack of all trades and maybe master of none. I'm in Stormont about once a week. I sit on several all-party groups, including International Trade and Social Enterprise, which are still meeting. It gives me a little taste of what it would be like legislating.

I'm the UUP's infrastructure spokesperson, so I attend meetings with NI Water, the Utility Regulator and department civil servants.

I do get cheeky comments from members of the public about MLAs being idle, but anybody who follows me on social media knows I put in the hours.

Sensible people realise that all MLAs aren't to blame for the political stalemate. But it is frustrating that, for the less informed, it's a case of guilt by association.

When there are local groups or schools touring Stormont, I introduce myself, tongue in cheek, with the words "I'm one of the 90 most hated people in Northern Ireland".

I do feel I'm letting people down, yet I know I'm not to blame for the impasse.

I stepped down from the council to sit in the Assembly and I gave up my job as a director in the family shoemaking business, although I'm still a reserve army soldier with the North Irish Horse.

I have thought about walking away from it all, but I genuinely believe in public service and I feel I play a vital role in helping those constituents who contact my office.

But I know things can't continue as they are. Either London will pull the plug or else people will get so fed up they will demand an end to it.

I'm part of the Good Friday Agreement generation. I was 16 when it was signed. In 2001 I visited Stormont as an A-level politics student at Carrickfergus Grammar and sat in the chamber exactly where I should now be sitting. That I've only sat there once to formally sign in as an MLA is massively disappointing.

I've written my maiden speech and it's lain in the drawer of my Stormont office for over two years now. I hope that one day I'll be able to deliver it, but I fear that day may never come.

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