Belfast Telegraph

Jonathan Bell's journey to high office laced with ups and downs

By Noel McAdam

Jonathan Bell and Arlene Foster became friends in 1989 at Queen's University, Belfast, and when she became DUP leader he said she would bring a "unique style to the office".

Today he might be saying the same thing - but for different reasons.

In that same February interview he gave to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Bell was asked how he felt about taking over from Mrs Foster as Enterprise Minister, post at the centre of the Renewable Heating Incentive scandal.

"It's probably impossible," he replied.

"It's wonderful that a friend from college is now First Minister. She's definitely the best-placed person to take us forward into the future."

Before Mr Bell was a politician he was a social worker.

With a Masters degree in social work from Queen's, he became the longest-serving practitioner for a health trust's family and childcare programme. But he had a parallel interest in politics, chairing the DUP group at Queen's at one point.

The youngest of three children, he survived whooping cough at just three months.

Mr Bell's mother Norma was told he was unlikely to live. He said his parents were informed: "There is no medical reason why your child recovered."

He remained close to his mum, who died two years ago tomorrow, and keeps the wedding ring she gave him on her death bed in his wallet.

Mr Bell was among a number of politicians who quit the Ulster Unionist Party over the failure of the Provisional IRA to decommission, but soon found solace in the arms of the DUP.

He took the traditional route in local politics, emerging from local government with 14 years' experience.

David Trimble, who he had known from university days, approached him about standing for election to the Assembly.

But he moved from Craigavon where he was first elected in 1997, later serving as mayor in 2002, across the province to be elected to Ards Borough Council in 2005.

If it turns out he is standing down from a scandal-hit Assembly, he also joined in similar circumstances.

Mr Bell was not elected as an MLA when he joined Stormont, but co-opted by Peter Robinson in 2010 after his wife Iris resigned her seat in the aftermath of her affair with a 19-year-old man.

He was then successfully elected to represent Strangford the following year. He was appointed a junior minister to Mr Robinson, but in 2012 he appeared to accuse golf clubs of harbouring sectarianism and found himself in a political bunker.

He told the launch of a community relations conference: "Many communities may not paint their kerb stones or put out flags, but scratch the surface and you find the prejudice and the hate whispered behind closed doors or joked about in golf clubs or over dinner parties." Mr Bell had to apologise for his "clumsy use of language", but added he had wanted to make the point "that sectarianism isn't confined just to working class communities".

He retained the post until May of last year when he began his year as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

He is married to Lisa (45), who is a nurse. They have two children, Andrew (17) and 15-year-old Emma, and live in Conlig, Co Down. His father Fergus is a Free Methodist minister, while Norma his mum was a secretary.

He has two older brothers, Paul (51), a school principal, and 46-year-old Mark, an A&E consultant.

Belfast Telegraph

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