Belfast Telegraph

Meet new chief executive of DUP - party's enforcer who 'puts fear of God into MLAs'

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP's powerful new chief executive first came to the attention of the party leadership when he called Tony Blair "damaged goods" on TV as a student.

Timothy Johnston was one of six young people flown to London by UTV to question the then Prime Minister in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement referendum in May 1998.

Also taking part was a young republican, Matt Carthy, who is now a Sinn Fein MEP in the Republic.

Mr Johnston's vigorous challenge of Mr Blair's record impressed the DUP leadership.

The 20-year-old was then an Ulster Unionist member but, four years later, he joined the DUP and has since held a series of high-profile positions in the party, culminating in his appointment yesterday to the newly created chief executive role.

He has long been regarded as the most powerful official in the DUP who keeps strict discipline.

"He is the ultimate enforcer. He is very capable and he knows it. He puts the fear of God in the MLAs," a party source said.

Mr Johnston was made DUP director of policy aged 24 when most of the senior positions in the party were held by middle-aged men.

A year later he was made director of communications. In the four years he held that post, he became a familiar face to Northern Ireland journalists.

On the restoration of devolution in 2007 he was appointed special adviser (Spad) to the Rev Ian Paisley, a position he also held when Peter Robinson and later Arlene Foster became First Minister.

He lost his £92,000 a year job when the Executive collapsed in January but, unlike colleague Richard Bullick, who has taken up a role in a lobbying and PR firm, Mr Johnston remained in politics.

Mr Johnston was involved in negotiating the DUP's confidence and supply deal with the Tories.

Some observers see his appointment to a role outside Stormont as a signal that devolution is doomed. DUP sources reject this, saying it reflects the party's belief that it needs to strengthen its organisation and structures.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, Mr Johnston said he was delighted to be appointed to the role. "I joined the party 15 years ago after an offer from Nigel Dodds," he recalled.

"Back then I never anticipated that I'd hold a position like this. I am looking forward to all the challenges. The DUP is in a good state. We received a massive mandate in June and many opportunities lie ahead for us."

When asked if he would consider standing for election himself, he replied: "I have had the opportunity to enter electoral politics and not been tempted by it thus far. I don't see that changing in the future."

The 39-year-old shuns the limelight and relatively little is known about the DUP's most influential behind-the-scenes operator.

Born into a farming family in Derrycarne, just outside Portadown, he lives there with wife Naomi and three children, aged seven, five and two. A diabetic, he has to inject himself with insulin up to six times a day.

He is a keen supporter of Portadown Football Club. Outside of that, his interests are history, economics and current affairs.

He attends Tandragee Free Presbyterian Church, where former DUP MLA Paul Berry also worships.

Mr Johnston attended Portadown College where he was deputy head boy. Contemporaries describe him as "at the centre of every political controversy going".

He was a strong supporter of the Orangemen at Drumcree, although he never joined the Orange Order.

He led the college's debating team, which was runner-up in the Northern Ireland schools' debating competition.

"I have very fond memories of the school and I remain in contact with my friends from those days," he said.

Mr Johnston studied law at Queen's University. He said he was encouraged into politics by a fellow student who is now a prominent Northern Ireland banker.

He was secretary and chairman of the Young Unionists at Queen's and ran unsuccessfully for the Students' Union presidency in 1999.

He was a vocal critic of the Good Friday Agreement and helped lead the opposition to David Trimble within the UUP.

An Irish Times report described him as speaking with "evangelical fervour" and predicting Mr Trimble's demise.

After graduating, Mr Johnston worked in Belfast and London as an auditor for a well-known accountancy firm. After he joined the DUP in 2002 he was seen as being particularly close to Peter Robinson.

He was instrumental in helping sell the 2006 St Andrews Agreement to key DUP figures.

"There was considerable opposition to the agreement at a meeting in Carleton Street Orange hall (in Portadown)," said a DUP source. "Timothy Johnston argued that if it was good enough for Ian Paisley, it should be good enough for everyone else in the room. He sold it on the basis of the party's trust for Dr Paisley."

Dr Paisley would be First Minister for just over a year. In 2014 he publicly blamed his young Spad for compiling a critical survey before his resignation which showed deep dissatisfaction with his leadership and dealings with Martin McGuinness.

Mr Johnston described the claim as "regrettable and untrue".

Last night he said: "I always held 'Doc' in high regard and I still do, I hold his legacy in high regard. That was a difficult period in the history of our party."

The DUP's new chief executive again hit the headlines when former minister Jonathan Bell claimed he wouldn't allow the RHI scheme to close in early autumn 2015. Mr Johnston has rejected that allegation.

Although a Free Presbyterian, Mr Johnston is not identified with the party's fundamentalist wing. A political opponent said: "Timmy is a straight talker. He is also a pragmatist with a capital 'P'.

"There are those in the DUP who stick to their ideological position and there are those who adapt and change according to the landscape. Timmy is in the latter camp. He recognises unionism needs to take its edge off.

"He has shown that he will move position on a range of issues. But he will go only at a pace which brings along as many people in the party as possible."

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