Belfast Telegraph

MLA Humphrey: 'Drunk driver left mum in a coma. She never really recovered'

 'It was devastating because she just loved to dance'

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: William Humphrey, North Belfast DUP MLA, on meeting his hero Pat Jennings... and why becoming his school's head boy meant so much to him.

Q. You recently turned 50. Tell  us about your birthday  celebrations.

A. My sister had a party with the family for me.

I went out with friends the afternoon before my actual birthday following (ex-DUP MLA) Brenda Hale's book launch; on the night I went into town with friends; then in church on the Sunday the rector had the congregation at St Matthew's sing Happy Birthday.

I also had two cakes and - as I'm a lifelong Scout - one was in the form of a Scout's shirt.

Q. You're not married and don't have any children... is there anyone special?

A. Not at the moment. If it happens it happens - it's not something I worry about.

Q. You had a high-profile relationship with DUP MLA Michelle McIlveen. Did you two come close to tying the knot?

A. I'd rather not answer that. We're still really good friends. There's no animosity between us.

Q. Your mother Bessie used to work in the mills and your father Willie was a fitter. Your sister Sharon (59), a retired retail worker, has two children - Kerry and Ryan - and three grandchildren. Tell us about them.

A. My mother was very much the boss. She was 72 when she died, in March 2006. My father passed away in 2011 - he was 86.

Mummy and daddy went to Australia with my sister in 1960 for three years. Mummy didn't like it, but daddy loved it.

He had a really good job (at Rootes Group) earning six times what he was getting at Mackie's. They lived in Melbourne.

It was easier for my father; he joined an Orange Lodge and the Masons out there and made friends.

Mummy struggled to settle so they came back to Belfast and daddy started working in Shorts.

Mummy worked as a home help until she was injured by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run accident on the Woodvale Road in 1981 when I was 14.

She was in a coma for days. She was left unconscious with a broken arm, leg and pelvis and she had to live downstairs for two years. Her leg was never right afterwards, which was devastating for her, because she loved to dance.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?

A. Yes, I go to church as often as I can. I believe very much in the power of prayer.

Q. Both your parents have gone, does death frighten you?

A. Yes, because there are lots of things that I still want to do.

My mum died very suddenly of an aneurysm no-one knew she had. She took ill on a Sunday and was dead by Tuesday lunchtime. It was a huge shock.

It was St Patrick's week, so the funeral didn't happen until the Saturday.

We had 600 sympathy cards, which was a huge comfort, and 1,400 people at the funeral.

My daddy had lung cancer. We got a phone call just before Christmas 2010 to say he wasn't going to make it; they gave him six months.

We told him he wasn't well - but not that he was going to die and that he had cancer.

He died on the day Prince William and Kate were married - April 29, 2011.

He'd a very bad night on April 28. I'd stayed with him. He got up the next morning and made himself porridge and he told me he wanted to "see the young buck's wedding".

I remember there was a party in the street. He watched the wedding and went up to bed. He died that night.

He went to the bathroom and passed away. We were all downstairs and we heard him fall. We ran upstairs and he died in my niece Kerry's arms.

That was in the middle of the council election and I lost the last week of the campaign.

I was very uncomfortable going and asking people to vote, so I spoke to the rector Gregory Dunstan, now Dean of Armagh, and he told me people would understand.

My vote in that election was the highest of any council candidate in Northern Ireland.

Q. Your dad was shot in the chest by republicans on the Crumlin Road on August 15, 1969, when you were a baby. Did that colour your politics in any way?

A. No. He was a member of the Orange Order for 80 years and never once told us to hate Catholics. He was a strong unionist, but he wasn't sectarian and didn't instil that in us.

Q. You are the chairman of West Belfast Orange Hall and were great friends with Grand Secretary of the Orange Lodge Drew Nelson, who died a year ago. It must have been difficult to lose him?

A. We were friends for 25 years. A group of us used to holiday together; Drew did all the organising. He loved to travel and sample the cuisine of the local area.

We travelled all over - Malta, Italy, Sardinia, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, Benidorm.

In the last 10 years there were four of us who used to go away - myself, Drew, Peter Weir and a solicitor, Barry Finlay.

Tragically, the day after we came back from France in 2014, Barry took a heart attack and died. He was in his late 50s.

We were meant to go to France last year, but then Drew wasn't able to fly.

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

A. The former SDLP (now independent) councillor Pat Convery, who's dedicated and hard-working, with absolute integrity.

Q. Growing up who was your biggest inspiration?

A. My idol was (legendary Northern Ireland goalkeeper) Pat Jennings. I have a photo of me meeting him when I was High Sheriff.

Q. You grew up in the Woodvale area of Belfast and still live there. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. Very much so. Ottowa Street was great. I came from a two-up three-down, because my father had built on a scullery, as he called it. We had an outside toilet with no light and a corrugated asbestos roof.

Q. You went to Woodvale Junior and Glenwood Primary before attending the Boys' Model. Did you go to university?

A. I started working in the chemical industry with Charles Tennant and Co directly after my A-Levels.

I started as office junior and ended as part of the management team until I was made redundant, aged 35, in 2003.

I then worked as director of the Ulster Scots Heritage Council until 2010.

Q. You were elected to Belfast City Council in 2005, became Belfast High Sheriff in 2006 and Deputy Lord Mayor in 2010. Are you disappointed that you didn't get an opportunity to serve as Lord Mayor?

A. Yes. I would have loved that. I was to be Lord Mayor; the SDLP had promised their support, but that was taken away on the night of the vote when they switched to Naomi Long in 2009/10.

Q. You were director of the Ulster Scots Community Network (from 2003-2010) while you were a councillor and you took a pay cut to become an MLA. Was it worth it?

A. Sometimes.

Q. You started out in the UUP and then switched. Why?

A. I joined the Ulster Unionists when I was 19 and left in 2001.

I was chairman of the Ulster Young Unionist Council, which is normally a two year term, but after a year I couldn't agree with the party on so many policies in relation to the Belfast Agreement.

I publicly backed Nigel Dodds in the Westminster election and after that I left politics for a few years.

The DUP asked me to run for the Assembly in 2003; I declined, but finally joined the DUP in 2004.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate, and do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. It is hugely frustrating, but I don't think it's easy money.

I know lots of Assembly members who work very hard and are dedicated to their constituents, but if we're not able to carry out our functions fully - and I blame that on Sinn Fein - then the Secretary of State will have decisions to make.

We may have a period of direct rule for a short time.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. We were always taught the two most important things are honesty and integrity.

Q. You're district president for West Belfast Scouts. Is that how you relax outside politics?

A. I joined the Scouts when I was six. I've been a leader for 32 years.

I don't have time to give a weekly commitment now, but I still go on camp with them.

We took 30 kids to Austria last year and we're taking 80 next year to the Czech Republic.

My Venture Scout leaders Thomas and Carol Scott were great encouragers for me in life.

I've been chairman of the Orange Hall for 24 years and do a lot of work with that. The Humphrey Room in the hall is dedicated to my father, because he raised tens of thousands of pounds over the years.

I love walking, music and I'm also a big supporter of the Northern Ireland football team.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I have friends from all across society; it doesn't matter to me what their religion is.

What matters to me is that they've supported me and that I've been able to support them.

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

A. Either the day I was told I was Head Boy, the day I got installed as High Sheriff, or the night Northern Ireland beat Greece to qualify for the Euros.

Q. And what about the worst day of your life?

A. The loss of my parents. I lost mummy when I was High Sheriff and daddy when I was Deputy Lord Mayor, so it was quite public.

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

A. The Swiss Alps; so beautiful and tranquil.

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

A. When I was a wee boy we had a caravan in Millisle, so it would have to be the Ards Peninsula.

Q. To date what is your greatest achievement?

A. Being head boy at school. You had to go in and be interviewed by the head master and all the senior masters and I remember phoning home and telling my mum.

Q. Have you ever had a nickname?

A. Ginger Bap - when the world was allowed to be anti-gingers.

Q. What's the craziest thing you've ever done?

A. White water rafting in Switzerland and tobogganing in Austria.

Q Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you?

A. In the late 90s I took ballroom dancing lessons for 18 months with a girl (Rhoda) I was going out with at the time.

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

A. I haven't resolved in my mind what I'm going to do.

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