Belfast Telegraph

MLA Thomas Buchanan: The pain of losing our son aged 9 to a brain tumour

We lost Nathan to a brain tumour at the age of nine... I never once questioned why it happened because I believe in the sovereignty of God, so who was I to question what he had already planned for us?

By Donna Deeney

Thomas Buchanan, West Tyrone DUP MLA, discusses his views on homosexuality, creationism and tragedy of son's death at young age.

Q. You were born in 1963 in Drumquin. Tell me about your parents and siblings?

A. I was the third child in a family of six. There were five boys - Drew, Ivan, David and Cecil - and one girl Ann, and our parents Ernest and Isobel.

I am very fortunate in that my mother and father are still alive today, which is something not everyone can say.

My father is 87 and my mother is 80 and they are both in reasonably good health.

Q. Were you close growing up?

A. We would have been a close-knit family and we would still be. Cecil, who could be considered the brains of the family, is in England but the rest of us are still around home. We built our houses around home and have stayed close.

Q. You too are still living in Drumquin, which, according to the last census, is a village with a population that is over 70% from the Catholic tradition, so your family would have been from the other 30%. Were you aware of the religious divide growing up?

A. We wouldn't have been aware of that at all. We lived in a rural area which was mixed and we helped our Catholic neighbours and they helped us.

We knew they went to a different school and went to a different place on Sunday, but apart from that, that was it.

I remember when I was still in primary school our nearest neighbours, who were Catholics, stayed in our home while they were getting their house renovated. I think it was three of them around the same age as us who stayed with us for between 18 months and two years while that was being done.

Q. Drumquin is a quiet village. How did you pass your time during your teenage years?

A. One of the things I was interested in was the pipe bands. I learned to play the bagpipe and I was very keen on that. The same pipe band is still going today and I still play the pipes today.

Other young fellas may have gone to football, but that wasn't as prevalent as it is nowadays.

Q. You got married when you were 23. How and where did you meet your wife?

A. Linda lived five or six miles away near Castlederg. We went out for around three years before we got married.

We had two of a family. Mark, who is now 27, got married a couple of years ago and had a youngster, so I am now a grandfather.

We had Nathan as well. He was our second child. He was born in 1993, but we lost him from a brain tumour in 2002. He was nine.

Q. That is every parent's nightmare. How do you cope with such a terrible loss?

A. What you do is you learn to live with it. It is a loss, a big loss for any parent, but it is something you can do nothing about.

When you lose a child, whether to an accident or something like this, you have this feeling that everything should stop because you have stopped, but that doesn't happen so you have to learn to move on again and learn to live with that loss.

It is a heavy burden to carry but as time goes on you learn to live with it.

One thing I never did was question why it happened.

A lot of people, when they lose a child, they may ask: "Why did this have to happen to me?"

But I didn't because I believe in the sovereignty of God, so who was I to question what God had already planned for us?

Q. Did the loss of your son strengthen your faith?

A. Sometimes tragedy will turn people away because they blame God, so their faith is weakened, which I think is entirely wrong.

It is not up to us to question God's ways. The Bible tells us that God's ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.

The three weeks we spent in the Royal Victoria Hospital with Nathan did strengthen our faith and gave us a closeness with the Lord that we have never felt before.

Q. Your faith includes creationism, which you believe should be taught in schools. Creationism is not a popular ideology. Why do you think it should be part of the curriculum?

A. You are right, it is not popular. For a person who says they are a born again Christian and who stands up against things that they believe are not in accordance with the Word of God, then that isn't popular and people can't really see why we do these things.

Creationism is quite simple. It is clear that God created the heavens and Earth and He created them in the space of six days and He rested on the seventh, and I think there is no good reason why that cannot be taught.

They teach evolution and all these other things within schools, so this should be taught too. That's my personal view.

Q. You also have very strong personal views on homosexuality, which you described as an abomination to a group of school children. If your grandchild or any of your nieces or nephews told you they were gay, would it affect your relationship with them?

A. You have a family and you are all part of the family circle and, irrespective of what anyone in that family circle does, they are still part of your family, no matter what, and you will love them the same as everyone else.

You can't undo anything they do and if they are going to go down a particular path, then that's the path they have chosen to go, but that doesn't take away the fact that they are part of your family.

I would have to sit that person down and say: "I love you the same as anyone else in the family, but I cannot condone what you are doing because I believe it is wrong."

I believe it is right for a parent or an uncle to tell them. I believe marriage is a union between one man and one woman, which I believe was ordained by God, so I don't believe that there is a marriage union outside of that.

Q. The political impasse could mean the introduction of direct rule, which could see equal marriage introduced in Northern Ireland. How concerned are you about that?

A. That concerns me, of course. The introduction of a law that goes against the teaching of the Word of God, irrespective of what it is, is something that I will oppose and stand firmly against. It won't be popular, and I fully understand that.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I think to give the name of a person is something they might be uncomfortable with.

I have a huge amount of Catholic friends. At least 40% of the constituency work done in my office in Omagh is for the Roman Catholic community. I think that speaks for itself.

People may look upon the DUP and think they are not catering for the entire community, but that is so far removed from the truth.

I also have people come into my office from the gay community and I am the only person, the only political representative in West Tyrone, that they come to to get work done.

There is an image of the DUP that is untrue, which is being peddled by other parties.

Q. You entered the world of politics in 1993. Prior to that what did you do?

A. I was a building contractor. When I left school I trained as a joiner and I was a stonemason as well.

We took on a lot of work for the Housing Executive and for farm buildings. We took on whatever came along and made a steady living at it.

Q. You swapped this steady living for the more unpredictable world of politics. What sparked that move?

A. I became a councillor in 1993 and I was still juggling that with running my own business, which I was able to do because the council meetings were mainly at night.

I enjoyed that but when it came to 2003, when I went into the Assembly, it wasn't possible to do both because I couldn't be on-site enough to oversee the business.

I knew I had to let one or the other go. In the 10 years since I became a councillor we had increased the party vote at every election, so I thought the best thing was to close the business at that time.

Q. What would you say is the single biggest defining moment in your political career thus far?

A. Something that always encourages me in politics is whenever you do your constituency work and so many people ring or send a card thanking you for helping them.

Being able to help people when they are in difficult circumstances and then be rewarded for that when it comes to an election and you find your vote increases. But I can't pick a single defining moment.

Q. There is a real possibility now that you may be out of a job if the political talks remain deadlocked. Does that worry you?

A. That doesn't concern me at all. I'm not in politics and in the Assembly as somebody who is there because it is a job. I'm there to serve the people and to seek to do the constituency work for them.

We hear all this talk - and maybe it is out of frustration - that we (MLAs) are only here for the money, but I can assure people that I am not there for the money and for as long as that position is there I will continue to serve the people.

There is that uncertainty and if it did come about that there was no more Assembly I would go back to my trade and I would step back into that without hesitation.

Q. You are not part of your party's negotiating team at Stormont but how well did those at the table keep people like you informed about what was being discussed?

A. The negotiating team that we put forward is the negotiating team we trust, and they were there on behalf of the party and on behalf of the people.

Obviously there were these stumbling blocks that couldn't be worked on at this time. There were red line demands that the negotiating team and the party couldn't adhere to.

Q. There has been a lot of debate about what was or was not agreed, which has led to speculation that Arlene Foster is under pressure from within the party to step down. Is that the case?

A. I am not surprised at the media reports that are saying this because the media is always looking for a news story.

Arlene Foster is not under any pressure from within the Democratic Unionist Party. She is the leader not just of the DUP, she is the leader of unionism within Northern Ireland, and that is the way is it going to remain.

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