Belfast Telegraph

Pam Cameron Q&A - My children wouldn’t speak to me for 18 months - it was hell

By Claire McNeilly

Pam Cameron, South Antrim DUP MLA, on how ‘love at first sight’ really can happen... and the Catholic voters who helped her get elected.

Q. You're 46 and married to former senior civil servant Michael  Cameron, your second husband, who's 52. Love at first sight?

A. Absolutely. We met at Stormont on June 9, 2011, a month after I'd been elected. My world turned upside down. It was a very traumatic period of my life - the worst and the best days. We got married on Friday, December 13, 2013, in New York and honeymooned there. It was incredible.

Q. You have three children - IT student William (25), Daniel (24), who works at Bombardier, and psychology student Hannah (21), with your first husband Ian Lewis, and three stepchildren - Tesco employee Connor (22), Courtney (19), who works in fashion, and Jack, an A-Level student (17). You also have three dogs - Holly, Benny and Buddy. Tell us about home life.

A. William, Hannah and Jack live with us. We have a very busy house, with lots of friends and our dogs. It's crazy; every night you have to wear ear plugs.

Q. There was a lot of press coverage of the breakdown of your 20-year first marriage, which you ended just four days after meeting Michael (you were actually accompanied by your first husband that day in Stormont). Are you and Ian friends now?

A. We're not in contact but there's no animosity. Ian has moved on; he's remarried and has a stepdaughter. In hindsight, I got married too young. My first marriage was my children; that's what my whole life consisted of. Leaving wasn't a consideration because of my Christian upbringing, but then I met Michael. He's the reason I got the courage to leave, and for me it wasn't a choice because Michael's my absolute best friend, my soulmate and I couldn't not be with him.

Q. How did your children take the shock news? Wasn't one of your sons working in your office at the time?

A. It was really difficult. I'd caused incredible hurt to all of my family, not least Ian, who didn't deserve to be hurt in that way. My kids initially - the two boys - thought that Hannah should come with me and that's what happened but then, fairly quickly, they became very angry. They wouldn't see me or speak to me for 18 months. My son stopped working with me. It was a year and a half of absolute hell... but eventually we all started to talk again and patch things up.

Q. What do you say to cynics who don't believe it's possible to fall in love so instantaneously?

A. There was no affair. When I was Antrim mayor, the old courthouse was being refurbished and I wanted a royal to do the official opening. Someone had given me Michael's name as a contact in the NIO, so I rang him to ask if he could help. We had a 40-second conversation. A few months later - on the day I handed over the chain to the new mayor - I got a Facebook message saying he was still working on the royal visit. I replied 'Thanks, but you're too late'. That, however, started a conversation. We basically talked from then until we met on June 9 - and, four days later, wham! I changed my life for the better. I've absolutely no regrets at all, never a moment's doubt.

Q. Part of the coverage of your marriage breakdown mentioned you spending a lot of money on lingerie in your sister's shop in Comber.

A. The media coverage of that was incredibly inaccurate and unfair. A receipt described an item as lingerie but it was actually a two-pack set of vest tops. When I was mayor, some money was spent on clothing and then claimed back through mayoral expenses. (Someone insisted on hoking through my claims, although I actually spent less in total than this person did when they were mayor.)

Q. Did you feel that you were an easy target?

A. The Press feel I'm fair game because I'm a woman and because I represent the DUP. I was nicknamed 'Glam Pam' by a newspaper which then took photos of me walking across a car park and then printed one with a caption that said 'Not So Glam'. They decided to name me, then slate me. When is it ever appropriate to comment on a politician's appearance? When do they treat male politicians like that?

Q. Previously you have voiced your support for gay people. Do you see yourself as one of the fresh faces of the DUP, more liberal and less hardline? Are you pro gay marriage?

A. I'm not as liberal as some people think. Personally, I don't have an issue with gay marriage but I represent a party that does and I respect that and more importantly, the voters. I have really good gay friends; one couple believe in gay marriage and the other doesn't. We're not afforded a free vote on conscience issues in our party, but I absolutely believe in party strength and I'm prepared to go with the majority.

Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith - or has that been shaken?

A. Very much so. I left the Free Presbyterian Church in 2011 and haven't been a regular church attender recently, but I believe in God and I have a strong faith.

Q. Have you lost anyone close to you and does death frighten you?

A. I was very close to my Gran (Isobel) Brown, who died on my 21st birthday. She was 88. She'd had five boys, all home births; the first time she was in hospital for herself was after she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, aged 87.

Death isn't something I think about or dwell on so no, it doesn't frighten me.

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

A. The births of my children and my wedding day to Michael in New York. We got married in City Hall. It was a 60-second service and I still managed to cry.

Q. And what about the worst day?

A. The day I made the decision to leave my first marriage.

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

A. Rea's Wood at the Lough Neagh shore in Antrim. There's a beautiful bay there where the dogs can swim.

Q. So far, what is your greatest achievement?

A. The 2016 election, because things had changed - I was remarried and wasn't sure if people would endorse me to the same level, but they did, and more. I got a significantly increased vote, which was very touching.

Q. If there was one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

A. My greatest regret is not staying at school. I will always feel like a bit of a fraud, that I shouldn't be where I am, because I don't have a piece of paper that tells me I'm remotely intelligent.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My mother, Heather Brown, who's now 70. I don't know anybody else who worked as hard as she has. She'd five children and was a full-time businesswoman. She had fantastic drive.

Q. You're the second youngest of five - Jayne (51), Gillian (49), Stephen (47) and Sarah (43). Tell us about your family.

A. My dad, Alan Brown (72), is a former milkman, and mum has been in retail all her life. When we were growing up she owned lots of shops through the worst of the Troubles. She's only now properly retiring.

Q. You live in Antrim but grew up in north Belfast and Glengormley. Happy childhood?

A. Very happy. There were five of us so there was always plenty going on. We'd a simple life but very content. We climbed trees. I was a tomboy.

Q. You attended Glengormley Primary and Glengormley High and then skipped university. Tell us briefly about your career to date.

A. I left school in 1988 when I was 16 and worked in a Ballyclare pharmacy for a year. Then I worked in one of mum's Belfast shops for three years until I was 20. I'd just turned 16 when I got engaged to Ian. I got married at 19, had my first baby at 20, second at 21 and finished at 24. I was a stay-at-home mum until 2000 when Hannah went to primary school, aged four, and then worked part-time for a year in a Magherafelt joinery. From 2001 until 2004 I worked for (DUP MLA) Wilson Clyde; then as (now DUP MP) Sammy Wilson's office manager until 2011.

Q. You first entered politics in 2005 when you were elected as a DUP councillor in Antrim. You were the first woman mayor from 2010-11. Why politics?

A. One evening in 1998 my dad told me we were going to join the DUP because someone had invited him along to a branch meeting. He never went back; I never left. At that time I was a stay-at-home mum and I loved being amongst adults. I loved the volunteering aspect of the work, the canvassing and fundraising. We were always politically aware as children, my parents followed politics in Northern Ireland. Very quickly I took on roles as branch secretary and assistant treasurer of the DUP South Antrim Association and just loved it.

Q. What's fellow DUP member Sammy Wilson like?

A. He's great. I used to get frustrated sometimes, however, because he loves to play the joker but he's probably one of the most serious politicians I've ever known. He's a workaholic. I've huge respect with how he interacts with people. Sammy's a great friend and a very supportive influence in my life; we could say anything to each other and no offence would be taken.

Q. You've said you attract a lot of support from Catholics. Why is that?

A, During my time as mayor (2010-11) I started raising money for charities and I chose two to support - Macmillan Cancer Support and Women's Aid ABCLN (Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne, Newtownabbey). My good friend, Rosemary Magill, who's now chief executive of Women's Aid, was very supportive. When I was running for the Assembly a number of Catholics signed my nomination papers. In the previous election, when we'd run three candidates, there was not much difference between first preference votes in 2007 for the third candidate, who didn't get elected, and first preference votes that I got in 2011, but what changed was the transfers - it was the Catholic vote that put me in.

Q. Who would you say is your best Catholic friend?

A. I don't give my friends labels and don't approve of giving labels.

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

A. The SDLP's Nichola Mallon and Claire Hanna. They're young mothers and fearless in their attitude.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. Spending time with Michael, socialising with our friends.

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

A. I'd go into working with the likes of Women's Aid.

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

A. Getting a tattoo of Michael's name [on the right inside wrist] four days after we met. I was so sure.

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