Belfast Telegraph

Peter Weir:'Devolution is best form of government for Northern Ireland, at some point we'll get back to that'

 

The most probing interviews: Peter Weir, Strangford DUP MLA, discusses his views on the Good Friday Agreement, prisoner releases and the education system.

Q. Can you tell me about the family you were born into?

A. My father was Jim, who passed away eight years ago. My mother Margaret, known as Peggy, is still alive but quite elderly, she is 89 now. I have an older sister Barbara who lives in England. My sister is around 16 years older than me and she left home for university when I was relatively young, so it was mainly myself and my parents. I had a very happy childhood, a very loving family and a very good upbringing, which makes me feel fortunate in life because I know there are a lot of children out there that don't have that level of opportunity and advantage. I am eternally grateful to my parents for all the love they gave me in my childhood and since.

Q. You grew up in the seaside town of Bangor. Was it a good place to spend your youth?

A. For most of my childhood the Troubles were on, but while there were at times incidents in Bangor, we were probably as protected from the Troubles as anywhere could be in Northern Ireland. I grew up in a fairly normal background in that regard. I think it is great to be able to grow up close to the seaside. One of the things my dad liked to do when he came home from work was to go to the shoreline at Groomsport and go for a swim and I was able to go with him and play on the beach and enjoy the sea. That was a big advantage of growing up close to the sea and that has given me an affinity with it.

Q. You haven't married. Is there any reason for that?

A. I think it was just one of those things that didn't happen for me. I think largely I like to keep my private life private in that regard. It didn't happen for me and it doesn't particularly bother me.

Q. Was there one formative figure that shaped you growing up?

A. My parents would have been the main formative figures, but outside of that there wasn't one individual outside of my family who I looked to.

Q. Your background prior to politics was in law. You are a qualified barrister. Why did you give that up for a life in politics?

A. I qualified in law and accountancy and practised as a barrister, but politics had always been very much a passion and interest. I had a broader interest before I went to university, but I got heavily involved politically after university. I very much got the bug and got the opportunity to be a full-time politician in that regard. It is something I enjoy doing and I felt that particularly if I was elected to be a full-time official, I should be doing it full-time.

Q. Your early political life was with the Ulster Unionist Party, but that ended quite bitterly when you were expelled for refusing to support David Trimble's re-election as First Minister. Are you on friendly terms with any of your former party members now?

A. I think that after the Belfast Agreement there was an awful lot of bitterness within the Ulster Unionist Party and on a broader level it divided unionism, however I get on pretty well with people in politics, generally speaking. I never really understood the situation where people would be at polling stations on election day and refuse to talk to people because they are from a different party. I think there is a certain level of broader camaraderie within politics. Sometimes there are clearly divisions - very wide divisions - but I think I've always found it easy to be polite and nice to people. I certainly would be friendly with any of my former colleagues within the Ulster Unionist Party.

Q. You mentioned the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement, which you refused to accept in 1998. What issues did you have with its content?

A. I think principally there were three main issues. I thought there was a fudge over decommissioning and the right of people to be in government who had a terrorist background. I also opposed the prisoner releases, and I was also concerned about where the policing reforms would lead.

Q. In the 20 years since then, have you had a change of heart on those issues and would you vote differently now?

A. There were certain things that happened historically that weren't going to change. I think it was wrong that people from a terrorist background were treated differently when it came to release from prison. Everyone should be equal before the law, but people have been released and are not going to get put back in jail, so while there are certain things I would still acknowledge as wrong, they are simply not going to change on that basis. If there was a referendum tomorrow, I think the objections I had are valid and I would vote against it. To some extent, to simply try and repeat something from 20 years ago isn't particularly productive for anyone. I think where possible we have to look to the future.

Q. Before you joined the DUP you tried life as an independent Unionist. Why did you decide that wasn't for you and you would be better with a party?

A. I suppose it is a little ironic, given that I have never been married, but it was like someone coming out of a very long relationship. It was a natural route after I left the Ulster Unionist Party to head into the DUP, but it's like when you've just got divorced, you don't immediately want to jump into another marriage, so it took a little while to join the DUP. It was roughly six months after I left the Ulster Unionist Party. I never thought that being an independent for a good length of time was any way sustainable and I was made to feel extremely welcome within the DUP and have been ever since.

Q. You represent the Strangford constituency, which is probably one of the most affluent parts of Northern Ireland. What are the types of day-to-day issues you face?

A. I think there are a lot of misconceptions out there about constituency work. Strangford would actually be a mirror image of the rest of Northern Ireland in socio-economic terms. We have rural and urban areas, we have townland areas, we have areas where people are quite wealthy, but there are a lot of people in Strangford who would struggle financially. It is a lot more unionist in terms of the rest of Northern Ireland, but a lot of the problems faced tend to be pretty universal whether it's around housing, benefits or education. I think all the MLAs tend to be kept fairly busy.

Q. You are on the all-party group for muscular dystrophy. Is there any particular reason you chose that group?

A. I am on a number of all-party groups and to set up an all-party group a certain number of signatures are required and I was happy to sign that, but it isn't a group I am particularly active in. I did have a greater level of activity on the animal welfare group, of which I was chair. I have always been someone who was in favour of animal welfare but when I saw some of the animal cruelty cases they shocked me greatly. I think it is important we play a responsible role for the animal kingdom.

Q. Do you keep pets yourself?

A. It wouldn't be fair on any pet because the nature of the lifestyle of any public representative is that we are out late at nights. I would probably be someone who is too sentimental, and frankly if I had a dog or a cat and it died, it would utterly break my heart.

Q. You were the last Education Minister and during that time you voiced your support for academic selection and rights of schools to select children on the basis of academic ability. Do you think that when a child is 10 or 11 years of age, that is the best time to do this?

A. People can take different routes in their lives, so I don't think there is a single choice which leads to entirely shaping your future. Generally speaking, a lot of opponents of academic selection are very well intentioned, but the added complication is that if you remove academic selection you create a society which is much more unequal because you will always have selection within society. If you move it away from academic selection, you move it towards a position of ability to pay.

If you look at what happens in England, you have the vast majority of people going to comprehensive schools and those who are wealthy enough send their children to private schools where they have a massive advantage. To remove academic selection, I think will make it a much more unequal society, even if that wouldn't be the intention of those who seek to remove it. I am passionate about trying to ensure there is the greatest level of opportunity possible.

Q. You gave up a career in law to go into politics. If you were to leave politics, is there another career path that you might follow?

A. I guess to be perfectly honest, given the precarious position the Assembly is in, this is something we need to face up to but I would cross that bridge when we come to it. Maybe I'll become a lion tamer, who knows? But I might have difficultly being tough on the lions, so maybe that wouldn't be a good career choice.

Q. You are a member of the Presbyterian Church. Is religion important to you?

A. I certainly have a strong faith. I try not to judge people on the basis of their faith. I do believe in God and that is something that is important to me.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. It used to be Bono but we fell out over the Belfast Agreement.

Q. What is the single biggest regret in your life?

A. I can't think of a single particular incident. I am sure there are things we all regret, but I don't think it is particularly healthy to dwell on the past when it can't be changed. I think one of the things I have learned in life is that I have seen at times constituents who come in with problems and we do our best and we solve them, but I have also seen the times people come in with relatively minor things that have taken over their lives. I do try not to dwell on those issues.

Q. Politically we are now at an impasse, where a lot of people in Northern Ireland can't imagine having their own government again. Do you hold any hope of the Assembly functioning again?

A. I always tend to be fairly optimistic and I tend to believe that at some point devolution will return. I think it's hard to be optimistic in the short-term, given where we are. Having been through this for 20 years, the Assembly is both stable and unstable simultaneously. What I mean by that is that eventually all roads seem to lead back to a solution of some sorts and power-sharing.

On the flip side of the coin, even when the sun appears in the sky and everything seems to going well, we never seem to be far away from another crisis, but ultimately across the board there is an acceptance that devolution is the best form of government for Northern Ireland and I think at some point we will get back to that.

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