Belfast Telegraph

Rev Dr Lesley Carroll: Why I’ve decided to join race for Stormont by standing for UUP in May elections

Popular Belfast cleric to bring her passion for people into politics

By Ivan Little

One of Northern Ireland's best-known female clerics is swapping the pulpit for the polls, with the aim of giving up her seat in the Presbyterian Assembly to take one in the Stormont Assembly as an Ulster Unionist MLA.

And the Rev Dr Lesley Carroll said she's excited at the prospect of a seat in North Belfast, where she has been a minister for over 30 years.

The high-profile cleric, who regularly broadcasts on BBC Radio Ulster's Thought For The Day and has been in the forefront of cross-community work, will be taking a leave of absence from her ministry to fight the election on May 5.

She has also stepped back from her role as deputy chief commissioner at the Equality Commission to campaign.

Dr Carroll revealed she was approached by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt several years ago to join the party, but only recently decided that the time was right to take up a new challenge.

"It was only after Mike Nesbitt spoke to me again recently that I thought more seriously about a career in politics. I realised I had come to the stage and age of my life that I wanted to make a move to see if I could make a real difference in North Belfast."

Dr Carroll said she had decided to join the UUP rather than the DUP because she wanted to represent people from the nationalist and republican community, as well as unionists.

"And that is not possible if you are a member of the DUP, in my opinion. Ulster Unionism provides cultural inclusion and economic unionism," she said.

The new UUP recruit sidestepped the question of the Brexit. "The party will be coming to some conclusions on that over the next while, so it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment on that from a personal perspective."

Mr Nesbitt said the Church's loss would be politics' gain, adding: "Lesley offers a rare combination of compassion, intelligence, and knowledge based on research and experience. Like me, she is a relative latecomer to seeking elected office and that is no bad thing, given the mix of life experiences among the current MLAs.

"If endorsed by the people, she will bring fresh ideas, energy and an inquisitive mind to Stormont, and will challenge us all to stretch ourselves further to deliver a society that offers social justice for all."

Dr Carroll said her cross-community work would not be affected by her entry into politics.

"I have done a lot of work on the ground with a large number of initiatives and I wouldn't want that to be any different now that I have aligned myself with the Ulster Unionist Party, because I have been and will continue to be here for all the people of North Belfast," she said.

Dr Carroll was brought up in Coalisland in Co Tyrone, where her father was a sales executive in the linen industry in Moygashel. Relatives were in the Orange Order and the security forces, but there were no formal links to political parties, though her family classed themselves as unionist supporters.

"You kind of needed to know where you were coming from in Tyrone in the bad old days. And we were very definitely from the unionist side of the community," said 53-year-old Dr Carroll, whose name on the ballot will not include her religious titles.

One of her first memories as a child was seeing the aftermath of an early civil rights march which had passed her front door and trouble flaring nearby.

"I wasn't allowed to go home for most of that day. I had been at a friend's house and by the time I got back my corgi Sandy had been tear-gassed and there was a large rubber bullet lying in our front garden, and we still have that as a relic."

As the troubles developed, Dr Carroll went to school in Dungannon, which was the most bombed town in Northern Ireland at the time.

"It was a terribly unusual life, that we didn't realise was unusual. You were driving around waving at soldiers in the back of Land Rovers and being stopped by men in balaclavas and thinking that was just how life was.

"It was all we knew, but it was a really disruptive period of my life and in Dungannon we were regularly put out of school because of bomb alerts. We lived a very contained life and the freedom to be a crazy young person was a bit limited.

"I didn't understand a lot of what was happening around me - like why our good Catholic neighbours who weren't involved in anything were being targeted and why our gardener, who was in the UDR, was a target too, because to me they were all just human beings."

Dr Carroll said she was relieved that no members of her family were killed during the Troubles, but she knew a number of families from both sides in the area who lost loved ones.

In her teens Dr Carroll went to Plymouth to study religion, philosophy and sociology and she described living in England as a brave new world of peace away from the Troubles. But she realised her future would be back in Northern Ireland.

"I made up mind at the age of 17 to move over to England to study, but I was always going to come home into the Church and I always had a commitment to a better Northern Ireland."

In 1988 Dr Carroll was only the 12th woman to be ordained into the Church. She said: "There were very challenging days because they were still people who were vehemently opposed to women in the Church. There were some folk who didn't speak to me."

Her first ministry was in Rosemary Presbyterian Church in north Belfast and she has never moved out of the area, having served in two churches which are now an amalgamated congregation - Fortwilliam and Macrory.

Her love of the area runs deep. "I have a real passion for what is good in the area. People here are resilient, determined and they remind me of the people back home in Tyrone. There is so much positive going in North Belfast and there has been for years, but in the early days we did it without talking about it."

Dr Carroll has established contacts right across the community, including members of Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. She said: "Before too long loyalists knew I was talking to republicans and republicans knew I was talking to loyalists.

"People have always known that I am who I am.

"I think a lot of them accept me as such, without necessarily liking all that I do, but that says a lot about trust."

She said she accepted the constituency still had deep-rooted problems.

"We have to face them, but we also have to take the learning we have from the past about engagement, about respect, about listening and about straight talking. We have to engage with the people who don't want to move forward."

Dr Carroll said one of her greatest desires as a prospective politician would be to see a resolution of the victims' issue. "I think the best thing that we could do would be to make some final decisions and take the debate out of it.

"The longer the debate goes on, the more likely people are to continue to be upset and the trauma will be more embedded for them. It would be wrong for the victims' hopes to be raised higher, only for them to be disappointed again."

On a personal level, Dr Carroll said: "I'm single with two dogs. They're long-haired miniature dachshunds called Ruby and Mabel."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph