Belfast Telegraph

Roy Beggs: 'Peter Robinson once referred to me as a loathsome creature. I think that said a lot more about him than it did about me'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Roy Beggs Jr, East Antrim UUP MLA, on disagreeing with his MP father over the peace process... and a close encounter with an angry cow.

Q. You're 55 and married to Sandra ("we're of a similar age"), a former retail manager who now works as a part-time secretary in your constituency office. You have three children - Stewart (26), a dentist; Matthew (24), a civil engineer; and Amy (23), a final year dentistry student. You've been married for 28 years. How did you two meet?

A. Our eyes met on the dance floor at a Young Farmers dance five years before we got married. We went to London and then Malta on honeymoon.

Q. Your father and namesake Roy (81) is a retired school vice-principal and former East Antrim MP, and your ("slightly younger") mum Wilma was an administrator before focusing on running the family farm outside Larne. You also have a brother Ian (57), a qualified engineer who works on the farm, and two sisters - Roma (56), a physiotherapist, and Lorraine (53), a dentist. What was growing up like?

A. We'd a happy childhood and we made our own innocent fun. We made tunnels through the hayshed, explored the wild Glynn river valley and returned with sticks which we used to make improvised pole vaults and we filled bran bags full of straw as a landing area. It was fun. I smile when I think about it.

Q. How much influence has your dad had on your career?

A. We have a similar outlook on many issues, but not all. Occasionally I've compared notes with him but the best advice he gave me was to decide for myself because I will have to satisfy myself in the long-term with the decision made.

Q. You're in the rather unusual position of having received death threats from both loyalists opposing the peace process and dissident republicans. Tell us about that.

A. In 1999 we were told there was going to be a hit on one Ulster Unionist MLA one particular weekend, and I was among those approached by police officers acting on specific information. On the other occasion, in the early 2000s, the police had found a list with my name on it...

Q. In 2003 you succeeded in having Irish rebel music removed from Aer Lingus's in-flight entertainment. Was it a tough battle?

A. I was on a flight from Dublin to Boston - at that stage the DUP wouldn't have flown through Dublin - and was surprised to hear music advocating the IRA. I simply asked: "Would Arabian Airlines be playing music advocating Osama Bin Laden?" The issue was resolved quickly. It's important that we don't glorify terrorism and do everything we can to prevent young people being drawn into organised crime gangs here.

Q. You're considered to be one of the more hardline members of the UUP. Did your father's suspension from the DUP in 1981 and subsequent defection to the UUP influence your party choice? Was there ever a time you though you might go to the DUP?

A. No, I feel much more at home with the UUP. Their approach to unionism, of reasonable accommodation with our neighbours, is the best method of guaranteeing Northern Ireland's position within the UK, rather than the 'them and us' approach of others.

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

A. I do. I was recently appointed as an elder in Raloo Presbyterian Church in Larne. I've also served as a Boys' Brigade officer there for 20 years.

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

A. Grandparents. As a family we all would have been very close. Death doesn't frighten me - if you're prepared to meet your maker, what's to fear?

Q. You like watching sport, cycling and taking long country walks with your family, and relaxing with the odd glass of red wine. You also used to love playing rugby. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I also help my dad on the farm by way of keeping fit. Before work this morning, for example, I put a lot of silage into a wheelbarrow and fed the cattle with it.

Q. You often hear about the dangers of working with animals. Have you had any close encounters?

A. I've had to jump a gate to get out of a pen after being chased by a cow that had just calved. I was trying to help the calf get onto its first feed when its mother went for me, but I escaped unscathed.

A mother of a young calf is more dangerous than a bull, and statistics prove that.

Q. Have you had any bad experiences with the media?

A. Peter Robinson once called me a "loathsome creature" in the Press when I backed David Trimble. That was my first real experience in politics of someone being nasty, but it says a lot more about Peter Robinson than it does about me.

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

A. My wedding day - October 20, 1989 - when my beautiful wife finally turned up after making me wait a while.

Q. And what about the worst day of your life? What's the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. The day my son Stewart, who was four, broke his leg in an accident with a link box on the farm. I had to meet him at A&E before he was transferred to hospital.

I remember spending a few nights in a chair at the side of his bed.

He was very young to be in hospital. He had an operation to have his leg re-set but initially we didn't know how serious it was going to be.

My dad almost lost his leg when he was in his 20s.

He was climbing a wall when the top of it fell on him.

Surgeons were recommending amputation at one stage.

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

A. The SDLP's Mark H Durkan, for his wit.

Q. As the son of a Westminster politician, did you ever foresee a time when there would be no Ulster Unionist MPs? And will there be any in the future?

A. I wouldn't have foreseen that. The current impasse might well result in new political arrangements being made. I suspect the most damaging change has been the St Andrews Agreement, which has created the race to vote for one extreme or the other, which in turn has polarised political representation. Despite RHI and Nama, people believe they have to vote DUP to stop Sinn Fein getting in.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate?

A. I'm very frustrated, particularly when receiving complaints from constituents having to wait unreasonably long for health service treatment. There's a wide range of decisions that aren't being made, and we can't continue without ministers in post. There will either have to be devolved ministers appointed, or authority passed to direct rule.

Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. We aren't doing the full job that we're elected to do and it's time for change.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. Decide for yourself, because you-have to live with the long-term consequences of your actions and decisions.

Dad gave that to me at a critical time in the peace process. He and I ended up taking different views on a vote prior to going into government in 1999. He had a more hardline approach than me. I ultimately decided to support Trimble in the establishment of the first Executive when IRA decommissioning hadn't yet taken place. We didn't fall out. I did so to apply pressure on Sinn Fein so they couldn't blame unionism for any collapse of the Assembly at that time.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you would turn to?

A. Probably my dad - and my wife.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My dad. He was a strict disciplinarian; he was the enforcer at Larne High School. He worked hard and looked after us, and he was always very good in company. He knew a lot of people. He and mum are also fantastic dancers.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I was always taught to treat people as you find them. At school I played with a mixed group at lunchtime and on the school teams, as was the case when I played for the Firsts at Larne Rugby Club. We all worked together for whatever team we played on.

Q. What's your favourite place?

A. Castlerock. I had a wee touring caravan and most summers our family usually went there or Benone.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. I developed a children and young people's group in Carrickfergus which ultimately was successful in establishing a Sure Start, helping mums and young children in parts of Carrickfergus and Larne.

Q. Have you ever had a nickname?

A. Beggsy

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

A. When I was 19 a group of us elected to go waterskiing in Newferry in December - which I did without a suitable wetsuit. I remember going for a run afterwards to get warmed up and then subsequently discovering I'd been running with a thorn in my heel, but because it was so cold I couldn't feel it.

Q. You and Sandra live in Glenoe while Stewart works in London, Matthew is "drilling tunnels under cities in Canada" and Amy is currently studying in Dundee. You must miss them?

A. I do. I hope they all come back at some point but they're adults and have to decide things for themselves. But it took a while getting used to all three being away.

Q. You went to Glynn Primary and Larne Grammar before spending a year out on company placement and then heading to Queen's to study engineering. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. Immediately prior to becoming an MLA I worked as a production manager for five years at (the now closed) Simms and Young.

Before that I worked for different manufacturing companies in production management.

Q. You became involved in politics at university, joined the Young Unionists and served as secretary of the Ulster Young Unionist Council (UYUC). You were also constituency secretary at your local UUP branch. Was your dad a major influence in your decision to enter politics?

A. There was always some politics discussed over the kitchen table, although I was the only family member actively involved - I helped my dad put up posters at election time.

At university I took part in the Young Unionist protest march against the Anglo-Irish Agreement from Londonderry to Belfast.

I never made any political ambitions for myself but I originally thought at some point that I might become a councillor.

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

A. More time farming and I'll look for an engineering management role.

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