Belfast Telegraph

Steve Aiken: 'It was heartbreaking having to hold my own father down at the height of his battle with cancer. He knew the end was coming... he just didn't want to die in hospital'


By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Steve Aiken, South Antrim UUP, on commanding a submarine... and why he'd love it if Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon defected to his party

Q. You're 55 and married to Beth whose age you "can't possibly reveal" and who works in your constituency office as a research and policy manager. Where did you meet? Was it love at first sight?

A. She's originally from the US but is now a British citizen. We met at Cambridge University in 2008. We were just good friends to start off with. We got married on top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on March 9, 2010, and had our marriage blessed in a church in Chickamauga, Georgia.

Q. You have two children from a previous marriage - Rachel (29) and Ruth (25), who both live in Scotland - and two with Beth - Bridget (six) and Hannah Rose (five). Tell us about your late father Ross, your mother Liz, who is in her late 70s, and sister Liza.

A. My mother was a homemaker and Liza, who's in her early 50s, runs a livery stable and teaches showjumping and other equestrian activities. My father was in his mid-70s when he passed away. He had melanoma (skin cancer). We were very close. He was very active in the trade union movement, extraordinarily well-liked and well-connected and it was a great loss when he passed. It wasn't sudden, he'd been in remission, then it spread to his brain.

Q. You've also fought cancer (in 2014) and remarked that it made you see there was more to life than high-profile jobs. Were you money or ego-driven prior to that?

A. No. I was always driven by the next big challenge.

Q. Going through (bowel) cancer … that must have been a harrowing experience for you and your family?

A. First of all, listen to your wife when she says you need to see a doctor. Unusually for a man, I actually did. I probably knew in my heart of hearts there was something wrong because when you get blood in your poo you need to do something. You hear all these horror stories about the NHS, but I was operated on within 62 days of seeing the consultant. They took about a foot-and-a-half out of the intestine; they got it before it reached the lymph nodes. I was lucky, I never had to have chemo. They got it very early on. I get screened every six months. My consultant tells me one of the biggest problems with recurring cancer is people not following up on screening so I tell everyone: do the screening.

Q. Did it make you re-evaluate things?

A. I thought bowel cancer was an old person's disease. In Northern Ireland we only do screening in the early 60s. We should be screening much earlier. We don't actually have a cancer strategy here, and that's one of the big problems.

Q. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?

A. Having to hold my father down in hospital when he wanted to leave during the height of his brain tumour. He knew the end was coming; he just didn't want to die in hospital. (We brought him home.)

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No. (As a former submarine commander in the Navy) I've been close to it often enough and if it happens, it happens, there's not a lot you can do. I've had a three or four close calls when I thought I wasn't getting out alive.

Q. Do you believe in God?

A. I go to church every week - I've no option as my wife is musical director of the choir at Kilbride Church of Ireland. I'm a member of the select vestry as well.

Q. You once went 105 days on a submarine without surfacing. Didn't that drive you crazy?

A. Nope, it was very busy, and very exhausting. By the time you came back it was as if 'flip sake, we've only been away for 103 days' sort of thing.

Q. You've launched Polaris and Tomahawk missiles during your long military career. Did you fight against other submarines?

A. I have signed the Official Secrets Act and I am still bound by it.

Q. You got an OBE and the American Meritorious Service medal. What were they for?

A. Operations in the Middle East. I was one of the lead planners, both for the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. I was based and embedded with the Americans in Central Command.

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

A. Keep the water out of the people tank … Submarine Rule 101.

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

A. Taking a nuclear submarine to the North Pole, or flying in a helicopter in the Middle East and getting shot at.

Q. Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you?

A. I'm claustrophobic.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I do lots of walking, read a huge amount; I've got about 3,500 books, all with footnotes!

Q. Which politician from another party do you most admire?

A. Claire Hanna and Nichola Mallon. They're on top of their brief, see the bigger picture, have an in-depth knowledge of where we're going and the two of them have got a vision for the future. They're not mired in the past. I'd love to get them across to the Ulster Unionist Party.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate situation?

A. The DUP, and in particular Arlene Foster, helped create the perfect storm because they could have stopped the ball being handed to Sinn Fein, who then decided to pull the whole edifice down. Now they're holding everybody to ransom. They keep talking about an Irish Language Act but never tell anybody what's in it.

Q. Do you think there is a way through this impasse?

A. I don't, because Gerry Adams has no desire whatsoever to have an assembly up and running; it doesn't suit his intermediate goals. I think we'll be in full-scale direct rule by January.

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

A. It involves a large amount of constituency work. I'm supporting the people of South Antrim, fighting for jobs, dealing with what I believe is the next RHI-type scandal… all I see is RHI 2. I'm also dealing with schools, in particular primary schools, and what I see is discrimination for primary school pupils across South Antrim. On top of that, we're also desperately short of key infrastructure projects. Only in Northern Ireland can you have a success story like Belfast International Airport but not build a dual carriageway road to the airport until 2032. What are they waiting for - the end of aviation?

Q. So you're worth every penny?

A. I would put it another way. If you think that somebody else could achieve the same sort of things, that's fine. I don't think it's easy money, but I think people have reached the stage now where they can't see the point of the whole thing.

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

A. My wife.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My dad, because he achieved so much. Coming from a single parent family in Mossley, where my granny worked in the mill from when she was 14, escaping from that and then getting so far in the trade union movement; I could never achieve what he achieved. I miss him every day.

Q. What is the most important character trait for a person to have?

A. There has to be a combination of integrity, honesty and moral courage.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I've never seen anybody in religious terms.

Q. You're from Newtownabbey and now live in Doagh. You went to Ballyrobert Primary and Belfast High and joined the Navy in 1980; a career spanning 31 years. You also obtained an MA in Defence Studies from King's College London and attended the University of Cambridge. How was student life after being a proper worker?

A. If ever you needed an antidote from being at sea, a year at Cambridge was definitely it. It completely stretched my mind in a different way. It was fascinating.

Q. Was there much of a social life?

A. Social life? (Laughs) It is Cambridge. People think 'I'm going to university, I'm going to spend a lot of time drinking…' No, it was a two-and-a-half year course jammed into a year. It was tough. I studied International Relations but my area of expertise is in India and its rise as a great power - a rather unusual choice for someone who ends up a Northern Ireland politician but I spent a lot of time in India and the Middle East.

Q. You were a reservist on HMS Caroline at just 15, have been a submarine commander, a CEO of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce and ex-CEO of Dublin City University Educational Trust. Tell us about your career to date.

A. I joined the BICC (from 2011 to 2014) as the CEO after the Navy. When I joined there were 20 companies; in the three-and-a-bit years I was there we grew to nearly 260. We set up policy areas in agribusiness, tourism, banking, insurance, energy, etc and I was very involved in discussions between the Department of the Taoiseach, and particularly Enda Kenny, the Cabinet Office and David Cameron. One of the things I was involved in - because I was also a member of the British Irish Association - was changing the dynamic from problems of Northern Ireland to dealing with the most important bit, which was the €65m a year economy that goes back and forth across these islands and changing the focus on that. After being headhunted, I spent a year at Dublin City University Educational Trust.

Q. What made you go into politics?

A. Mike Nesbitt. I'd been involved so much in British-Irish dialogue and spent a lot of time in Westminster, so Mike and I had several conversations about where Northern Ireland was going. There was a sense then, pre-Brexit, that Northern Ireland was changing and things like the economy were going to be much more important than sectarianism; grown-up politics. He felt that I would be a good fit. It was coming up to a year at DCU, I was fed up with the commute and I thought that if I was going to have a change in direction this was probably the time to do it.

Q. Are you disappointed that we don't have an era of 'grown-up politics'?

A. It's worse than that. We're are in a stalemate situation in that the entire political process in Northern Ireland is being held up by one man: Gerry Adams. It's very clear that Adams has decided that chaos theory is what he wishes to propose.

Q. You've served all over the world. What's your all-time favourite place?

A. Doagh.

Q. What is your greatest achievement?

A. Being a dad to four kids, and hopefully a decent husband.

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

A. I'm already job hunting.

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