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DUP MLA William Irwin: 'There's nothing in this world that can prepare you for the death of your own child'

 

By Claire McNeilly

The most probing interviews: Newry and Armagh DUP MLA William Irwin on nearly being killed by a bull, RHI boilers, running a family farm and the perils of tree felling.

Q. You're 61 and married to Olive (60), a home-maker, who helps look after your 10 grandchildren - James (17), Joel (12), Megan (8), Tommy (7), Amy (6), Joe (5), Jake (4), Gracie (3) and twins Charlotte and Olivia (8 months). Where did you two meet?

A. At a youth event at Portadown Free Presbyterian Church in 1975 when she was 17 and I was 18. We went out together a few times and got married on May 3, 1977, when I was 20 and she was 19. We went to Portrush on honeymoon.

Q. Tell us about your children.

A. George (40) is a dairy and beef farmer, Diane (38) is an insurance adviser, Linda (34) works in my constituency office and Esther (32) is a home-maker.

Q. Your middle son Philip drowned in a tragic swimming pool accident when he was just 15. He'd have been 36 on May 5. It can't be easy for you, even now, 21 years later.

A. It's not. I've often said there's nothing in this world that prepares you for the death of a child. You read about it in the paper, hear about it in the news, but you never expect it to happen at your house. It's one of the most traumatic experiences you'll ever face.

Q. What exactly happened on that day?

A. Wednesday, February 19, 1997 just started off like any other day. Philip asked if he could go with his mates to the swimming pool in Portadown and we agreed. It was half-term holiday.

Later, my wife and I, who hadn't brought a mobile phone with us, arrived back home at tea-time from a trip to Omagh, to be told by our youngest daughter Esther, who was about 10, that we had to go to the hospital because there'd been an accident. We left immediately and, at the hospital, we were ushered into a side room where a doctor shook my hand and then shook his head. Philip was kept on a life support machine until the following day. There was no brain activity and he passed away the next day, Thursday, February 20.

The pool had been packed. The water in Portadown pool is 13ft deep. No-one saw anything. A man then noticed Philip in the bottom of the pool. To this day no one's certain exactly how it happened. People just don't realise how dangerous water is. Nothing will ever compare to that day we lost our son. I look at things differently now. You realise how important your children are - although you always did.

Q. How did your other children cope?

A. They didn't want to talk about it. They didn't want to annoy their mum and dad; they knew how traumatic it was for us. Words can't describe it. I lost my father and that's sad, but you can accept 'normal' death. The loss of your child, however, is something you never expect.

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

A. Yes. I go to church every week. Our faith helped us get through the death of our son. But that's not to say that we didn't ask ourselves 'why?'. We believe we'll meet him again some day.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. No, but I hope it's not for a while yet. I believe whenever your time on earth is complete, that's the day you'll pass.

Q. Is it true that you were attacked and nearly killed by a bull in 1996?

A. It is. An elderly neighbour, William Stothers, wanted to borrow my bull,and we tried to chase him out of the field with a van but he didn't respond. I'd never been afraid of bulls, so I jumped out and hit him a tap on the nose with a stick, to chase him. But before I knew it, I was on the ground. Bulls and cows have a lot of power in their heads and I was just like a bag of crisps to this fella. He put me on the ground and tossed me right round the van, jabbed me against the vehicle and crushed me. My neighbour saved my life. He jumped out and hit the bull in the eye with a stick. It was just enough to put the animal back and I crawled into the van. I was sore for months. Up until that day I had never been afraid of a bull or any animal, but that was an education for me. My life flashed before me when that bull was tossing me about. I knew I was in big trouble.

Q. What did you do with the offending bull?

A. The next morning he was shipped off to the factory. He didn't survive 24 hours. That was the end of him. William saved my life; he'd cry if you asked him about it today.

Q. Your son-in-law had three 'RHI' boilers in his chicken houses. Was that embarrassing for you?

A. It's not embarrassing in the least. I was totally unaware that they were even thinking of putting in those type of boilers until afterwards. Their business is totally separate to mine. It cost approximately £50,000 to convert each chicken house from gas to RHI. Farmers were encouraged to do this. They had to meet renewable energy targets; that's why the scheme was devised in the first place. It was very unfair the way people were actually demonised for having boilers. I had to declare that my son-in-law had RHI boilers because, wrongly, there was a perception that MLAs were involved in helping their friends get boilers. That was unfair, and certainly not true in my case.

Q. The DUP MP David Simpson was in the news recently over allegations of an extra-marital affair. What do you make of that?

A. It's sad from a family perspective; there are two families involved.

Q. Your mother Geraldine, a home-maker, is still fighting fit at 90. Tell us about your dad and your siblings.

A. My father George died at 54, when I was just coming 20. He'd been ill for some time. He worked very hard on the family farm and took rheumatoid arthritis. I have a brother Stephen (59), a businessman, who emigrated 23 years ago and still lives in Brisbane, Australia. My sister Valerie (55) owns a shop.

Q. It must have been hard for you when your dad died, being the eldest of his children?

A. I had to take over the running of the family farm but I enjoyed the challenge. My father hadn't been well for some years so the farm was run down. As a young man I had a vision of what I wanted to do and I built a very small farm into a very large farm over a number of years.

Q. You still live on the farm, outside Richhill, Co Armagh, where you grew up. A happy childhood?

A. Very much so. Growing up on a family farm is a lovely way of life. You have the fresh air, the animals; there's never a dull moment.

Q You went to Kilmore Primary, Hardy Memorial PS and then Clounagh Junior High School before going straight to the family farm to work aged 15. Briefly tell us about your career to date.

A. My ambition in life was to grow a small farm and be successful at it. In the early days I put my whole life into the diary farm and built it up to the large unit we now have, with over 300 cows.

But I have also always had a keen interest in politics and a great love for my country, which led to me being co-opted on to Armagh City and District Council in 2003.

Q. You were Mayor of Armagh in 2006/07 and have been an MLA since March last year. Is it true that the late DUP leader Ian Paisley played a pivotal role in your entry to politics?

A. I'd been a member of the DUP since the early 1990s. When we lost our son in 1997, Dr Paisley visited our home. He made a special effort to come to the house after hearing what had happened from a family friend who was an MLA at the time.

The loss of my son made me look at life differently. By entering politics I wanted to see if I could make a difference. There's a great satisfaction in helping people.

Q. So was the Paisley visit a deciding factor?

A. When I was asked (to join the DUP team on the council back in 2003), it was.

Q. Do you think the Stormont Assembly is finished?

A. I believe there will be agreement some time in the future. It may not happen this year. Brexit may need to be out of the way before there is an Assembly.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has given you?

A. Do on to others what you would like done onto yourself.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I like to put on my boiler suit, jump into the jeep and look round the animals.

Q. Which of your contemporary politicians from a rival party do you most admire?

A. The SDLP's Mark H Durkan.

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

A. My wife.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. My father. He was a great believer in being honest and straight. His old saying was: if you can do someone a good turn, never do them a bad one.

Q. Who's your best Catholic friend?

A. Frank McKillop and I have been friends for 25 years. We go out for meals together.

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

A. The day I was elected to the Assembly.

Q. If you had to choose, where would be your favourite place in the whole world?

A. Home on the farm.

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

A. Nothing - I am who I am and that's it.

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

A. Some time ago, a neighbour asked me to chop down a large tree that was growing in the middle of a housing development. I agreed to do it as a favour. But there were houses all around it. We had to ensure that it didn't fall on any dwellings, so we acquired a large strap to pull the tree as it was cut. I got my son to get the tractor and pull the tree the way that we wanted it. When it was sawed two-thirds of the way I told him to pull; the rope and strap snapped - and this tree was sitting in the middle of a housing estate threatening to go through a house. It was panic stations; we got a few chains from neighbours and got it secured, but for 90 minutes I was totally panicking until we got the tree on the ground. I would never, ever do that again.

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

A. I'm in my element on the family farm... I'd help my son.

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