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DUP’s Simon Hamilton quits politics to be chief of Chamber of Commerce

Simon Hamilton in Stormont
Simon Hamilton in Stormont
Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton gives evidence to the RHI Inquiry
Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton with DUP leader Arlene Foster in the foyer at Parliament Buildings
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

One of the DUP's most high-profile figures is quitting politics to enter the world of business.

Former Economy Minister Simon Hamilton will become chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce in the autumn.

Mr Hamilton will step down as Strangford MLA in September.

The 42-year-old is also resigning as a DUP member in order to take up the job.

It is a newly created post which was publicly advertised last month.

It is understood that Mr Hamilton was the unanimous choice of the selection panel after completing two interviews.

Regarded as the DUP's most liberal figure, who was popular across the political spectrum, his departure will be a big loss to the party.

He was a lead negotiator in the previous round of all-party talks which collapsed in February 2018. He would be viewed as being more amenable to compromise with Sinn Fein than some colleagues.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Hamilton said his decision to leave politics was not a sign that he believed devolution wouldn't be restored, or that the institutions would inevitably collapse again even if it was.

"I understand that some people may see it that way but it's most definitely not the case. This is a personal, not political, decision," he said.

"Sooner or later devolution will be restored and I wish all the parties well in the current talks.

"While Stormont isn't perfect it is still far better that local politicians take decisions on the future of Northern Ireland than anybody else.

"I hugely enjoyed my time as a minister and as an MLA.

"I'm sure there will be times that I miss the cut and thrust of politics. But I'm looking forward to my new role and helping to bring Belfast forward as the bustling capital city that it is."

An accountant and former Ulster Unionist member, Mr Hamilton joined the DUP in 2002.

He was highly rated and rapidly promoted by former party leader Peter Robinson. He became Finance Minister in 2013 and went on to hold the Health and Economy portfolios.

"I have always been very interested in business and tried to drive the economy forward in my ministerial role. I now have an opportunity to do that outside of politics," he added.

"I will be able to bring the skills and experience I have acquired at Stormont to my new role."

Mr Hamilton said he would be resigning as a DUP member "because the chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce must be apolitical".

It was revealed at the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Inquiry in October that DUP special adviser John Robinson had sent anonymous emails to the media and a top civil servant in order to take pressure off the party on RHI with the full knowledge of the former Economy Minister.

Mr Hamilton admitted it was not his "finest hour".

Giving evidence to the inquiry was a "rough experience", he said.

He would accept "whatever criticism" the report may level at him when it is published later this year.

Mr Hamilton famously refused to reveal how he had voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

It is widely believed that he supported Remain despite his party's Leave position.

"It's a secret ballot so I'm retaining the right to privacy on that," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I think the referendum result should be respected but I am very much aware that Brexit will have a far greater impact here than in any other part of the UK.

"Brexit must take place in a business-friendly and orderly way. It must not harm our growing economy and job prospects.

"Business needs certainty and it needs to avoid a cliff-edge situation."

When asked what action the DUP should take regarding Ian Paisley, who is at the centre of fresh allegations regarding luxury holidays in the Maldives, Mr Hamilton said it was an issue for the party centrally.

"I'm not a party officer. I know party officers are examining the matter and they are the best people to make any decision," he said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster paid tribute to Mr Hamilton, saying he had played an important and positive role within the party, particularly during his time within the Executive.

"Whilst I am disappointed to be losing Simon as a party colleague and as an elected representative, I know he is taking on a role which will allow him to continue working to make Belfast and Northern Ireland the very best place to live, visit and particularly to do business," she said.

"Whether as a local councillor, Assembly Member or as a minister in the Executive, Simon has been an effective and dedicated public representative," Mrs Foster added.

Welcoming the appointment, Rajesh Rana, the president of Belfast Chamber, said: "Simon comes with a wealth of skills and experience.

"This background brings an unrivalled insight into the needs of business in our city and the wider economy."

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