Belfast Telegraph

Stormont will be a lot duller minus Sammy

By Liam Clarke

He sees you taking a picture and wants to give you a good one," Sammy Wilson once told me when Ian Paisley shook his fist at me every time I pointed a camera at him during a protest.

I thought the Big Man was annoyed with me, but he was just being helpful. Sammy (below) was, I think, still a Press officer. He was still being referred to as "Red Sammy". It was a name he picked up from the speeches he used to make about subjects like American policy in Nicaragua.

He has now moved from that position; his speeches tend to be aimed at republicans and unionist rivals now. At times he oversteps the mark.

He called Alex Maskey "leadbelly" after he was shot by loyalists. He has also made homophobic comments, for instance saying "they are p**fs. I don't care if they are ratepayers. As far as I am concerned they are perverts", in response to a gay group requesting use of Belfast City Hall. In the same vein he declared in 2000 that: "Taigs don't pay rates."

He does play things for laughs and often gets it wrong, but he knows his audience fairly well. In the midst of economic gloom he could, as Finance Minister, give a speech at conference that poked relentless fun at this political rivals and had delegates in the palm of his hand.

Criticism in the papers the next day didn't change that. He is an intelligent, clubbable man with a thick enough skin not to hold grudges too long.

He can laugh at himself and he wasn't worried much by what the local media says anyway, so he was usually affable with us.

He was also highly-rated as a minister by most parties, including Sinn Fein. He looked at times like a future leader of the DUP, and that could still happen, even from Westminster.

It is disturbing that he opted for Westminster. Before, he had told me that he would stay in Stormont if he felt he would get another ministry.

His decision to move suggests either that he had been told he wouldn't, or perhaps more likely, that he believes Westminster will be around longer than Stormont.

He is one of our most able politicians, a more complex man than he sometimes appears, and also a lifelong devolutionist.

When someone like that decides his political career is not at Stormont it sends a sobering message that this crisis will not simply blow over like so many before it.

Life will also be duller with him across the water, but I expect we shall hear more from this irrepressible character whatever happens on the Hill.

Belfast Telegraph


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