Doughty battler who knows only too well where elections are won
Even more important than getting their seat back, the DUP’s Diane Dodds is focused on beating Sinn Fein. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam profiles the candidate
Diane Dodds is well used to knocking on doors. After her famous Assembly seat victory six years ago she claimed to have been at every unionist house in West Belfast — some of them twice — after a full five-week canvass.
But as the party’s trademark ‘battle bus’ pulled into Richhill yesterday afternoon en route to Armagh, the ‘team’ had turned into an army. It knows elections are won on the doorsteps.
Dodds is odds-on to win back the DUP’s European seat occupied by Jim Allister and in all probability top the poll — albeit perhaps with a reduced vote.
Some of the party’s bedrock support is siphoning to Allister, but it is gaining backing from other unionists who have opted out or baulked at voting for Ian Paisley in the past.
Petite at just 5ft 1in, the 50-year-old firm-but-not-fierce female has described herself as a “rather grounded” person and has a wealth of coalface, pragmatic political experience.
And yet, in some ways, the choice of Dodds seemed odd. For months rumours persisted that various figures had been approached and turned the opportunity down. Peter Robinson let the date he had been hoping to announce the candidate slip.
The thinking appears to have been that the DUP needed a heavy-hitter — and preferably a woman. In the aftermath of the Dromore by-election, which sent shockwaves through the party, the formula worked in Fermanagh where ‘minister and mother’ Arlene Foster won a council seat convincingly.
Mrs Dodds is at least married to heavy-hitter Nigel, the Finance Minister, North Belfast MP and most likely next DUP leader (speculation suggests Peter Robinson could stand down in five years), but in party terms is very much her own woman.
And she’s no novice. She has seen service as both a Belfast councillor and an Assembly member, breaking new ground by becoming a rare political species — a unionist representative for West Belfast.
Flaws in Sinn Fein’s vote management saw Dodds slip in by just 87 votes, the closest result in a hard-fought poll which saw the DUP move ahead of Ulster Unionists for the first time outside of the European election.
Born the middle child and only daughter on a small dairy farm in the townland of Ballymagross between Rathfriland and Banbridge, Dodds’ hard-working, Presbyterian parents promised her a life different to their own.
Since the farm proved insufficient to keep the family her dad would rise at 5.30am to feed the herd before his full-time job as a lorry driver then returning to farm work in the evenings . He died from a heart attack at a relatively young age. Diane knew her parents’ greatest desire was for her to get to university where, in the fourth year of a history/English degree at Queen’s, she met Nigel — at a DUP meeting — and a few months after his election to Belfast City Council, in August 1985, they were married.
The new Mrs Dodds became a teacher at Laurelhill High School in Lisburn but gave up to juggle family life and help her husband’s constituency workload embedded in the nitty-gritty of everyday politics. She was first plunged into the public eye when, in 1996, she and Nigel were visiting their ill son Andrew in the RVH and came under gunfire from an IRA unit who shot one of Mr Dodds’ bodyguards in the foot.
But even greater trauma was to follow two years later when, just after Christmas, eight-year-old Andrew, who suffered from spina bifida and hydrocephalus, unexpectedly died.
Though devastated the Dodds dealt with the tragedy with great dignity and in private and Mrs Dodds built on her Assembly success by following her husband onto the city council where she is chief whip of the DUP group and chairs the policy and resources committee. She has waited a long time for the next step in her career.