Belfast Telegraph

Presbyterian minister and UUP stalwart championed special needs education

Obituary

The Reverend Dr Robert Coulter, who has died at the age of 88, was a Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1998 to 2011 and Mayor of Ballymena from 1993 to 1996.

Robert Coulter, the son of a railway station-master in Co Tyrone, was born in Stewartstown on October 23, 1929, and educated at a local primary school and later at Cookstown High School.

He trained initially as a motor mechanic and worked for several years in garages in the Stewartstown area.

He had a religious conversion in his early 20s and attended the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh.

After some time in the USA, he returned to Northern Ireland and worshipped in Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian Church at Mount Merrion in Belfast.

However, he decided to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and, after taking a degree at Trinity College Dublin, he attended Assembly's College in Belfast.

He served as assistant minister at Westbourne Presbyterian Church in east Belfast for a short period, and in 1963 he was appointed minister of Clough Presbyterian Church near Ballymena, where he spent the rest of his time in the ministry.

He left full-time ministry in March 1978 to become a teacher. He taught media studies and religious instruction at Ballymena Technical College and also carried on a part-time ministry, making and distributing many tapes with Herald Recordings.

He joined the Ulster Unionist Party, and in 1983 stood in North Antrim against Ian Paisley, who won the seat with a comfortable majority.

His son, John Coulter, recalled: "I remember Dr Paisley phoning our home before the election and asking him to stand down as the other unionist candidate as he wanted to record a decisive victory over the then fledgling Sinn Fein party.

"My father would have none of that, and fought the election. However, he and Dr Paisley got on well together."

The Rev Dr Coulter's political career flourished and he became a UUP member of Ballymena Borough Council in 1985, becoming mayor in 1993 for three years.

In 1996 he became an alderman of the council, and in the same year he was elected for North Antrim as a member of the Northern Ireland Forum, a position he held for two years.

John Coulter said: "My father also worked in the background to help make possible the Good Friday Agreement."

In 1998 he became an MLA and sat on the Assembly's health committee until 2003.

He was re-elected to the Assembly in 2007 and retired as an MLA four years later.

In 2010 he was appointed MBE for his public services.

The Rev Dr Coulter was deeply interested in the education of children with special needs, and he was chairman of the board at Castle Tower School in Ballymena until his death.

Robert Coulter was a man of many interests. He held a pilot's licence and, using his technical skills from his days as a motor mechanic, he built a light aircraft himself and sold it to a customer in England.

He was also keenly interested in motorbikes and was the official chaplain to the Mid-Antrim 150 Road Races.

Paying tribute, UUP leader Robin Swann said: "He was a stalwart of Ulster Unionism in North Antrim and also my mentor and friend. I followed in his footsteps in North Antrim, and I was always aware of the high bar that had been set by him."

DUP MLA for North Antrim Mervyn Storey added: "North Antrim and Northern Ireland has lost a hard-working and dedicated public servant. He was a man of personal integrity, character and Christian faith.

"While Robert and I belonged to different political parties, we shared a common love for our constituency, our country and our faith."

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "Robert Coulter had a long record of public service. We obviously had political differences, but on behalf of Sinn Fein I wish to express my sincere condolences and sympathy to Mr Coulter's family and friends."

His son John said: "He was the ultimate Christian Dad that any son could wish for."

John also said he hoped to retire in due course from freelance journalism to take up study to become a full-time pastor.

He added: "My great regret today is that my father will not be there to hear me delivering my first sermon."

The late Rev Dr Coulter is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, son John, daughter Liz, grandsons Daniel and Adam and wider family.

His funeral takes place at Clough Presbyterian Church tomorrow at 2pm.

Belfast Telegraph

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