Meet the mum who’s made the UUP sexy
Maureen Coleman talks to MLA Jo-Anne Dobson about Stormont, family life and love.
She's the pin-up girl of the Ulster Unionist Party — slim, blonde and attractive with an enviable wardrobe to rival the most seasoned fashionista. But there's so much more to Jo-Anne Dobson than meets the eye. While she undoubtedly brings a touch of glamour to the grey corridors of Stormont, she is also hard-working, determined and a passionate campaigner for the causes that are close to her heart.
It's these qualities that have helped her rise through the ranks of the UUP — from door-rapping during David Trimble's 2001 election bid to winning a seat in last year's Assembly elections. Her political guises are varied — the MLA is also agricultural spokesperson for the UUP, sits on the education committee and is private secretary to Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. Away from politics, she is wife to John, a beef and cereal farmer, mother to Elliott (21) and 19-year-old Mark, and a staunch supporter of the Northern Ireland Kidney Patients Association, a connection established through her younger son's need for a kidney transplant in 2009.
By her own admission, Banbridge-born Jo-Anne (45) came late to her political career, despite being a member of the UUP for 15 years. But Mark's illness from birth meant that, naturally, he was her number one priority.
Mark was just five weeks old when Jo-Anne first realised something was terribly wrong.
He was sleeping all the time and had little energy. She recalls bringing him along to an ante-natal class, where she discovered his weight had plummeted from 8lbs 1oz to 6lbs 10oz.
“When I looked around the room and saw all these other bouncing, chubby babies, I just went home to my mum's and cried,” she says. “He was so ill and failed looking and was losing weight rapidly. I went straight to my GP and then Craigavon Hospital where I was told he had a bad urine infection and severe reflux of both kidneys. It had been undetected from birth.”
Mark spent the first few years of his young life in Craigavon and then the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, undergoing countless procedures. Then they were told the heart-breaking news that his right kidney was not working at all, while his left one only had 19% function. At some stage, they were warned, he would need a transplant.
“I was devastated, absolutely gutted,” says Jo-Anne. “And yes, I have to admit, I did think ‘Why us?' It suddenly hit home that we had a very sick baby with severe renal problems.”
Jo-Anne and John constantly monitored Mark's temperature and checked for urine infections. As he got older, his condition became more manageable with the help of antibiotics. But when he hit his teens, problems surfaced again.
“Basically Mark started to grow and his kidneys couldn't keep up with the rate at which he was growing,” she says. “We were prepared for the day when he would have to go on dialysis.
“But Mark was great the way he dealt with it. I can only remember him questioning once why it had to be him. What do you say to a child when they ask you that? The only thing we could tell him, and I know this sounds twee, was that God had chosen him because he knew he could cope and that he knew Mark would be able to help others as a result.”
I tell her it's not ‘twee' at all. I'm a great believer in things happening for a reason.
“So am I,” she agrees. “Faith is very important to me. I'm one of life's optimists. I try and see the positive in everything.”
Jo-Anne and John had to call upon that faith again when on February 5, 2009, they received a telephone call in the middle of the night to say a donor kidney had been made available. Mark had been placed on the waiting list and was only two to three weeks away from dialysis when the call came through. The donor kidney was to be flown in from England but heavy snow and storms had brought Northern Ireland to a virtual standstill and George Best Airport had been closed. Mark's anxious parents paced the corridors of the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children, waiting for news of the life-saving organ.
“I was howling my eyes out and John was so sick, he couldn't speak,” she recalls. “The airport was finally opened and the kidney arrived about 10.30pm. We'd got the initial call the previous day, it was a long time to wait for the operation, but Mark finally had his transplant after midnight. It was such a fantastic feeling when he came round. We felt that he'd been given his life back.”
But there were still obstacles to overcome. Due to the delay in getting the kidney to Belfast, there were teething problems with the transplant in the first year and Mark was in and out of hospital 13 times. It was during one of these stays at the City Hospital in Belfast that Jo-Anne got word a position had come up helping to run Jim Nicholson's European Election campaign.
“The interviews were being held at the Culloden Hotel and I remember getting changed in the hospital toilets,” she says. “I was able to draw on my experiences of raising awareness and funds for organ donation. I'd also worked in Sam Gardiner's constituency office in Lurgan and had managed mum and dad's business for a while, so I'd had plenty of experience to draw upon. I was delighted when I got the job.”
The following year Jo-Anne got her first electoral gig when she won a seat on Craigavon Council in a by-election. It was daunting, putting herself forward, but she needn't have worried. Jo-Anne polled 64% of the vote.
Grassroots issues are important to her. She successfully spearheaded a campaign for a nursery in Waringstown and is a regular attendee at charity fundraisers.
“I think it's essential not to turn down invitations,” she says.
“I believe that if people are kind enough to invite me, I should go. But if I can't, I'll send my sister [Belinda] or my mum [Joannie] along in my place.”
Now the MLA for Upper Bann, Jo-Anne says a perk of the job is being better placed to raise awareness and funds for organ donation. As well as working for three years as the voluntary press officer for the Northern Ireland Kidney Patients Association, she was also involved in the co-ordination of the UK Transplant Games, held in Northern Ireland last year and recently helped launch the Northern Ireland Transplant Forum's New Lifecyle 2012, a six-day cycling event to raise funds to help kidney patients and their families. Mark, who is also actively involved with the Northern Ireland Kidney Patients Association, is doing really well at the moment. Besides working on the family farm, he is also a volunteer in Jo-Anne's constituency office.
“The farm gets to pay him, I get him for free,” she laughs.
Coming from a family steeped in politics — her first hustings were on David Trimble's 2001 election trail along with her mum and sister — it's inevitable Jo-Anne would follow this path.
Her husband John, whom she met when she was 16 and a pupil at Banbridge Academy, always knew she had a keen interest in politics and encouraged her to pursue her passion.
“We met at a local nightclub many years ago,” she says. “He only lived five miles down the road from me. We got engaged during my A-levels and I was 20 when we married. So yes, we were childhood sweethearts. I guess I've just been very lucky.
“John is very supportive of me. We were at an agricultural event not long after I was elected last year. There were a few people there who knew the name Dobson but presumed the new MLA was a man. Someone came up to John to shake his hand and congratulate him, but he took great delight in saying ‘No, it is my wife you should be speaking to'.”
Jo-Anne says she has not encountered any chauvinism at Stormont and that both she and her UUP ‘partner-in-crime’ Sandra Overend have been treated with the utmost respect within their party. And while she would like to see more women in politics, she feels they should be there on merit and not because of their gender.
“Sandra and I are both doing well, we're getting some meaty roles and I can honestly say we've faced no prejudice at all,” she says.
“And yes, it would be great to see more women in the Assembly, but it's important that they're there on merit and because they've worked hard to get there.”
Jo-Anne is full of praise for new leader Mike Nesbitt and Jim Nicholson, too, but says she has no intentions of supplanting the UUP MEP.
“I totally support Jim, he is superb,” she says. “I'm just enjoying being an MLA and I love my constituency work.”
When she's not engaged in her fast-paced political life, Jo-Anne likes to relax by nipping around the farm on her quad bike, listening to music on her iPod (she's a big fan of Snow Patrol and the Black Eyed Peas) or spending quality time with her girlfriends.
But her ever increasing profile within the UUP means she is recognised now, wherever she goes.
“If John and I take a walk into the village it takes us over an hour by the time I've stopped and talked to everyone,” she says. “But I love the fact that people feel they can come up to me and tell me what's worrying them. John's used to it by now.”
There have been occasions, however, when Jo-Anne wasn't expecting to bump into constituents.
She laughed as she recounted this anecdote.
“I was away with some friends for an overnight at the Galgorm,” she explains. “I was sitting in the Jacuzzi the next day, when this man and his wife got in beside me. He suddenly said ‘I think you're my MLA, I voted for you'. It was so funny. Can you imagine? I was too embarrassed then to get out of the Jacuzzi. My friends all thought it was hilarious.”
Jo-Anne's other keen interest — and one which has garnered much press attention — is fashion. Refreshingly, she's not afraid to admit she loves shopping for clothes and when we meet at Stormont, the first thing she notices are my six inch heels. When I tell her I can't really walk in them, she shrugs and replies: “But they look great”. And so we get off on the right foot.
Jo-Anne is an avid supporter of the independent boutique and is dressed for this interview in a pretty, powder blue shift frock from Katrina's in Banbridge. Her blonde hair is perfectly coiffed and her make-up expertly applied. She is a high street woman at heart, she says, although she did splash out on a Vivienne Westwood handbag when son Elliott won a place at Cambridge.
“I've always loved clothes, long before I was elected,” she explains. “You can still be fashionable and be a good politician. These days, when I shop, I’m focused on work clothes. I have so many events to go to. But I'm not going to change my style for anyone.”
What, not even those spotty tights that caused such a furore when she wore them on the same day as the launch of Mike Nesbitt's leadership campaign?
“You know, I was disappointed about that,” she explains. “Not for me, but in case it put other women off politics. I mean, would a male politician be criticised for his choice of clothes?
“I was hosting an agri-science conference that day and that's why I was wearing them. But I was a bit surprised by the whole thing. Sometimes I don't have the luxury of planning my outfit and it's just a case of what's ironed that morning.”
While she concedes it was “flattering” to be considered the fresh face of the Ulster Unionist party, she says she wants to be known for the hard work she puts in for agriculture and education as well as the first class constituency service she provides. And she insists there are times when looking good is the last thing on her mind.
“A few Saturdays ago John came in and told me to throw on a boiler suit and come out and help him deliver a calf,” she laughs.
“I didn't look too fashionable then.”
This summer, for the first time in years, Jo-Anne and John are taking themselves off on a holiday. Mark is staying at home to look after the farm while Elliott will be working in London.
“Mum's always giving off to me about being too busy and told me to go and book a beach holiday but we're going on an action-packed one to the Calgary Stampede instead,” she says.
“It'll be a lovely 10-day break and I really can't wait.”
But there's a small farming matter to be dealt with before the couple can really kick back and relax.
“John wants to stop off at Denver en route to look at some bulls,” she says, rolling her eyes, before adding: “You see, my life's not that glamorous at all.”
A passionate campaigner
- Born and educated in Banbridge where she still lives with her family
- Went to school at Banbridge Academy
- In addition to politics, Jo-Anne is involved with the NI Kidney Patients Association as well as working on the family farm
- She is a passionate campaigner for more pre-school places, especially in rural areas, as well as schools generally
- Her Twitter page revealed that Jo-Anne has a hectic round of engagements supporting and lobbying for better education and healthcare provision as well as getting young people interested in politics. She is also backing a campaign to bring an end to human trafficking