My life and political career has been a fascinating journey through the dark years of ‘the troubles’ and the challenges of the peace process to a more stable and progressive Northern Ireland. During that time I have been witness to much change, both at home and in national politics at Westminster.
As the eldest of five boys and three girls, I grew up in the Mourne area in the south of County Down. A member of the local Presbyterian Church, it was a traditional, rural, home-centred upbringing. Yet as with many Ulstermen and women of my generation, my ‘childhood innocence’ was shattered by the onset of the ‘Troubles’. I remember vividly, almost as if it were yesterday the murder of my cousin Samuel Donaldson, an RUC constable. He was the first policeman to be blown up by the IRA in the ‘Troubles’.
It was really the first time that the Troubles had come into our home and the awfulness of that moment stayed with me. Later, in 1985 Samuels brother Alex, a Chief Inspector in the RUC, was amongst nine Police Officers killed in a mortar attack on Newry police station. It was in part due to these events that I became politically aware from an early age. At the age of 16 I followed in the family tradition by becoming a member of the Orange Order, in which I was later to serve as an Assistant Grand Master for 3 years. Two years later I became involved in the ‘Young Unionist’ movement and went on to become Chairman of the Ulster Young Unionist Council. At the same time I also followed in my father’s footsteps and joined the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a regiment comprised mainly of part-time soldiers within the British Army who were dedicated to protecting the community from terrorism.
My involvement within the Ulster Unionist Party grew as I worked alongside two of the greatest names in Unionism in the 20th century. Between 1982 and 1984 I worked as Enoch Powell’s constituency agent, successfully spearheading Mr. Powell’s election campaigns of 1983 and 1986 when the South Down seat was retained despite the fact the constituency contained a natural ‘nationalist’ majority.
In 1985 I was elected aged 22 to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the distinction of being the youngest person to win a seat at Stormont with a majority of some 15,000 votes. Throughout this period I also served as Personal Assistant to the then leader of the UUP, the Rt Hon James Molyneaux MP. In 1988 I was elected Honorary Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council and in 2000 I was elected Vice President of the Council. My responsibilities include overseeing the UUP Bureau in Washington DC. A regular visitor to the United States, I often accompanying leaders James Molyneaux and his successor David Trimble on delegations that included several meetings with former President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and subsequently with President Bush.
As a Party Officer, I was a member of the Ulster Unionist negotiating team in the Northern Ireland constitutional talks from 1991 when I took part in the talks chaired by Secretary of State, Peter Brooke that continued in 1992 under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Mayhew. In 1996, I topped the poll and was elected to represent the Lagan Valley constituency in the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue. As a Forum member I was Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee on Public Order issues and a key member of the UUP team at the constitutional talks at Stormont.
Following the retirement of Lord Molyneaux, I was selected as Ulster Unionist candidate for the former leader’s Lagan Valley constituency, which in the May 1997 election I won with a majority of 16,925 votes.
When the Belfast Agreement was concluded on 10th April 1998, I decided to vote ‘No’ in the subsequent referendum. The reasons for my decision included opposition to such concessions as the early release of terrorist prisoners and the demise of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as well as the failure to deal adequately with the decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons. I continued to oppose the agreement and to campaign for fresh negotiations to enable the political parties to find a better agreement for Northern Ireland.
Whilst serving as Trade & Industry spokesman in Parliament for the Ulster Unionist Party I took a keen interest in the Economic Development of Northern Ireland. In my own Constituency I work closely with the Local Councils, Invest Northern Ireland and Local Enterprise Organisations to promote the growth of existing business as well as inward investment in order to enhance employment opportunities for local people. I am also very keen to support local companies to grow, develop and expand their export potential.
In addition I have been involved in leading a number of trade delegations to countries like the United States and China to promote Northern Ireland as an ideal centre for new companies to locate in the European market place.
Upon joining the Democratic Unionists in January 2004, I was appointed as a Party Officer in the leadership team and took on the Education Portfolio at Westminster in addition to Defence. I was also a member of the DUP negotiating team which participated in the negotiations under the Review of the Belfast Agreement, resulting in the St Andrews Agreement in 2006. This ushered in some fundamental changes to the system of government, making it more accountable and it remains the avowed objective of the DUP to establish a stable political environment for the people of Northern Ireland that will deliver real peace and long-term political stability.
In May 2005 I was again re-elected to Parliament to represent the people of Lagan Valley and served as the Party Spokesperson on Home Office and Defence matters during my third term in the House of Commons. In the same year I was also elected to represent the Lisburn South area on Lisburn City Council. Following my election, the Council appointed me to the position of Alderman of the City. I remained on the Council for a period of 4 years.
In early 2007 I was re-elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and following the renewal of devolution, I became Chairman of the Assembly and Executive Review Committee and Leader of the DUP team on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. At the same time, I was appointed by the Prime Minister to serve as a member of Her Majesty’s Privy Council, which provides advice to the Sovereign on matters of state.
I subsequently became a Minister in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) with special responsibility for a range of governmental issues, including Children and Young People, policy on Older people, supporting the Victims of terrorism, as well as relations with the European Union.
In May 2010 I was elected for a fourth term to Parliament. Upon re-election, I vacated my seat in the NI Assembly in order to concentrate on my parliamentary duties. I was reappointed as Party spokesperson on Defence and Energy matters. For the first time, I gained a seat for the DUP on the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons. I am also the Party’s spokesperson on Victims issues. Since September 2010, I have been a member of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly where I sit on the Social Affairs and Political Affairs committees.
My other interests include military history and I presently chair the Northern Ireland Co-ordinating Committee for the Centenary Commemorations of The First World War. I am a Trustee of the Museum of the Royal Ulster Rifles, one of the antecedent regiments of the Royal Irish Regiment. My Christian faith is also very important to me and I am a member of the Presbyterian Church and chair ‘Prayer for Parliament’ which meets regularly for intercessory prayer at Westminster.
Living in the heart of the Lagan Valley constituency, I have been married to my wife Eleanor for over 25 years and we have two daughters – Claire and Laura.
As a Member of Parliament, I am proud to represent the people of Lagan Valley and my first priority is to make life better for all those who live in my constituency. Together with my DUP colleagues, I will work to build on the political progress that has been made so that our children can have the hope of a future free from the violence and division that has caused so much destruction and pain in our beloved Northern Ireland.