In the second of our series of interviews with Northern Ireland’s newly elected MPs, Adam Morton speaks to East Belfast’s Gavin Robinson MP, whose election in 2015 saw the DUP reclaim the seat from the Alliance Party.
How did your interest in politics begin?
I was 13 and visiting my uncle in New York. At that age, as far as I was concerned, New York was the other side of the world but the next thing I knew Belfast was on the news because the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. When I returned home I was eager to find out exactly what the Good Friday Agreement was all about so I wrote to every political party to find out their views on it. I still have all the documentation I was sent and my interest in politics really developed from there.
At an early age my views were simplistic but I fully believed in the argument that if you do the crime you should do the time so I had an issue with the early release of prisoners and I also had an issue with the proposed changes to the RUC. At that stage I was taken by the view of the DUP and Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party and that’s where my fascination with politics began.
How was your experience of being Belfast’s Lord Mayor and having never been an MLA how have you found the step up to Westminster?
My experience as Belfast’s Lord Mayor was wonderful. I had only been co-opted onto the council two years prior to taking up the role so it wasn’t really an aspiration of mine at the time but when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t refuse. Without doubt the best thing about being Lord Mayor was being able to stand aside from party politics and see the best Belfast has to offer. It really gave me the opportunity to recognise and appreciate the wonderful people and things that Belfast city has to offer.
Having said that, the step up has been noticeable, the House of Commons is definitely not Belfast City Hall. I miss City Hall and Belfast but the thing I miss most is the constant opportunity for direct engagement with people on the ground. It has also been strange coming from Belfast City Hall where the DUP has a large number of councillors to Westminster where we have two of 650 MPs. There is also a huge advancement in the capability an MP is expected to demonstrate and the level and depth of knowledge you are expected to have on a subject at Westminster before you contribute to debates. It is clear to me that Westminster is the pinnacle of British politics and it’s great to be a part of that.
How would you describe your politics?
Well, I strongly believe that the union is best for Northern Ireland but I firmly believe that as a politician you are working for everyone in your constituency and that is a very principled position of mine. Similarly, I believe that if you are a hard working person and contribute positively to society that should be recognised and you should be given assistance and rewarded for your efforts by your elected representatives.
I suppose I was more cavalier in my attitude to politics in my teenage years. It was very easy to take a right wing view and be controversial but the older I have got and the more engagement I have had with people I have certainly softened my stance and strengthened my resolve to work for everyone in my constituency.
How did it feel to win the East Belfast seat and what do you hope to achieve for East Belfast during this parliamentary term?
It was a long slog, there was a lot of issues lingering over from years gone by and I was delighted when the campaign was over and I was declared the winner. The divisive nature of this particular election is not one I would like to experience again. People were utterly for you or utterly against you. It was between the DUP and the Alliance Party and that was reflected in the fact, I believe, that only around 8 per cent of the vote went to other parties. Particular issues that had involved Belfast in the years prior to the election all played a part in that campaign and of course in elections people say and do things in an attempt to gain support.
For my constituents there are particular issues about getting a bigger share of the investment that comes into Northern Ireland. Whilst there is a lot of money invested in Northern Ireland, the Government of the United Kingdom takes part in large scale procurement contracts and have considerable resources to share around. I don’t think Northern Ireland has had its fair share and I will be campaigning to see more opportunities delivered to East Belfast. One issue in particular that has been expressed to me by residents in East Belfast is the struggle that people who have been in prison, served their time and are hoping to turn their lives around endure when trying to get insurance for their car or business. That makes rehabilitation very difficult but I’m writing to the Ministry of Justice about the issue to make getting on the right path much easier.
How have you found your work on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee?
It’s very interesting. At the moment we are in the middle of an inquiry into getting compensation and support for the victims of Libyan funded IRA terrorism and we are also holding an inquiry into working out how we can best support Northern Ireland’s tourism industry through the tax system. It’s a committee that has the can hear from a wide range of people and one that I believe can help deliver for Northern Ireland’s citizens.
What motivates you?
I left the law to help people and there are many ways you can do that and many people do it in many different ways but for me my ‘mission field’ is politics. I got involved in the party when I went to university in 2004 around the age of 18. I was still practicing as a barrister when I was first co-opted and I found a real tension between doing it all and maintaining the level of service expected in both roles. When the opportunity came to go full time I jumped at it.
How do you switch off?
Netflix. There is precious little time to switch off with a two-year-old running about the house. The show my wife and I are watching at the minute is ‘Reign’ about a teenage monarch from Scotland not unlike Mary Queen of Scots. When we’re able to find the time it’s nice to be able to sit down and unwind.