Elected as an MLA in 2017 for East Antrim, John Stewart, who serves as a Reserve Army Soldier with the North Irish Horse was drawn into political life by his passion for local regeneration and economic development, guided by the appeal of the “civic unionism of Trimble” rather than the “narrow political Protestantism of Paisleyism and the DUP”.
Outline your background / career to date
I was born and raised in Carrickfergus, attending the Model Primary School and Carrickfergus Grammar before travelling to Cardiff University to study History in 2001. I returned from University after five years and worked a few different jobs in banking and sales before joining my family business, Robinson’s Shoemakers, as Sales Director in 2008. I worked with the company right up until I was elected to Stormont last March. I am married to Deborah and we have two sons, Cohen (4) and Harrison (18 months).
I have always had an interest in public service, politics and the mechanisms of government and law making. I read widely on the subjects at school and at university but it was not until 2009 that I joined a political party, the Ulster Unionist Party.
I ran for Carrickfergus Borough Council in 2011 and was successful in obtaining a seat to the Knockagh D.E.A. I was hugely privileged to serve a term as Deputy Mayor of Carrickfergus in 2013-14. Following the amalgamation of councils in 2014, I was elected in the Carrick Castle D.E.A of the new Mid and East Antrim Borough Council. I served from 2014 until March 2017, when I took a second Assembly seat for the Ulster Unionist Party in East Antrim at the expense of Sinn Féin.
What inspired you to get into politics?
I have always been motivated by public service and in trying to make a positive contribution to my local area. When I took up my role with Robinson’s Shoes I wanted to get involved in local regeneration and economic development in Carrickfergus. I worked with a number of bodies including the Chamber of Commerce and soon realised that it was local government that held the key to change in the area. I met with representatives from the UUP locally to discuss issues that I was passionate about and I made the decision to run for the party in the 2011 local government elections.
Who do you admire in politics or public life?
I have a lot of admiration for Ruth Davidson, who in recent years has done a fantastic job, promoting the Union with a positive progressive message and growing her party in areas where they would never have had support in the past. Her passion for the job is inspiring and I could honestly see her as a credible future First Minister of Scotland or even Prime Minister of the UK.
Closer to home I have a great deal of respect for the many politicians here such as Claire Hanna and Clare Bailey who enter politics for the right reasons and are willing to set aside differences in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. Many members of my party have inspired me with their approach of country-first, party-second, self-third, including my party leader Robin Swann, who I worked for prior to getting elected, and former party leader Mike Nesbitt.
What drew you to the UUP?
Coming of age, politically at the time of the ‘98 Agreement, I admired the leadership of the party at that time doing what was best for everyone in Northern Ireland. The civic unionism of Trimble etc. appealed to me much more than the narrow political Protestantism of Paisleyism and the DUP. Studying in Great Britain confirmed this. As a proud progressive unionist, joining the Ulster Unionist Party was the obvious choice for me to make.
What are your key priorities for your constituency?
My first priority when I got elected was to establish a strong constituency service with offices based in Larne and Carrickfergus. I wanted to focus on being accessible to the public around the clock through social media and our consistency offices, the many hundreds of individual cases that my office deals with each month tells me this is going in the right direction.
East Antrim has suffered massively in recent years with the loss of major manufacturers and employers. I am committed to seeing East Antrim becoming a centre for investment and economic development building on its excellent work force, skills base and strong transport connections. As someone who comes from a small business background I have a passion for developing entrepreneurship and helping to create the conditions for new businesses to establish and flourish.
Like much of Northern Ireland, East Antrim has a real shortage of social and affordable homes especially in our towns. I want to see more social and affordable homes that would help take the huge strain off the housing executive who just can’t keep up with demand. Similarly, I want to see more affordable homes for first time buyers and believe both of these can be tackled by a joined up strategy between central and local government.
As the gateway to the Causeway Coast, East Antrim is a jewel in the crown of our tourism offering here in Northern Ireland. Whether it is a stop at Carrickfergus Castle, a tour of the Gobbins or a drive up the Antrim Coast road there is so much to be proud of here and it is essential that we blow our own trumpet and promote our tourism offering around the world.
What are your interests outside work?
I love spending time with the family and taking day trips around the country or little adventures with the boys. Outside of politics I also serve as a member of the Army Reserve as a trooper in the North Irish Horse, this takes up quite a bit of time but is hugely rewarding. I love sport, playing cricket for Carrickfergus Cricket Club captaining the club’s 2nd XI side and following Tottenham Hotspur, Northern Ireland and Carrick Rangers. I am passionate about military and local history and recently wrote a book profiling the men and women from East Antrim who served in the Great War and have now started working on a similar project for World War Two.