Former UUP MLA Reverend Robert Coulter was a stalwart for Ulster Unionism in North Antrim. However his first loves were for road racing and then the pulpit; not to the political chamber.
Born in Stewartstown, County Tyrone, Coulter was a well-respected figure across the political spectrum after entering politics in the early 1980s. However, prior to his devotion to the pulpit and the political chamber, Coulter’s first passion was for road racing.
It was this passion that led him into his early career, when he trained as a motor mechanic. It is believed that Coulter even raced in the Cookstown 100 and Ulster Grand Prix, but under a pseudonym as his parents, both heavily involved in missionary work, didn’t approve.
Despite his upbringing, Coulter himself wasn’t deeply religious until his 20s, when he became a born-again believer and dedicated his life as a preacher of the Gospel. Following his studies in Edinburgh, Coulter joined Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and served as minister of Mount Merrion Free Presbyterian Church in east Belfast before travelling to America.
On his return he joined the mainstream Presbyterian Church, spending 15 years at Clough in County Antrim before switching to educator of media and religious education at Ballymena Technical College.
Throughout his life he was a proud Orangeman and member of the Royal Black Preceptory. He also served as Deputy Imperial Chaplain in both Orders and served as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution, under Jim Molyneaux.
Coulter’s first election would be the only one he would lose, taking on his long-term friend Ian Paisley in North Antrim during the 1983 Westminster General Election. Within two years he was elected to Ballymena Borough Council, where he would serve as Mayor between 1993 and 1996.
Recognised as an influential presence in the foundations of what would become the Good Friday Agreement, Coulter was a prominent ‘yes’ advocate during the referendum campaign and was elected as a North Antrim Assembly member in 1998.
He held the seat until his retirement in 2011, operating the UUP portfolios for health and employment and learning. In 2010, he was awarded an MBE for his services to the Stormont Commission.
Paying tribute to the man described as a “true blue unionist”, following his death on 5 September, UUP leader Robin Swann said: “Bob was a stalwart of Ulster unionism in North Antrim and personally to me he was also a mentor and a friend.
“Bob had a long record of public service… He was passionate about education and particularly for children with special educational needs. This was reflected in his role as a key advocate for the recently opened new build for Castle Tower School where he was Chair of the Board of Governors.
“Following in his footsteps in North Antrim, I was always aware of the high bar that had been set by him.”