Exiles Forum

Lisburn, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland


Julie-Ann Spence talks to Former Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister Edwin Poots


OUTGOING Culture Arts and Leisure minister Edwin Poots has said he has not given up hope the Maze will still be home to a new national sports stadium.

Mr Poots, speaking for the first time since being replaced in the Executive, said he did not believe he had lost his job because of his support for the stadium. Rather, he said he believed when all the options were weighed up by the new minister Gregory Campbell, he believed his successor could reach the same conclusion as he did - no other plan stacked up.

Mr Poots, clearly relaxed and speaking openly, dismissed speculation he had been ousted because he was too vocal in his support for the Maze stadium or that he had been too close to the outgoing DUP leader, Dr Ian Paisley.

"I got into the seat of government after just ten years in public office at the age of 41," said Mr Poots. "In our party there are people with more experience who haven't had that opportunity and I fully accept the new leader wants to give other people a chance."

But he also accepted his firm stance on the Maze may not have done him any favours.

Last week he said he believed some civil servants were opposed to the scheme, and he wasn't withdrawing that claim.

"I wasn't talking about people in DCAL" he said. "I had the Department of Finance and Personnel in mind. Very often they are too cautious. The North West gas pipeline was opposed by the DFP in the last Executive, but the two ministers, Reg Empey and Mark Durkan, overruled them and they were right. Civil servants wanted the Odyssey to have 4,500 seats instead of 8,000. We know now that would not have worked so sometimes politicians have to take the big decisions, that's our job.

"The Maze wasn't something I was prepared to concede on, it was a principle issue.

"I wasn't prepared to back off and I still haven't given up on something significant at the Maze.

"I also don't have an issue being identified as someone close to Ian Paisley," said Mr Poots. "He is someone I have had huge respect for over a long period. We wouldn't have been able to achieve the settlement without him. He is an iconic figure who will go down in history and I would be privileged to be regarded as his supporter or friend.

"I personally don't believe I suffered as a consequence of anything other than wanting to share opportunities around. However, if I don't get back in due course I suppose one could come to that conclusion."

However, Mr Poots acknowledged that government in Northern Ireland is 'Belfast centric', an historical legacy he said with all but two government departments based in the city and greater development there than elsewhere in the Province.

"I am not against Belfast being developed," he continued. "It is our capital city and I am delighted to see the progress there and as Minister I had an input into that, but I don't see the level of reciprocation across the rest of Northern Ireland from people who think everything should be sited in Belfast."

Reflecting on his time in office, Mr Poots said he had a number of highlights and, while he might have done some things differently, no regrets.

"I enjoyed meeting Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, who were over to support the arts here and I also had the opportunity to introduce the Queen to 300 sports-people from Northern Ireland which was a wonderful occasion.

`I wasn't prepared to back off and I still haven't given up on something significant at the Maze.'

Edwin Poots

"I was also delighted to have the opportunity to move projects forward, including the investment in the Public Records Office and the Lyric Theatre."

Mr Poots will also be remembered as being the first DUP minister to attend a GAA match.

"Going to a GAA match was perceived as a huge step and I knew it would be high profile," he recalled. "The GAA is an organisation I wouldn't have had any association with and I have been critical of its quasi-political nature. I believe there is still some way to go but I have to accept it has made changes and people who say there haven't been changes are wrong.

"But I didn't go down there as an apologetic unionist. I laid down a clear challenge to the GAA by saying 'here's a unionist saying your culture is acceptable to unionists, shouldn't unionist and orange culture be acceptable to the wider nationalist community?' There had been a lot of attacks on Orange halls before I went and just one afterwards, I think that's significant."

Looking to the future, Mr Poots said he was looking forward to spending more time with his family and "getting back to his roots" by focusing on issues of importance to the people of Lisburn and Lagan Valley.

"Being an MLA is a seriously busy job and it s the work I enjoy. I look forward to vigorously and aggressively representing the Lagan Valley constituency.

"That was one thing I didn't like about being a minister. I wasn't able to fully focus on my constituency and I didn't forget the only reason I am holding poltical office is because the people of Lagan Valley vote for me.

"This week I was chairing the AGM of Lisburn City Centre Management, and was re-elected as Chairman. There is an awful lot to be done.

"I think in terms of development in the city centre has been somewhat dead and there are a lot of opportunities that need to be taken forward.

As for the chance to the Mayor, Mr Poots was ruling nothing out.

"Being Lisburn's First Citizen is something I felt my father, who represented Lisburn as a councillor for many years, should have done many years ago and I would like to hold the position while he could see me. But I am very aware I can only do that with the support of the rest of the council.

"My first love in terms of politics is Lisburn," he concluded. "It is a great place that has been undervalued and has the opportunity to be so much better."

If we fail you'll be right to blame us

MLA Edwin Poots has admitted that the people of Lagan Valley will be able to criticise himself and his five assembly Colleagues, the local MP and the devolved administration if they cannot win at least some of the key issues the area is facing.

Mr Poots identified the retention of services at the Lagan Valley Hospital, plans for the Maze Stadium and the proposed John Lewis development at Sprucefield as vital for the future of the constituency.

And he accepted the voters will have every right not to vote for the sitting assembly members at the next election if they cannot win at least some of those battles.

"We have the Sprucefield situation, the Maze situation and the Lagan Valley Hospital," explained Mr Poots. "If the answer to all of those is negative it would be a damning indictment of our devolved administration, of which my party has a large role to play." However, Mr Poots said he is aiming to achieve positive outcomes on at least two out of the three issues, and hoped for positive results on all three.

"My commitment would be delivering for Lagan Valley. Will I get all that I want? Possibly not, but if we were to lose out on all of those it wouldn't say much for the political representation in Lagan Valley as a whole - MLAs, MP and councillors" he said. "We have to go back to the people in three years time. If Lisburn is kicked in the teeth on all these issues people would have the right to say there is something wrong."

* Is Edwin Poots right? If political representatives fail to deliver on these three issues do they deserve to be kicked out at the next election? Or are the decisions being made by people local electors simply can't vote for? Tell us what you think.

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Deputy Mayor praises MLA

LISBURN'S Deputy Mayor, UUP Councillor Ronnie Crawford said he was disappointed Alderman Edwin Poots had been replaced as Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister.

"Northern Ireland is now being run by a team of part-time MLAs and it is disturbing to see Sammy Wilson being taken from the education brief at such a crucial time for our children" he said. "I hope this does not herald a surrender on the issue of academic selection.

"Edwin Poots did a very good job at DCAL and he deserves to be congratulated for putting the interests of his constituents before the clamour for the retention of political office."

Ulster Star