Adrian Cochrane-Watson: ‘I respect the gay community… they have stayed at my B&B’
The new MLA tells Adrian Rutherford about his plans to revive the Ulster Unionist Party, his views on same-sex marriage and claims that he insulted Travellers.
Q. You are one of Stormont’s newest MLAs, but how did you get into politics?
A. I’ve been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party for 25 years. I first joined Antrim Borough Council in 1997 and was a member of the Antrim Town electoral area up to the end of last month. My family had always been great supporters of the UUP.
A former headmaster at primary school, Paddy Marks, was a councillor and we had always been very supportive of him. My uncles worked and campaigned with him. It was a natural progression to vote Ulster Unionist, to identify with the party and, eventually, to stand for them.
Q. You’ve a long record in local government. How different will your role be as an MLA?
A. I’ve always represented Antrim Town. I’ve served as mayor on two occasions and deputy mayor on two occasions. The big challenge for me, in what is a very short period of time before the next Assembly election, is to ensure that what I believe is the best practice that I’ve delivered to the people of Antrim is delivered to the wider audience of the South Antrim constituency.
I’ve only got 10 months to prove myself to them – the people outside the town or borough of Antrim. It’s a challenge, but it’s one that, working closely with our new MP Danny Kinahan, I feel we can deliver on.
Q. You started at the Assembly on June 29, worked a week, and are now off for nine weeks.
A. No, I’ve a lot of work to do. I’ve already met up with Danny Kinahan and the local council team. Danny only became an MP on May 8.
Together we both have to review the constituency service that we’re offering to see how we can complement each other. We want to look at how we communicate better with the constituency and engage with local community groups.
Q. So it’s not a case of coming along for a few days and going off on holidays for nine weeks?
A. That is definitely not the case. I’ve had the attitude that, even as a local councillor – and I think that role is underestimated – that you’re on call 24/7.
It’s a role I think you have to give a huge commitment to. Certainly I won’t be taking nine weeks’ holidays and I hope the constituency service will reinvent itself over those nine weeks.
Q. Outside politics what are your interests?
A. I’m very family-orientated and my wife and I have four children. I’ve a daughter of 23 and one who is 18. We’re also blessed with a wee boy who is 10 and have long-term fostered another boy who is 13. We’ve just recently taken on a wee boy who is a toddler. He’s been with us for several months. We don’t know what his future will be.
We also have several other kids who come to us for respite. It can be challenging, but it’s rewarding as well to see those children thrive and develop, and for us to make a small difference.
Q. How did you get involved with fostering?
A. We unfortunately lost a child because of a miscarriage. We always had an ambition to have more children, and we thought about it but at the time it wasn’t right for us. We re-engaged with Barnardos, a fantastic organisation, about three-and-a-half years ago and went through the fostering skills programme.
It’s been a great experience for us. The 13-year-old has been with us for about three years and will be with us for life. He’s part of our family. The other wee boy has just joined us, he’s a toddler and a great wee fella. It’s made my wife and I young again, getting up early in the morning and giving him the odd bottle. Every six weeks we’ve a wee boy and a wee girl who continue to come to us.
So every six weeks we have seven kids in the house, but it’s fantastic. They all get on well together. You can do something special for them coming, and they love it. We make as much time as we can for them.
Q. You also have an interest in sport?
A. Yes, I played rugby up until I got too old. I played for the local clubs -Antrim, Randalstown and Ballymena – and represented Ulster Juniors for a short time.
I ended up hurting my cruciate ligament. I did it again messing about playing football, the same one, and the NHS sent me over to a clinic in Liverpool about three years ago.
Steven Gerrard was in the same clinic as me that day – my wife seemed more interested in him.
Q. You were previously threatened with prosecution after confronting an intruder in your home. What happened?
A. I was mayor at the time and my daughter, then 18, was at home with her younger sister and brother, who were about 12 and six respectively.
A man had tried to enter a house on the road where we live about an hour previously. The police had been notified of suspicious activity. We had a wee dog who was ill, and this man discovered the back door had been left open for the dog, and he came in.
It was suggested afterwards he had taken a cocktail of alcohol and drugs. He managed to get inside the house and he tried to engage in some way – he was of ethnic minority – with my daughter. My children were horrified. They barricaded themselves into one of the bedrooms.
My eldest daughter took over, with a hockey stick, to try and defend her brother and sister. Unfortunately the police response wasn’t what was expected. She phoned 999 and mistakes were made by the call centre, which the Assistant Chief Constable was big enough to admit to. She phoned my wife and I, and we made it home from Templepatrick well before the police arrived.
The man was trying to ransack the house, and we held him until police arrived.
Q. Did you assault the culprit?
A. No, there were allegations made but I refuted them at the time. He was 6ft 4, 23 stone. When the police arrived he assaulted the policewoman. Certainly I restrained him until police arrived, but that was it.
This was an individual convicted of assaulting a policewoman, of gaining entry to my home and causing criminal damage to the house. I thought I had every right to restrain him and call the police. Unfortunately, because of the mix-up in the call centre, I was there well before the police did eventually arrive. But I did nothing at all. I was investigated, and I was cleared.
Q. In 2006 you said you would feel uncomfortable having gay couples in the bed and breakfast you ran at the time. Why?
A. This was around the time of civil partnerships being made legal in Northern Ireland. It started after a researcher for the BBC phoned my wife and presented a scenario of a gay couple demanding a double bed.
She made it clear that anyone coming to the house does not demand anything. She clarified her position that she had absolutely no concerns with members of the gay community and I certainly have no concerns. I totally respect members of the gay community.
At that time, with such a young family – it was nine years ago and my daughter was nine, my son was barely two – we just had concerns.
Q. But what concerns?
A. I think the idea of same-sex couples and trying to explain it to a young family, a young family who didn’t have the understanding of two men or two women being together.
If it was a larger facility it wouldn’t have been an issue.
There is no issue today, there has been a huge extension put on and I’m sure members of the gay community have stayed and will continue to stay in the facility, which is now run by my daughter.
Q. Gays are welcome to stay, then?
A. More than welcome.
Q. This had all died down until 2010, when you were not picked as an election candidate because the Conservatives felt you were unsuitable to run in their link-up with the UUP.
A. I was selected by the South Antrim Ulster Unionist Association. Because of the link-up with the Conservatives, both parties had to agree the candidate. They had concerns over myself and the comments I had previously made.
Q. It was obviously very disappointing.
A. It was disappointing at the time. It was more disappointing that the then party leader Sir Reg Empey who came in to stand in South Antrim, and who I fully supported, missed out by about 1,000 votes. That was more disappointing than any personal disappointment I had.
Q. We’ve seen similar incidents such as the Ashers case recently. Is it becoming very difficult for businesses?
A. It’s very disappointing that case ended up in court. I felt it could have been resolved, possibly with a positive outcome for both parties, through dialogue and facilitation.
We’re now in a situation where an appeal has been launched and I can’t say much more.
Q. Do you support the DUP’s idea of a conscience clause?
A. The Ulster Unionist Party view is very mature – it is a matter of conscience. My position is very clear on same-sex marriage. I wouldn’t be supportive of it at present.
However, if there was a debate or discussion in the future, I would enter into it with a very respectful and open mind.
Q. Why are you against gay marriage?
A. I am just slightly uncomfortable with it. I come from a Presbyterian family, from a very Christian household, and within my church and my family I’m just uncomfortable with it.
But, as I said, I’m committed to be respectful. Bear in mind, it was our party which was the creator of Section 75 (which enshrined the rights of every citizen to be treated equally in Northern Ireland) in the Good Friday Agreement.
Q. You previously described Travellers as “scumbags”. Why?
A. It was taken very much out of context. Again, the Travelling community deserve respect and equality. However, they have to adhere to the laws of this country.
We’ve had, unfortunately, in this area illegal encampments, and associated with those encampments has been criminal damage to private property.
Those responsible are a very small minority. As a public representative, I treat everyone the same, and if members of the majority or host community behaved in that manner, they deserve the laws of the country to be imposed on them. I welcome Travellers’ rights, and have worked with Travellers’ groups, and am currently working on a small encampment in the Antrim town area where a family deserves better from the Housing Executive.
But likewise the host community of that area, Rathenraw, deserve better than a Travellers’ encampment being introduced overnight.
Q. “Scumbags” was the wrong word to use then?
A. I certainly wouldn’t use that phrase against the entire Travelling community. No one has anything to fear from me, and certainly not the Travelling community, but the fact of the matter is that all sections of society must adhere to the rules and laws of the country.
Q. Is there a problem with Travellers adhering to the law?
A. No, there’s not, but unfortunately in every social grouping there is a minority – a very small minority – which can get a reputation. The vast majority of the Travelling community is law-abiding and making a positive contribution to the community.
Q. So it doesn’t help when an elected representative refers to them as “scumbags”.
A. I would stress that that was very much taken out of context. It was mis-used by members of Sinn Fein over a specific issue in the town of Antrim.
Q. What are your priorities for South Antrim?
A. As with every constituency, too high a percentage of our unemployed are young people. Between the ages of 16 and 25, we have about 25% of people unemployed.
Young people not actively engaged in employment or training programmes are a target audience which I believe we need to commit more resources to. The main issue, and it has bogged down the Assembly, is welfare reform.
I hope welfare reform will happen and the £600m package which is there, and will support and provide for the most vulnerable in our society, can be implemented.
Q. Can you really achieve much in 10 months?
A. I think you can be judged on two fronts.
The first is how you deliver at the Assembly itself, and sometimes that is dictated by how well the Assembly itself is delivering. Secondly, more importantly, is the constituency service you deliver.
I have had an office in Antrim High Street for 14 years, and have been accessible to the community, dealing with everyday issues. It is about developing a reputation as a hard-working, delivering MLA.
I know I’ve got that reputation in Antrim Town. I want to be sure I’ve got that reputation throughout South Antrim.
We’re a fast-growing association and the past few years have been highly successful.
We ran 12 candidates in the council elections and got 12 elected.
We put up Danny, after 10 years of neglect from Willie McCrea, and won that seat back.
So I think we’re in a very strong position.
Q. Did Willie McCrea really neglect South Antrim?
A. He was possibly the hide and seek champion.
Unfortunately many of us felt he was never around and he wasn’t delivering for the people of South Antrim. It was up to the electorate to decide who was best placed to represent them at Westminster, and by a majority of almost 1,000 they chose Danny Kinahan.
Q. Until now you have been on the outside of the Assembly. Do you think the criticism it gets is justified?
A. There has been a lack of activity from the Assembly. In my very short time there I’ve seen a fantasy budget put forward with a £600m black hole.
I also witnessed an embarrassing episode surrounding Sammy Wilson and the entire DUP Assembly team sitting there trying to defend Sammy. It was quite a pathetic waste of time and public money.
I’ve also seen the problems between the two majority parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP. People must be wondering what is happening, and the answer is not very much.
There has been a lot of inactivity, a lot of indecision, particularly from the Executive and the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.