“Being a Christian and a politician can be very difficult,” admits DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.
The softly spoken Lagan Valley representative - who has been involved in Northern Ireland politics since he was 22 - does not often open up about his deep faith in God; indeed, as one of the unionist party’s most hardworking and busy members, both at Westminster and local level, one wonders how he even finds the time to go to church.
“When I first became a Christian I really questioned whether politics was the right place for a Christian to be,” he continues.
“But God showed me very clearly through his Word, that He was able to use people in political positions to advance His plan. You have stories like Joseph and Daniel, and people who were placed in positions of political responsibility, not so that they themselves could be great men in their own right, but because God had a plan and a purpose and He was able to use them for that plan.
“So I believe what we see in the Bible can also apply in the 21st century.”
It’s a modern outlook for a man who was brought up in a traditional home.
The eldest of five boys and three girls, he grew up in Kilkeel, Co Down, where he attended Kilkeel Presbyterian Church.
“From a very early age we had a strong connection with our church,” Jeffrey says.
“From the age of five I would have been in Sunday School, gone right through to Bible Class when I was 18, and similarly, I joined the Boys Brigade and was involved with it all the way through my school days.
“Church became a very important part of my childhood and I have many happy memories of times in Kilkeel Presbyterian Church.”
But his childhood and affiliation with Kilkeel is tinged with sad memories as well.
In 1970, his cousin Samuel Donaldson, an RUC constable, was murdered by the IRA. He was the first policeman to be killed by the terrorist organisation in the Troubles.
For Jeffrey, it marked the demolition of his boyhood innocence; his first memory of the Troubles is his cousin’s funeral.
“That was, I think, quite a significant moment in my childhood,” he says, adding that the church hall is now called the Samuel Donaldson Memorial Hall, and is dedicated to the memory of the fallen policeman.
“I know that for the wider Donaldson family and the local community, we never enter that hall without thinking of Samuel, and of all the soldiers and police officers who were from our local community, some of whom ultimately lost their lives.
Samuel was also the leader of the church’s Youth Fellowship, so he played a significant role in the life of Kilkeel Presbyterian.”
In 1985 the Donaldson family were struck by tragedy once more; Samuel’s brother Alex, who was also in the RUC, was one of nine officers killed in a mortar attack on Newry police station.
It was at this time that the young Jeffrey started to become politically aware, joining the Orange Order and the Young Unionist movement two years later.
He also joined the Ulster Defence Regiment.
But something was changing inside Jeffrey spiritually as well.
“I remember reading a little Christian tract about the Christian Police Association (Northern Ireland) in which Alex had written his testimony as a Christian and a police officer,” he reveals.
“The message it contained had a very deep impact because...as a Christian, he (Alex) had the assurance that he would have everlasting life through his Christian faith, and I thought that was very important.
“I remember on another occasion before I became a Christian attending the funeral of a friend with whom I had served in the Ulster Defence Regiment - a young man called Alan Johnston, who had been murdered by the IRA going to his work one morning in Kilkeel. At that time Alan lived just around the corner from me and my wife, and I remember standing at the back of Mourne Presbyterian Church during his funeral service.
“I could see his coffin at the front of the church and we were singing the hymn Abide With Me. I remember the words of the hymn, ‘Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?’
God really spoke to me through the words of that hymn, during that funeral service, and I suppose I was challenged about where I was going with my life, and if it had been me who had been killed and not Alan Johnston, where would I be at that point?
“And so these events were significant, and I believe that God used these to speak to me about my need to get right with Him.”
In 1989, Jeffrey and his wife Eleanor both became Christians. Jeffrey was 26 years old.
“It only took me less than a minute to pray a little prayer with my wife to ask Jesus to come into our hearts and to change our lives,” he says.
“As I look back now over the years to that moment in 1989, I can truly say that it was for me a life-changing experience, and from that moment on I relinquished control of my life, as I foolishly thought that I controlled my own destiny, which of course ...was a very dangerous thing for a politician.
“At that point I handed my life and my destiny over to Jesus, and since then God has guided me through my political career.”
Instantaneously, Donaldson found that his approach to his political career changed.
“It was no longer about serving myself; it was about serving God, and serving others through the realm of politics,” he explains.
Today, the MP enjoys devoting time to the spiritual side of his life in as practical a way as he can; he belongs to Banbridge Road Presbyterian Church in Dromore, and when he is in London, he chairs an organisation called Prayer for Parliament, “which brings together intercessory prayer leaders from around London and the Home Counties in England, who come in regularly to Westminster to pray for our government, for our Parliament and for our nation.
And he stresses how important he feels prayer is: “I believe that prayer can make a difference, and we have seen that in Northern Ireland at very critical moments in the peace process, how the power of prayer and how praying Christians can make a difference in terms of trying to change the minds of people...and overcome very difficult obstacles.”
From a personal point of view, Jeffrey Donaldson says his own faith has helped him - and his family - cope with the effects of the Troubles.
“When I look at how members of my wider family circle coped after Samuel and Alex were killed, I could see how powerful the Christian influence was in their lives, and despite the inner turmoil and the enormous pain they must have been feeling, they were able to gain a peace from their Christian faith. I have found that too.
“People will talk a lot about the peace process in Northern Ireland, but my peace comes from having a personal relationship with God.”
Is it not, I ask, unbelievably challenging at times, when people are being murdered, lives torn apart, to continue to believe in the goodness and graciousness of God?
Jeffrey admits that he “used to get very frustrated” with the situation in the province, watching families left grieving because of atrocities committed by paramilitaries.
“When I saw innocent people being murdered, I questioned why God would allow this to happen.
“I remember attending a political meeting one evening in south Armagh where we talked about a security solution to the situation.
Afterwards the chairman of the meeting handed me a little slip of paper, and on that was written a Bible verse - Second Chronicles 7:14: ‘If my people which are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my faith, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.’
“God spoke to me through that verse and that message and I believe that the real power in Northern Ireland today to make change and to create a real and lasting peace is the power that Christians have through prayer.”