Ex-nuclear submarine commander wants to be an MLA

Stephen Aiken in his time as a senior Navy officer
Stephen Aiken in his time as a senior Navy officer

A recently retired nuclear submarine commander who featured in a BBC documentary is hoping to enter Stormont after the Ulster Unionist Party selected him as a candidate in a constituency where it hopes to make gains next year.

Stephen Aiken, who commanded a nuclear-powered submarine and also served on nuclear-armed vessels, will be one of three UUP candidates in South Antrim.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (left) with former submarine commander, and future South Antrim Assembly candidate, Stephen Aiken

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt (left) with former submarine commander, and future South Antrim Assembly candidate, Stephen Aiken

The UUP currently has just one MLA in the constituency but is hoping to win another seat after Danny Kinahan defeated the DUP’s William McCrea in the general election six months ago.

The other UUP candidates in South Antrim will be Adrian Cochrane-Watson and Paul Michael.

Speaking to the News Letter, Mr Aiken admitted that he will be taking a “substantial pay cut” if he is elected to the Assembly. MLAs are paid a basic salary of £48,000 a year, whereas Royal Navy commanders receive anything from £50,000 to £80,000, with additional money for submariners.

The 53-year-old father-of-four from Ballyclare retired from the Royal Navy in 2011 and since then has been chief executive of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce.

The would-be MLA said that “like most ex-military people” he had little interest in politics until quite recently.

But he said that while serving in the Navy he had voted for several parties, including the UUP, DUP, Alliance Party – and even the Liberal Democrats during a period when he was in England.

He said that his post-naval career in business had shown him the importance of politics and that three years ago UUP leader Mike Nesbitt had told him “if you can make a difference, you should”.

The Cambridge graduate – who is now reading for an international relations doctorate from Cambridge – said the UUP was “the only [party] that has any vision and has the interests of Northern Ireland at heart”, as well as having a “modern outlook” and a view of “responsible government”.

He said that in some respects he could be viewed as a liberal unionist (he supports gay marriage) and he wants to see “improved relations with our neighbours”, but that he is “100 per cent committed to the Union” as “the most important thing for Northern Ireland in the future”.

Mr Aiken said he had been “thinking about this for a long time” and that his “decision was quite clear”.

“I will be delighted if I am selected by the people of South Antrim. It’s not about money – it’s about whether I can make a difference. The salary of an MLA is quite adequate.”

Mr Aiken praised current UUP South Antrim MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson as having done a “fantastic job” since being co-opted into the Assembly in June to replace Mr Kinahan.

And, when asked about Wednesday’s House of Commons vote on military action in Syria, Mr Aiken said that so long as there is a clear strategy he would “very clearly support” military action to counter the “real and present threat from ISIL”.

Mr Aiken is also a former CEO of Dublin City University Educational Trust.

He was awarded the OBE and the US Meritorious Service Medal for his service in the Middle East around the time of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Latest in growing line of ex-military figures to join UUP

Stephen Aiken is the third prominent military figure who has joined the Ulster Unionist Party under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership.

Last year Captain Doug Beattie, who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan and served as Colonel Tim Collins’ sergeant major during the Iraq War, joined the UUP and is now a councillor in Craigavon.

He has quickly become one of the party’s most assured media performers and is likely to be an Assembly candidate in Upper Bann next year.

Former Royal Irish Regiment soldier Andy Allen, who lost both his legs and much of his sight in Afghanistan in 2008, also joined the UUP last year.

Ranger Allen, who featured in a BBC documentary which tracked his recovery from the horrific injuries, was co-opted into the Assembly as an MLA for East Belfast earlier this year.

Speaking about the latest former military figure to join the party, Mr Nesbitt said: “We are in growth mode and we are looking for exceptional candidates. Steve is an exceptional candidate.

“He has the sort of life experiences that will enhance our ability to represent people better.

“I have been talking to Steve over the last three years and I am pleased he took time before getting involved in politics and committing himself to us.

“The fact he took his time makes his commitment all the more welcome.

“He has put a lot of thought into this and I encourage the voters of South Antrim to acknowledge the strength of the team we will offer at the polls in May 2016.

“After Danny Kinahan’s success in South Antrim last May we look forward to offering the people of South Antrim enhanced Ulster Unionist representation in the Assembly from next May.”