Farmer’s daughter who chose posters of politicians over pop star pin-ups

Carla Lockhart talks to Laura McMullan
Carla Lockhart talks to Laura McMullan

Carla Lockhart is the first to admit that she isn’t really a morning person.

“I normally hit the snooze button once or twice,” laughs the 31-year-old DUP councillor.

“But as soon as my feet hit the ground, I’ve raised a gear, and if I’m thinking of things I need to do for work, I’ll put them into my diary.”

Then it’s shower, get dressed, and hit the road, as this energetic young woman throws herself into a packed day of meetings with fellow councillors and her constituents (Carla represents the district electoral area of Lurgan within Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council), events, social engagements, and more meetings, before returning home for a catch up and a cup of tea with husband Rodney.

“I’d normally get into the house around half 10,” says the former Aughnacloy High School and University of Ulster student.

She adds with a slight smile: “I’m very much known for my social networking, and I find that a lot of people contact me via social media, so after a debrief of the day with my husband, I’ll start and follow up all the queries and issues around that. I’ve been known to not turn the light out at night until 1am.”

Sporting perfectly applied make-up and poker straight blonde hair, and dressed in heels, a fitted dress in an eye-catching royal blue shade, and sparkling diamanté necklace, it’s difficult to believe Carla might have had a late night last night.

She reveals, in fact, that she arrived home from a political trip to Washington just yesterday evening - before heading straight to a fashion event in Portadown where she had been invited to be the compere.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it, but hard graft isn’t a problem for Carla Lockhart.

The Business Studies graduate somewhat unexpectedly became a councillor for the first time in 2007, when she was co-opted to Craigavon Borough Council following the death of Fergie Dawson. In 2011 she was elected in her own right in the Lurgan ward, with 952 first preferences.

The following year, at the age of 27, she became the borough’s youngest ever Mayor.

Now, she’s stepping up to what she most likely sees as the next natural challenge in her political career - election to the Northern Ireland Assembly in May.

“I would say that I was probably involved in politics from I was about five years old,” says Carla, who grew up on a farm, and prides herself on coming from a rural, working class family with an exceptional work ethic.

“I loved going to the polling stations with my dad, and standing outside giving out leaflets and promoting the party with my family.”

And the DUP was always the party for her.

“Dr Paisley was a very big influence on me,” she says of its late founder. “I very much looked up to him and found him inspirational. I have to admit that I was the type of girl throughout my teenage years who, when others had pictures of Peter Andre or whoever on their wall, I had politicians!”

After graduation, Carla managed to secure a job with the DUP’s Stephen Moutray, first as an assistant, then as political researcher. What started off as a three month trial turned into nine years.

“I think I always just enjoyed the cut and thrust of politics,” she continues.

“I always felt that the DUP was a party that was policy driven, knew where they were going, knew where they wanted to take Northern Ireland, and there were very, very capable individuals at the top of it, that were totally committed to making Northern Ireland a better place to live, work and do business.

“Obviously, being 31 I didn’t live through the worst of the Troubles, I really just remember the tail end of them, but I lived in quite a dangerous area of Co Tyrone, and I remember being in church one evening and hearing a bomb go off at the Emyvale border. I can vividly recall the building shaking.

“A lot of my family members would have served with the security forces, and I have friends and family who were murdered, so I am very acutely aware that those sores are still running deeply in the community that I represent.

“Yet I feel there remains very much a desire there to see Northern Ireland move forward, and become a place where young people can get jobs, or where we have investment from businesses and good healthcare systems.”

Our conversation turns to the DUP’s current leader, Arlene Foster, whom Carla describes as “capable, articulate, and with an aura about her when she walks into a room,” adding: “I can only aspire to be like her.”

However I sense that’s because Arlene Foster is a capable leader, and not just because she’s a female; Carla Lockhart doesn’t like labels and stereotypes when it comes to getting a job done.

“I don’t really focus on the gender side of it,” she says. “I believe that you’re there because you’re capable of doing the job and have a passion for it.

“I do think women have to sometimes prove themselves more so than men do, which makes them more driven. I’m in politics nine years now, and when I look back at when I first arrived in the council, I was probably seen as a young girl who didn’t know much. And I believe that’s what has given me an in-built determination that I can make a change, and I want to make a change.”

Fortunately, she says the DUP has been “very progressive in terms of promoting women” within the party.

“They have helped me along the way,” she says.

There are a couple of issues which are close to Carla’s heart, and which she would like to take forward. One is cervical cancer screening, having met two ladies in her constituency who were diagnosed with cervical cancer at the ages of 25 and just over 30. “I was quite taken with the fact that had they not went for their screening, really it probably would have been missed,” she says, and refers to the current debate around bringing the age of women called for screening down.

“This is something I’d like to work on with the new health minister, to see if that could happen in Northern Ireland, and also look at the medical research, because I think we have to be very aware that if we champion something, particularly in the medical field, we have to look at what the experts and the professionals say on it.”

She’s evidently passionate about her job, and driven in what she does, but does Carla ever get a chance to wind down?

“I don’t often get it, but I love a Saturday night in the house, with the fire lit, and maybe watching Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor or Take Me Out,” she confides.

“But at the end of the day, if there is something on on a Saturday night constituency wise I’ll go to it.” Any advice for would-be female politicians reading this article today? She pauses before adding: “You get out what you put in, and each politician can decide for themselves what level they want to pitch it at. I just find that I enjoy it and love what I do.’’