‘I often say that I’m a mother first, and politician second’

Laura McMullan talks to Jo-Anne Dobson
Laura McMullan talks to Jo-Anne Dobson

Jo-Anne Dobson hurries across the car park of Brownlow House, blonde hair swinging, apologising profusely for being a matter of minutes late.

She jokes with our photographer and pulls out her lipstick for a quick application ahead of the photos, whilst I admire her tartan blazer.

It’s been a number of years since I last met the Ulster Unionist woman; that event had taken place in her living room at her home in Waringstown, where she had arranged to introduce me to a collective of interesting locals, aiding me with the submission of an article about the Co Down village.

Now here we were some five or six years later, at one of the most historical and indeed beautiful buildings in Northern Ireland, overlooking the very lovely lake in Lurgan Park.

Dobson has come a long way since then; she was an MLA for the UUP in the last Stormont Assembly, and is a candidate in the Upper Bann constituency once again in the upcoming elections next month. She started her career in frontline politics after being elected to Craigavon Borough Council in a by-election in 2010, winning 64 per cent of the vote.

Two years later, after being elected to Stormont, she stepped down from council.

In 2014, she was selected by her party to be their candidate for Upper Bann in the 2015 general election. She lost out to the DUP’s David Simpson, who took the seat, but her campaign was deemed a success after it emerged that she had increased the UUP’s percentage vote by 1.2 per cent on the previous general election.

But there’s a few things about Jo-Anne Dobson that haven’t changed. She’s still a devoted mum – her sons Elliott and Mark are 25 and 23 now respectively – and huge champion of organ donation awareness (Mark had a kidney transplant when he was in his GCSE year).

She remains a practical, hands-on farmer’s wife; husband John isn’t shy when it comes to asking his wife to help him deliver a calf, or go and check on the cattle.

And she’s still, undeniably, one of Ulster’s most glamorous politicians; when she first came to prominence she was dubbed as the “mum who made the UUP sexy”.

But this remarkable lady is far from being all beauty and no brains or charm, as is evident by the fact that our conversation is interrupted a couple of times by passing punters, exchanging hellos with her and asking her how she is. She waves and smiles and replies to every single person.

“We went to Florida in January to celebrate my 50th – it was the first time John had had a holiday in two years,” she confides.

The Dobsons are a hardworking family, but they put each other first; indeed, it’s because her sons are her “utmost priority” that Jo-Anne was something of a latecomer to the world of politics, despite having always had a passionate interest in it.

“I’d been involved with the UUP since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but behind the scenes,” she says.

“My son Mark was ill since he was five weeks old, and our lives were spent as a family up and down to the children’s hospital. He was my real priority.

“I often say that I’m a mother first and a politician second. A lot of people in the party would have told me I was very organised, and good at coordinating behind the scenes, and asked if I would never consider putting myself forward. But I said not when Mark was so ill.”

Today Mark helps both his parents out – he farms with John, and assists Jo-Anne in the office every afternoon when his outdoor work is done. Elliott, meanwhile, is a commodities trader in London and an engineering graduate of Cambridge.

And so now it is Jo-Anne’s time to shine, and the arena she has chosen is a very public one.

“Mark was my biggest encourager, and once I knew he was OK and had come through the transplant and everything was fine, I thought I had nothing to lose, and went for it.

“I was absolutely honoured to be elected, and it was the same with the Assembly in 2011. To be honest, I think that with our experience with Mark, I never take anything for granted.

“I think that if it’s meant to be, it will happen. I do firmly believe in fate.”

Thankfully destiny, a little luck, and Jo-Anne’s natural ability to relate and reach out to people have ensured that she has enjoyed a successful and rewarding role in politics over the past few years.

“What I find most satisfying about politics in general is the people you meet,” she says.

“That is what motivates you and drives you on. I am very fortunate to have met so many amazing people.

“When you get a result for someone, it gives you a feeling like nothing else, that you have made a real difference to someone’s life.”

She relates a sad story about a “prominent Banbridge businessman” who came into her office one day and said he was having problems accessing cancer drugs, drugs which could ultimately not save, but certainly prolong, his life.

“He said it would probably be too late for him, but he wanted to make a difference for others coming behind him who might have been given that same diagnosis,” she says.

“This was a man who had put so much into the town and borough for so many years, and in his hour of need he was being denied a drug that could have been life prolonging.

“I took on that man’s case and took it straight to the health minister. I had his daughter presenting along with me and we were able to make difference.”

As for the Ulster Unionist Party, it was a “natural choice” for her, given the fact both her parents were “strong stalwarts” and heavily involved in it.

Jo-Anne laughs that even now, people will come up to her mother, Joan, and ask her if she can help them with something, and she will direct them to her daughter.

“Mum will text me and say, ‘ can you help out such and such’ and name about 10 names, and then at the end of it add, ‘try to take a wee rest’.”

She describes the support she has had from the party as “fantastic”, and says she has never faced any problems due to her gender, although she firmly believes that she “went through the selection process with everyone else”.

She is keen that other young women across the Province are encouraged to come into politics if that is their dream, and aren’t put off by the confrontational aspect that is often conveyed by the insult-hurling and point-scoring often seen on TV and in the media.

As a consequence she takes care to introduce students who come to shadow her to the other side of politics, the grass roots side, and spends time allowing them to see what goes on at Stormont in committee meetings, for example, and in the local constituency.

Learning to deal with criticism and ‘Twitter trolls’ has been something of a learning curve for Jo-Anne herself.

Like other politicians, she has been on the receiving end of unkind remarks, and thanks to the prevalence of social media, so-called ‘keyboard warriors’ can make their feelings known about political representatives in a very public and often harsh, cruel and demeaning manner.

Jo-Anne says you have to train yourself to be able to “shirk it off”.

She adds: “If you believe in yourself and know that what you’re trying to do is fundamentally right, rise above it. But it is very, very difficult, and some days you’re better at dealing with it than others.”

Social media has played its part in making Jo-Anne’s life more challenging in another way – specifically, that she is virtually, ‘on call’ 24/7.

“I can get a message from someone at the weekend unhappy because their bin hasn’t been emptied. The next message can be from someone saying they don’t feel themselves, and are going to do something. You don’t want to miss anything.”

She adds that her patient husband will at times scold her for being on her phone at 1am and order her to put it away.

But he is “great”, she says, insisting that “having a supportive family and a good team around you” is the only way you can achieve any kind of work life balance in this game.

“A lot of my home life morphs into the work we do. John will come to a lot of health and agriculture events with me at the weekend and that, in essence, is his way of seeing me!”

The pair met when they were just 16, at the Belmont Hotel in Banbridge, and were engaged when Jo-Anne was sitting her A levels. They were married a couple of years later.

“I have to say I have been so fortunate – my husband is absolutely brilliant,” she says. “You need that support at home, or to have someone who, when you are getting in very late at night, is there to say to you – ‘you did well there.’”

The mum-of-two also counts herself as very blessed when it comes to her friendships as well. “They are so understanding. They know how busy I am, so they’ll say look, if you have a free Saturday night coming up, please call round and we’ll get a Chinese. And they know not to push. But similarly I can say to them, I can meet you for coffee on Saturday morning, but it’s a Marie Curie Fundraiser, or whatever, so can you come and support it? And they do.”