Rev Robert Coulter - a well respected figure in politics and religion

Rev Robert Coulter.
Rev Robert Coulter.

Rev Dr Robert James Coulter MBE, who died on September 5, was one of the best-known and respected political figures in North Antrim.

Born in October 1929 in Stewartstown in County Tyrone, he was the only son of John and Elizabeth Coulter and was educated at primary school in Stewartstown and Cookstown High School.

When he left school it was not as his parents wanted to become a medical doctor, but to train as a motor mechanic. He was fanatical about road racing and entered the Cookstown 100 and Ulster Grand Prix under an assumed name because his mother feared for his safety.

Robert Coulter was later awarded a place at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, but decided not to pursue a career in the Army because of opposition from his mother.

His parents were both deeply involved in the Faith Mission and while working in a local garage, he became a born again believer in December 1946. After this, Robert decided to dedicate his life to God’s Work as a preacher of the Gospel.

He attended the Faith Mission College in Edinburgh, and after completing his training, joined Rev Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster and served as minister of Mount Merrion Free Presbyterian Church in East Belfast. He then spent a year in the United States as an evangelist.

Upon returning to Northern Ireland, he joined the mainstream Presbyterian Church and attended Union Theological College. Robert completed his assistantship in Westbourne Presbyterian Church in East Belfast before being appointed as minister of Clough Presbyterian Church in the Ballymena Presbytery in November 1963.

During his time in Clough, he developed a keen interest in aviation, and completed his pilot’s licence.

In 1956 he had married Elizabeth Holmes; the couple were married for 62 years at the time of Robert’s death in September. Rev Coulter began teaching Religious Education on a part-time basis at Ballymena Technical College and during this period also developed a tape ministry to record church services for people who could not attend for worship.

He would later move to Ballymena Technical College in 1978, becoming a full-time lecturer in media and RE.

He was a keen Orangeman and member of the Royal Black Preceptory and served as a Deputy Imperial Grand Chaplain in both Orders and served as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution when the late Sir James Molyneaux was Sovereign Grand Master.

In the early 1980s he entered politics with the Ulster Unionist Party and his first election in North Antrim came in 1983 during the Westminster General Election. It was the only election he was to lose in his political career, being defeated by the late Rev Dr Ian Paisley, a formidable opponent in his political heartland. Whilst in different parties, the two remained friends.

In 1985, Robert was elected as a UUP Councillor to Ballymena Borough Council. He retained his seat in 1989, and in 1993 was re-elected to the council, and also elected as the first UUP Mayor of Ballymena since the early 1970s. He served as First Citizen of Ballymena from 1993-96.

In that year, 1996, he was elected to the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue, where he served as UUP chief whip. He was part of the team in the background which laid the negotiation foundations for what was to become the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, hosting a series of secret meetings with government officials to kick-start the fledgling peace process.

He campaigned for a Yes vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum campaign, and was elected as a North Antrim Assembly member in 1998, a seat he was to hold until his retirement in 2011.

During his entire Assembly career, he was a member of the prestigious Stormont Commission. He was also active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which saw him represent the Assembly at conferences in India, Australia, and Canada.

In the Assembly, he also served on the health committee and employment and learning committee and was UUP spokesman for both portfolios during his times on those committees. In 2010, he was awarded an MBE for his services on the Commission.

Following his retirement in 2011, he championed the cause of special needs education and became chairman of the board of governors of Castle Tower School in Ballymena, one of the top SEN (Special Educational Needs) establishments in Europe.

He also held senior positions in the Ballymena Chamber of Commerce, and was pesident of the Ballymena Agricultural Show. He served as a chaplain to the Ulster Defence Regiment Association and was president of the Mid Antrim branch of the Ulster Special Constabulary Association.

His love of road racing continued throughout his life and he served as chaplain to the Mid Antrim 150 road races.

Tribute was paid during his memorial service by UUP leader Robin Swann MLA, who said he had been fortunate to know Bob Coulter as a true friend and mentor.

The president of the North Antrim Ulster Unionist Association had been, Mr Swann said, “a true blue unionist”. He said of the early years of Robert Coulter’s career: “...during those times it was not easy to be a politician in Northern Ireland, as Bob took on the additional responsibilities and security implications of serving on the Police Authority. These are some of the public outworkings of his political life, but it was of the crucial background work that he undertook that he had many a story to tell, from travelling in the dead of night to meetings with Government ministers to hosting delegations at his home in Springmount,” he said.

“Of the tributes that have been paid, everyone has acknowledged his warmth and the personal time he gave to anyone he met, he was a man who was as comfortable sitting at a kitchen table up a lane outside Clough or having tea with Nelson Mandela or addressing the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and achieving membership for Northern Ireland.

“I am blessed like many to have learned from Bob’s experience, and having had him as a political mentor and guide, a mentor is someone who wants to see you rise to the top and is willing to let you stand on their shoulders to get there, to me Bob was such a man,” the UUP leader said.

He said Rev Coulter was recognised as a pivotal figure in supporting and helping David Trimble restore devolution through the Belfast Agreement.

Reference was also made to the tributes of other politicians from rival parties by Mr Swann.

These included Mervyn Storey MLA, who had said: “He was a man of personal integrity, character and Christian faith” and acknowledged that while Robert and he belonged to different political parties, they shared “a common love for our constituency, our country and our faith”.

TUV leader Jim Allister praised Rev Coulter for his “unstinting work” in the constituency, and how Castle Tower Special School was part of his abiding legacy there.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said: “Robert Coulter had a long record of public service. We obviously had political differences, but on behalf of Sinn Fein I wish to express my sincere condolences and sympathy to Mr Coulter’s family and friends.”

SDLP former leader Alasdair McDonnell, described Bob Coulter as a man of great integrity and political decency through all the years he knew him at Stormont, “a genuine Christian, who reached out the hand of friendship to his fellow man”.

Mr Swann added: “And I know that it is in that sentiment, that it was Bob’s faith and love for the Lord that was his greatest strength and gift to us all, and it is in that assurance that we know that he is walking the corridors of power in a better place, with the same ease and grace and welcome, that he walked the corridors of Stormont.”

Rev Dr Coulter, who remained a faithful preacher of the Gospel, passed away on September 5, 2018 after a battle with cancer. He is survived by his widow, Elizabeth, son John, daughter Liz, daughter-in-law Sharon and grandsons Daniel and Adam.

His service of celebration was held in Clough Presbyterian Church and his coffin was carried out of the church by members of the Kirk Session to the tune of Travelling Home, a Gospel tune which Robert - a gifted musician on the piano-accordion and an accomplished artist - himself composed in his youth.

Interment followed in Clough cemetery.

Donations in lieu of flowers were encouraged to Castle Tower School.