Why Christian faith is foremost for Ulster politician

David with his family. From left to right: wife Elaine, daughter Leah, 24, son Steven, 24, daughter Kristy, 27
David with his family. From left to right: wife Elaine, daughter Leah, 24, son Steven, 24, daughter Kristy, 27

As a boy, maybe no more than eight years of age, he was no stranger to the stage, where he would showcase his fine singing skills alongside the likes of Philomena Begley and Gene Stuart, legendary country stars and household names.

But little did the young David Simpson, nor his proud parents, know that God had plans for him, plans that would see him take his place on a much bigger, more important, stage.

That stage was to be the House of Commons, where the now 55-year-old (he celebrated his birthday with his family last Sunday) has been the MP for his native Upper Bann since he famously ousted former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble in 2005.

Almost a decade on, and the father-of-three - his children are 27-year-old Kristy, and twins Steven and Leah, 24 - continues to devote endless hours to the demands of his relentless working week, half of which is spent tending to ministerial duties in Parliament, and the other half attending countless meetings and events here.

Add to that the demands of a thriving business - Universal Meat Company, which is based at the family home in Annaghmore, Co Armagh, is approaching its fourth decade in the food industry - a busy family life, a love of God, church and to this day, his beloved gospel singing - and life is for him, as he freely admits, frantic.

However I sense that he would not have it any other way, and as he later confesses during our interview, which takes place in his office in Portadown’s Thomas Street, there is one person he will ultimately rely on to tell him when the time to take it easy, or a step back, is nigh - and that’s God.

“I believe, as a Calvinist, that your life’s planned, and from the moment you’re born, every step of the way is planned, and whatever will be in the future will be,” he says with feeling.

And he adds, without any prompting whatsoever: “If somebody was to put the choice to me, and people have said to me, ‘David, would you put your politics before your faith?’ - no, I certainly would not. I would say that without fear of contradiction, my faith will come first.”

Born “in a wee village called Derryscollop outside Moy”, Co Tyrone, and raised just a few miles down the road in the Derrylee area, David Simpson, like many of this generation of families brought up in the country, went to church dutifully every Sunday, with an extra hour in Sunday School thrown in for good measure.

“At that stage we were going to Derrylee Methodist Church and I was a member of the Boys’ Brigade in Milltown Parish Church,” he says, adding that his parents, whilst being “churchey people”, did not profess faith in Christ until they were in their 60s.

Nevertheless, belonging to a church and sending your family there was, as David says, “part of the fabric of society”.

“You had to be at your church. And that’s the way we were brought up and I enjoyed it, I have to say.”

When he was 17 years old, in July 1977, David gave his life to God in Portadown’s Bethany Free Presbyterian Church. He laughs that he could even bring me to the very seat where he bowed his head and said a simple prayer, asking Jesus into his heart, but the building has since been renovated.

And it was more than regular church attendance that slowly led him to taking this step.

“I used to sing in some of the Sunday School Christmas events, and then in the Boys’ Brigade they would have got me to sing at different events, parents’ nights or church events. And my father then noticed that I could keep a few notes together, so it was more so him and my mother who pushed me on to sing. I used to take part in talent competitions - I don’t know if there was much talent, but certainly we had our share of wins, and it was very good.

“But because of my upbringing, and my family and the church, I knew in the back of my mind there was more to life than just this, not showbiz, but well, this business of going out to sing on a Saturday night, and then on a Sunday singing in church. I knew in my mind that I could not live those two lives. You cannot have hypocrisy. I knew a seed had been sown.

“I remember William Salt, who was a Sunday School superintendant, saying to me something to the effect of, ‘David, I’m praying for the day that you sing the Gospel and only the Gospel’. That was a message that rung home to me.”

After taking the decision to ask God into his heart, David “felt as if a burden had been lifted” from him shoulders.

But as he emphasises: “I’m not saying that because someone gives their life to Christ, it’s an easy path - it’s not. Because every single day you’ll come up against all the obstacles and all the issues of life, no matter what they are. The difference is we can bring them to Christ and ask Him to help us through them.”

Indeed, David feels that life has “got harder for the Christian, for those that really take a stand for Christ and their faith”, and this is something he sees first hand day and daily as a politician.

“I remember attending a debate in the House of Commons when I wasn’t too long in politics. An issue had come up over a musical, Jerry Springer - The Opera. It just blasphemed Christ all over, the language was horrendous, but two doors down there was another play which had a few lines in it against the Muslim faith. Muslim groups were protesting outside it, and the Government insisted that it was closed down and removed.

“When I raised the issue in the House of Commons I said, ‘we have a protest where the Muslim faith was blasphemed, which is wrong, because it’s their faith, but they have a play which blasphemes Christ - what is the Government going to do?’ And the answer from the Government then was, ‘well, we have no plans to move on it yet.’ And that’s the sort of thing we find time and time again.”

As a Christian, how then does one persevere in political life, and not feel constantly jaded and beleaguered?

“It is difficult,” Simpson admits. “But there are a number of Christians within the House of Commons, good Christian people who would have a very strong faith, and they would stand up for the issues for Christians. We would meet on a regular basis.

“But I do remember having a conversation with a minister from the town when he was over in Westminster about Christian faith and being in Parliament, and I said, ‘you know there are times that I really have to ask the question - should Christians be in politics? Because it is not a nice game to be in, it can be a very dirty business.’ And he said to me, ‘David, take that thought out of your head, we need people within government today who have some kind of moral compass - Christians need to be there to help.’

“I also remember Dr Paisley telling me when I first went into the House of Commons, ‘David, many, many years ago there were many Christians in the House of Commons. We had a different country. Today, anything goes.’”

But for David, the direction that can be found through the words of the Bible remains something he taps into on a daily basis.

“I ask God for wisdom every day, every single morning - for wisdom and for guidance,” he reveals.

“I also believe that the Bible is a great road map and it’s bang right up to date. So I ask God for guidance and wisdom. Do I get everything right? No. But I have the confidence that He is there to help me through it.”