'˜Upper Bann is in my DNA'
At 26, Portadown man Jonny Buckley is the youngest Unionist politician in Stormont. He talks to LAURA MCMULLAN about his incredible journey
Only Jonathan Buckley could look back on a particularly stressful time of his life and reflect it with a ‘glass half full’ outlook.
“It was bad timing,” he admits, taking a sip of his cold drink, as he tells me about his final year at Queen’s University Belfast, when he had not only a dissertation to hand in and exams to do, but his first election campaign to manage.
“But you know something, everything happens for a reason. I set out a timescale so I knew where I was going with it all. I organised myself to a T in terms of my dissertation to get it finished to coincide with canvassing, as it was my first ever election, and there was a sense of anxiety. I had never been on a ballot paper - and just didn’t know how it would fare out.”
He needn’t have worried. He stormed home, and was elected onto the new ABC Council (Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon) in 2014, securing his seat, which he had originally taken on the old Craigavon Borough Council, after he was brought in to replace his mentor Sydney Anderson.
Three years later, in 2017, he faced yet another challenge, when Sydney decided not to run again for the Assembly, and asked the fresh-faced, keen as mustard, History and Politics graduate to stand in his place. Jonny was duly voted in, and it’s at Stormont where I meet him, on one of the most beautiful summer mornings of the year, and he proudly shows me the view from ‘the Hill’ as we stand on the terrace, overlooking the lush green hills surrounding east Belfast and beyond.
“That campaign was a whirlwind,” he admits. “And whilst most will reflect that 2017 was the worst year of their political lives, fighting an election in such a toxic environment, off the back of another one, I look at as one of the best years of my life. I was given an opportunity to put forward my views, talk to constituents - and then I was elected to this place, and that is one of my greatest achievements to date.”
And it most certainly is an impressive milestone in the life of a young lad who grew up in rural Co Armagh, and had an “idyllic” childhood.
“I was part of the last generation before mobile phones and iPads took over,” he laughs. “From early morning until late evening, in the summer, all the children in the locality gathered together and spent the day playing football, building huts and jumping in rivers.”
And he says that his tight circle of friends consist of those very playmates even to this day; ‘the boys’, as they are collectively and affectionately known, still meet up regularly, providing a great source of grounding for Jonny.
“One of the most relaxing elements of my life is my friends group - we are extremely close,” he says. “They are a great leveller in life and a great source of encouragement. Some people talk about their friends, and they may have known them a year; for us. it stretches right back across our lifetime. We all live within a five mile radius of each other and there are about 10 of us, from all backgrounds. They can never offend me; they will always tell me the honest truth. I’m just Jonny to them and I’ve always wanted that because in politics, you need to be able to talk to people who are never afraid to see life how it is. And that is something that I think many politicians actually miss.”
Raised and schooled near Portadown, Jonny hasn’t strayed too far from his roots, which certainly lends credence to his confident claim that the Upper Bann constituency is in his very DNA.
“My political journey is quite strange in that I come from no political background, and none of my family have ever been involved in it,” he says.
“But I always loved debating and putting my point across. I remember once a teacher saying to me, ‘you should be a politician.’ And it planted the seed.”
Educated at Richmount PS, Clounagh Junior and Craigavon Senior High Schools, he originally embarked on a career in electrical engineering, before that quiet whisper in his mind urging him to try for one in politics, built to a crescendo that he could ignore no longer. “I prayed a lot about it, and then I gathered up the courage to talk to my mother and father,” says Jonny, who is one of five children. With his parents’ full support, he returned to do his A levels at Lurgan College, scoring three As.
After that, all roads led to Belfast, where he started his degree, and threw himself into university life, and joined various political groups and student associations. He also began working as a political researcher for Sydney, and his exposure to the whole political spectrum continued to grow and grow. Why the DUP? His response is pragmatic.
“Put yourself in my shoes at that stage of my life; my main focus and reason for getting involved in politics was to serve my local community. I’m a passionate Unionist, and I believe that the DUP is the vehicle to advance the Union here in Northern Ireland. Some of the people in it, like Sydney, I had genuine friendships with. There was an open hand to me.”
He is equally pragmatic about his future with the party, and the constituents of Upper Bann.
“Politics is a very fluid environment, and it is impossible to tell where you will be in one year, never mind in five. Upper Bann is in my DNA, but what the future holds is not in my hands.
“Politics is a journey and there are many roads, but I am not the driver. Wherever those people want me to be, I will duly serve.”
“I do have unusual hobbies for my age,” smiles Jonny, as I ask him how he likes to relax and get away from the intensity of politics.
“Pigeon racing is something I have always been involved in. It goes back generations in my family on both sides. I find it to be a fantastic outlet. Working with animals is very tranquil, and therapeutic in some ways - you can really switch off. There’s a great sense of joy and contentment in racing pigeons.”
It certainly is somewhat uncommon to come across a 20-something young man with a penchant for pigeons, who prefers wildlife watching to coffee shops and cocktail sampling.
And it’s definitely refreshing to talk to someone so knowledgeable about his chosen interest.
“If you look back in terms of history and the wars, pigeons gave such a contribution; the First World War pigeon men put their birds forward to the front line to carry messages, which ultimately helped win the war at the time. There is the Dickin Medal, which is the ‘animal equivalent’ of the Victoria Cross, the pigeon having won the most of these of all.
“People laugh at me about pigeon racing, and I just remind them, that Our Majesty the Queen and Mike Tyson are both pigeon racers!” Another perhaps more traditional hobby that Jonny is involved heavily in is Lambeg drumming - indeed, a pastime which has a historic association with Co Armagh. He is also passionate about history, and American politics, and his choices for his top five ideal dinner party guests are eclectic. “Number one would be the Queen. because that would be such an honour.
“No matter whether you agree with the monarchy or not, you could not say that she has not carried out her duties without complete honour and professionalism. Number two would be Ronald Reagan; he is someone from a conservative background who absolutely charmed the world. Next, David Attenburgh. Can you imagine having him at the table, giving a running commentary? Number four would be Rory McIlroy. He’s inspirational in terms of what he’s done for Northern Ireland - if you go outside the UK, he’s a household name. He has achieved so much and isn’t appreciated as much at home as he is internationally.
“Finally, serenading us all with music would be Johnny Cash.”
Keeping the faith...
“My signature verse for my life is Luke 1 verse 37,” reveals Jonny, opening up about his faith, which he says has been a large part of his life - for all of his life.
He quotes it quietly: “ ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible’.
“And that is my cornerstone. I look at life with that same attitude.”
As a youngster, Jonny regularly attended children’s Bible and prayer meetings, and he grew up in Cranagill Methodist Church, Portadown.
“I look at my faith today as a great guiding light in my life, in terms of how you should treat other people, but also keeping firm to your principles when required, and doing so in a respectful way.
“I ask the Lord for guidance in everything that I do. You can’t ever believe that you get everything right, as a Christian, because nobody’s perfect, but if you have God in your sights, and you have passion and a work ethic, then you can achieve whatever you want to,” he says, adding that he prayed for guidance ahead of his move to the Assembly.