The most personal and probing interviews: Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist Party MLA, on love, a famous pal… and concerns over his health.
Q. You live in the Castlereagh hills with your wife Lynda Bryans (55) and sons PJ (22) and Christopher (20). Will they follow in their parents’ footsteps?
A. PJ has just graduated with a law degree from Queen’s and is heading off to Australia for three months before he gets on the treadmill.
Chris is studying commercial music in Bath. He’s a self-taught, very talented guitarist and is more likely to be some sort of performer, although if PJ goes down the barrister route he may perform in the courts.
Q. You once said you’d never wed again after your first marriage failed. How did Lynda change your mind?
A. Nobody gets married to get divorced and it was pretty traumatic when the first marriage didn’t work out. Lynda and I were work colleagues and it developed from there.
We went to New York for a surprise break; well, it was supposed to be a secret, but I found out by chance and had to pretend I didn’t know. It was a leap year, so I knew what the purpose of that break was.
Q. Where did you and Lynda tie the knot?
A. In Hawaii. We flew to San Francisco, spent a week making our way to LA, then spent a night on the Queen Mary, Long Island, before jetting off to Hawaii where we got married on July 6, 1992.
Q. You split up with your first wife in 1988 and have two daughters from that marriage. You haven’t had any contact for over 20 years. How do you feel about that?
A. They don’t want their lives discussed in public and I respect that.
Q. What was it like for you and Lynda to be hailed as UTV’s golden couple?
A. It never really felt like that to us. When Lynda joined the decision was made very consciously to mix and match so we weren’t a team within a team.
As time went on UTV picked up on the sense of the ‘golden couple’, or that something could be exploited there, so we became more of a presentational duo.
Q. You attended hospital recently. Why?
A. One Friday I developed what I thought was a chest cold. The next day I went to a pharmacy for cough medicine but the pharmacist told me to call Forster Green out of hours.
The doctor sounded my chest and said there was a problem with the right lung. They thought it was pneumonia and I went to the Ulster Hospital’s emergency department, where they did tests for a couple of hours.
They sent me home with steroids and antibiotics, but a week later I still wasn’t right.
I was then sent to a consultant and she took a lot of blood tests. I don’t know the results and I’m also getting a CT scan next month.
When the first doctor at Forster Green said pneumonia I thought: “What? That’s life threatening.”
They haven’t changed their opinion about it being pneumonia but they’re a bit puzzled; the X-ray apparently showed up fine, but then she sounded my chest and it’s definitely not fine.
Q. Do you believe in God?
A. Yes, and I go to church. I call myself a struggling Christian for two reasons. Jesus set the bar pretty high in terms of expectations and I come up short.
I also struggle when you see the impact of suffering; it’s hard to reconcile that with a loving God.
Q. What primary school did you attend, prior to Campbell College?
A. I was born in north Belfast and when I was five we moved over to the east. My parents sent me to Bloomfield Collegiate, which had very few boys in those days.
When I left I was the only boy in the school, wishing I was in a boys’ school; a few years later I was at an all boys’ school wishing I was back at Bloomfield.
Q. Did you have a happy childhood?
A. I did, although I really didn’t like primary school; we’d a class of 24 and I habitually came 23rd.
Campbell was transformational because it turned out I was pretty good at running and English. I left with an Irish Athletics vest and an offer from Cambridge.
Q. Did you have a nickname?
A. Bushy – because of my hair.
Q. What did you study at Cambridge? Was it intimidating being a young person from Northern Ireland at an elite institution?
A. English literature. In 1976, when I started, it was challenging because of the Troubles.
There was a sense of “he’s from Northern Ireland, watch him”. It took a lot longer to make friends than it would’ve done otherwise.
In my college there were 10 of us studying English and eight were southern counties, so I naturally fell in with the pretend Cockney – one Nick Hornby. Him and I were best chums. We’re still in touch. I met him in London last year and we’re talking about having a 40th anniversary graduation reunion with other friends from Cambridge in Parliament Buildings in Stormont.
Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.
A. Homemaker mum Brenda (who’s known as Paddy) is from Portrush. She’s 91. I have a sister Norma (62), who is a manager in a health practice, and a brother Chris (51), who’s a civil servant.
My dad Charles died suddenly from a heart attack in 1988 when he was 63. Dad and his older brother Jack worked in their father’s linen business. I was being groomed as the third generation who’d take over but it was blown up by the IRA on January 25, 1973. Everything was gone.
But I did become the third generation Nesbitt to walk that piece of land; the business was in Linenhall Street West and the BBC built their studios on it.
Q. You switched to PR between stints at the Beeb and UTV. How did that come about?
A. When I was approached (by Anderson Kenny) I’d been doing Good Morning Ulster on the radio for three-and-a-half years.
It wasn’t something I wanted to do to retirement so it was the right time for a new challenge. I turned the company around and I enjoyed it.
Q. You became a Victims Commissioner in 2008 (until 2010). Why that?
A. I’ve always had an interest in it. The broadcast interviews that I believe had lasting merit were those where we gave a voice to the victims.
After the Shankill bomb we did a live show with people who had been most affected and just allowed them to tell their stories. The following week we did the same thing after the Greysteel massacre, but this time we brought some of the Shankill people with us. It was very powerful; the commonality of the victims coming from the two sides of our community.
Going back to January 1973, the impact of the IRA bomb on my father was immense because every certainty in his life disappeared, yet every responsibility remained. He still had a wife and three young children, a house, a car.
Q. Have you ever lost anyone else close to you?
A. My grandmother Greta (89), whom I was very close to, died from cancer on February 24, 1979. I had a shivering feeling that day; it later turned out it was at the moment she died. I was totally spooked.
Q. What initially brought you into politics?
A. Being in the Victims Commission brought me into daily contact with devolved politicians and special advisers, and I realised that if I really wanted to make a difference I’d be better off as an elected politician.
Q. Did you feel any resentment from within the party at rising to the leadership in such a short space of time, while others were overlooked?
A. No, but there was tension with Basil McCrea and John McCallister. It was frustrating because the three of us had similar political ideologies, but there was no obvious willingness on their parts to come together and form a core team.
Q. You caused quite a stir when you stated you’d give your second preference vote to the SDLP in the Assembly elections. What inspired you to come out with that?
A. It was a statement against a sectarian headcount. It was saying, if there’s going to be a new Executive there will be two parties going into Stormont Castle; a unionist party and a nationalist party. Why are you only voting for half of a whole?
On the doorstep people said we need a cross-community middle ground again.
But then when it comes to polling day, if it’s an Assembly election, they then vote orange and green.
Q. Do you think you gave up too soon? Do you have any regrets?
A. I tried for the cross-community thing in 2016 and 2017 and didn’t get the support to warrant continuing as leader.
I’d had two attempts at it, and it was clear to me that it’s not possible in my political lifetime.
My regret is that the country doesn’t appear to be ready for a cross-community middle ground.
Q. How do you relax away from politics?
A. I like to read; I’m also into box set binges – Madame Secretary at present – and I play golf. I love cooking – lamb with olives and chicken with bacon and stilton are the two dishes Lynda likes best – and I grow chillies because I like hot food.
Q. Who would you call your best Catholic friend?
A. I do not categorise people by their denomination but obviously most people in this country tend to be aware of who is what religiously. I have formed some very solid relationships with people I have met in broadcasting, business and politics. Some are Catholic. It is not an issue.
Q. Tell us about the best day of your life so far.
A. My wedding day. We woke up in Honolulu.
It was the most wonderful adventure. Lynda had a proper wedding dress and a hat which had been transported from Belfast to San Francisco. I’d hired an open-top car without realising the size of the hat box; it was big. That hat and I were not friends except on our wedding day. We got married in the Unity Chapel; a woman minister performed the ceremony.
Q. And what was the worst day of your life?
A. The day my friend Leonard Grenville (41) died.
He drowned in a harbour when we were away on a golfing weekend in Spain in 1999. I was 42. Nobody knows how he ended up in the water. It was a tragic accident.
He had a wife and two young daughters. It was just horrendous.
Q. What’s your favourite place in the whole world and why?
A. Portstewart. As a young boy that’s where we spent our family holidays.
Q. What was ‘hotel-floor-gate’ really all about? Was it embarrassing?
A. The Mail Online and The Sun have both apologised and my lawyer is pursuing other outlets. The photograph out of context, of course, was not to be welcomed.
Q. If the Assembly collapses, what’s next for Mike Nesbitt?
A. Lecturing, teaching, studying or writing.