Sam Gardiner has been an Ulster Unionist Party stalwart and major figure on the local political landscape

Imperial Deputy Grand Master Sam Gardiner MLA on parade at the Royal Black Institution  Last Saturday parade, Armagh.'Picture by Brian Little
Imperial Deputy Grand Master Sam Gardiner MLA on parade at the Royal Black Institution Last Saturday parade, Armagh.'Picture by Brian Little

When the next NI Assembly election comes around in 2016, it will spell the end of the distinguished 55-years-plus political career of Samuel Gardiner, which stretches back to the days of Lurgan Borough Council.

For Samuel will not be an Upper Bann candidate for his beloved Lurgan and the Ulster Unionist Party which he has served so faithfully and well from his teenage years. He didn’t make the initial selection at Brownlow House last week, and he makes no secret of the fact that he is disappointed, having tossed his hat into the ring.

At 75, he felt he had another term left in him, having topped the poll among the three UUP candidates in the 2011 election. He and newcomer Jo-Anne Dobson made it then, among the six for Upper Bann, with Colin McCusker narrowly losing out.

Dobson and McCusker were among the four chosen in the pairing-down process last week. Dobson led the field with 98 votes, followed by new kid on the block Kyle Savage (96), soldier hero Doug Beattie (89) and McCusker (83), Craigavon’s last Mayor.

With his experienced eye, Samuel sees the “Savage Lad as one for the future, given his family pedigree”. Kyle’s father, the late George, was Samuel’s Assembly partner until he was deselected in the run-up to 2011.

“It was typical of the ruthless life of politics,” said Samuel. “The Savages have a fine family, church, farming and community tradition in the area, and I wasn’t really surprised that Kyle did so well. He presented himself well at the selection.”

Samuel realised underneath it all, that the new leadership of the UUP was ringing the changes, and that was a main reason why he was eliminated so early. “It was evident early in the process that I was the first to be sacrificed and I don’t pretend it didn’t hurt.”

There is a feeling that the Dobson-Beattie partnership is the preferred option in UUP HQ. As happened the last time, the party will probably offer three to the electorate, and whether Savage or McCusker will be the third in line remains to be seen.

Samuel Gardiner’s political life started in the late 1950s when he joined the Unionist Party in his teens, and since then, the focus has been mainly on Lurgan. He never lost an election, through the two borough councils he served (Craigavon was created in 1973). He was Mayor of his home town when he was just 27 (in 1968), prior to the re-organisation of local government. He was the town’s youngest-ever First Citizen and served along with colleagues like Billy Gordon, Alex Greer and Joe Johnston, who was Craigavon’s First Mayor.

Samuel was one of a selected few to make it as Mayor of Craigavon on three occasions (1982, 1988 and 2000), the others including Jim McCammick and George Savage when the unionists kept a strangle-hold on the high office.

He was the Chain holder in 1983 when the new Civic Centre was opened by the Duke of Abercorn, and he was again in office at the turn of the Millennium for Craigavon’s failed bid to become a city (Newry and Lisburn were the victors). He recalled that he took to the skies with Secretary of State John Reid in a helicopter that day, but it was all to no avail.

His greatest council achievement, Samuel reckoned, was as chairman of the jobs-creating organisation CIDO, with its two complexes at Carn and one in Lurgan. “Its ethos of creating nursery units for budding entrepreneurs and supporting them with advice and administration has proved a real winner,” he said.

Perhaps his nadir was the St Peter’s GAA affair when he was one of 12 banned from the council for five years, although he had little choice in the matter as he was deeply involved in Brownlow House which was beside the piece of waste land that was in dispute.

“But that’s water under the bridge,” he said. “Brownlow House has evolved into a superb community facility for Lurgan (and Craigavon in general) and times move on.” And he recalled the trauma when The House was torched and he was brought up on a fire service crane to observe the blaze.

He is chairman of the Brownlow Trustees – the world HQ for the Royal Black Preceptory, of which he is one of three Deputy Imperial Grand Masters. And he has served Lurgan as District Grand Master of the Orange and Black Institutions and in the Masonic Order.

His service to the NI Assembly has been a stop-go affair in tandem with the rather mottled history of the organisation. He doesn’t get involved in the policies. “I simply serve the public from my office in Lurgan and in Stormont, and do what I can to stabilise matters in Belfast. The public has to be served, and that’s the part I’ll miss most of all. I’m proud to be ‘Father of the House’ (the oldest Assembly member) and would like to have continued.”

Outside politics, his CV has been nothing short of exhausting. He has been High Sheriff of Armagh, involved in the High Court with the top brass and a Justice of the Peace. He was the instigator of the Mayor’s Awards in Craigavon.

He has been on the Select Vestry of Shankill Parish Church of Ireland where he was a bell-ringer, but is involved with the Lurgan Citadel of the Salvation Army.

He and George Savage were directors of Glenavon, and as a member of the old Lurgan Hospital Board he introduced many innovations to the hospital, including lifts and other comforts. He was also founder President of Craigavon Chorale which performed excerpts from Handel’s Messiah every year, initially conducted by great friend Duncan Peel.

Amid this frantic life, he has managed to sustain a happy family life and a successful career. His wife is Elizabeth, a respected retired nursing sister, and they have two sons Clive and Keith (both Waringstown) and five grandchildren.

He started his working life in the linen trade with Twybles of William Street, then went into the Electric Board (EBNI later NIE) and rose to the post of area credit controller.

Samuel Gardiner was also Chairman of the Maze Visitors Group, where he had “the most moving experience of my life.” He was called to the H-Block one Sunday night where a young hunger striker was nearing the end.

Said Samuel, “I got the impression that he had been coerced into the situation and we had a word of prayer together and I told him Christianity was the answer. There was a wonderful calm about him as I left, and I was shattered later on when I was told he had died. That’s the one thing I’ll never forget and it puts politics into its proper perspective.”

Having lived life to the full, it’s small wonder that Samuel Gardiner received the MBE – his service at The Maze was the clincher. And as he looks to the future, denied any future role in politics (“which was a major part of my life”), he simply says, “When God closes a door…”