New Health Minister Jim Wells considers himself a Lurgan man through and through even though rumour has it he travels all the way from Kilkeel to Moira for his chips.
Jim took over the ministerial post from Edwin Poots last week in a DUP reshuffle at Stormont.
He explained how it came about: “Last Tuesday I got a phonecall to see the First Minister. I didn’t know if it was good news or whether I was getting a rollicking.
“He said I was being made Health Minister. I asked when. He said in about 15 minutes as soon as we announce it.”
Jim was born in Lurgan Hospital and grew up in Moira on a farm owned by his family.
He said: “Although I grew up in Moira on the farm, I was sent to King’s Park in Lurgan under Mr Mailey.”
After King’s Park he transferred directly to Lurgan College from primary school.
The 57-year-old said: “I was part of the last year group to go directly from King’s Park to the college. The junior high school was introduced the following year.
“Although I didn’t go through the Dickson system myself I am a huge supporter of the Dickson Plan.
“I attended the college under Jimmy Truesdale and I’m indebted to my time there. It was there that I developed a passion for politics.
“You can blame Robin Thompson for that. He was my English teacher.
“It was Mr Thompson who taught me to stand up for myself and argue my point black and blue. I learnt to rattle away for 15 minutes about a topic and how to think on my feet.
“He instilled an interest in me about becoming politically active at the age of 11 or 12.
“Other teachers I’d like to pay tribute to are Florence Gracey, my geography teacher and John Bateman, who was a Latin/Ancient History teacher and a wonderful man.”
Jim’s cohort at Lurgan College included Stephen Grimason, Director of the Executive Information Service, Noel McAdam of the Belfast Telegraph, the BBC’s Kyle Ferguson, footballer Jim Harvey, businessman Hubert Watson, Norman Gillespie, former MD of Sydney Opera House and David McGurran, a former Scout leader in Lurgan who now runs a prison in Australia.
He commented: “I didn’t spend my weekends going out to dances or chasing girls. My idea of a night out was going to Stormont and sitting in the public gallery. How sad is that?”
Now living in Aghagallon with his wife Grace and three children, Jim said the Dickson Plan is the reason the family have stayed in the Lurgan area.
Laura was head girl of Lurgan College while Sharon and Stuart also attended the school. Both his daughters are teachers while his son is an animator. His wife also spent many happy years as a supply teacher at Lurgan Junior High.
Having left the college, Jim went on to Queen’s where he studied Geography. It was as a university student that he got his first break in politics when he was elected onto Lisburn Council to serve the Moira area as a DUP councillor at the age of 23.
He said: “The reckoning was there were that many Wells in that area that even if only the Wells’ voted I stood a good chance.”
Jim was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982 and re-elected to the new assembly as DUP representative for South Down in 1998. In the intervening 10 years with the assembly on hold, Jim, an avid climber and walker, was a manager at the National Trust, at the Argory, Giant’s Causeway and Rowallane Gardens.
Jim became chairman of the Health Social Services and Public Health committee in 2009. After coming to the department with what he admits was little knowledge of health Jim spent two years as chair and another two as deputy chair learning from the experts.
He said: “I’m indebted to people like Mairead McAlinden at the Southern Trust. Her insight and expertise has been invaluable. I’ve built up what I hope is a reasonable knowledge and understanding.”
Since Jim has been appointed health minister there’s been a fresh trawl of his political highs and lows to date. He said: “There’s no such thing as a normal life as a politician. Everything you say and do is in the public eye.
“It still hasn’t sunk in. I hear people talking about the Health Minister before realising they’re talking about me.”
Jim said he was on first name terms with many people campaigning for the retention of the children’s heart surgery in Belfast, including a number of Lurgan families, due to his time following Edwin Poots as chair and deputy chair.
He said: “I intend to speak to those charitable groups attached to the Clark Clinic and also want to meet the people who wrote the report recommending a move to Dublin.
“It is one of the most complicated and controversial issues on my desk at the minute. If anything is going to happen it won’t happen for at least a year. I have time to take a long, cold look at it.”
Jim concluded: “It’s great to be doing an interview about my Lurgan roots. Everybody thinks I live in Kilkeel because that’s where my constituency office is.
“My wife overheard someone in Graham’s chip shop in Moira, saying ‘I’ve heard that Jim Wells comes all the way from Kilkeel for his chips - they must be good’.”