Rev Dr Robert James Coulter MBE died on 5th September, 2018, aged 88. He was born on 23rd October 1929 in Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, only son to Mr John Coulter and Mrs Elizabeth Coulter. Robert attended primary school in Stewartstown and Cookstown High School. His parents were deeply religious and were active in the Faith Mission movement. Robert left school, not to become a medical doctor as his parents wanted, but to train as a motor mechanic. He was fanatical about road racing and would enter the Cookstown 100 and Ulster Grand Prix under an assumed name because his mother feared for his safety.
In 1956, he married Elizabeth Holmes. They were married for 62 years at the time of Robert's death. Robert completed his assistantship in Westbourne Presbyterian Church in east Belfast before being appointed as minister of Clough Presbyterian Church in the Ballymena Presbytery in November 1963. During his time in Clough, he developed a keen interest in aviation, and completed his pilot's licence. His other interest was sea fishing and family holidays were spent in Portballintrae catching mackerel. He also began part time teaching in RE at the Ballymena Technical College and developed a tape ministry to record church services for people who could not attend for worship. In 1978, he moved to the Ballymena Technical College as a full-time lecturer in media and RE.
A keen Orangeman and Sir Knight, he served as a Deputy Imperial Grand Chaplain in both orders and even served as Assistant Sovereign Grand Master of the Royal Black Institution during the SGM era of the late Sir James Molyneaux. By the early 1980s, he entered politics with the Ulster Unionist Party and his first election in North Antrim came in 1983 during the Westminster General Election. It was the only election he was to lose in his political career as the winner that day was the late Rev Dr Ian Paisley. Whilst in different parties, they remained friends. In 1985, Robert was elected as a UUP Councillor to Ballymena Borough Council. He retained his seat in 1989, and in 1993 was re-elected not just to the Council, but was elected as the first UUP Mayor of Ballymena since the early 1970s. He served as First Citizen of Ballymena from 1993-96. In that year, 1996, he was elected to the North Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue where he served as UUP Chief Whip.
He was part of the team in the background which laid the negotiation foundations for what was to become the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, hosting a series of secret meetings with government officials to kick-start the fledgling peace process. He campaigned for a Yes vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum campaign, and was elected as a North Antrim Assembly member in 1998, a seat he was to hold until his retirement in 2011.
During his entire Assembly career, he was a member of the prestigious Stormont Commission. He was also active in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which saw him represent the Assembly at conferences in India, Australia, and Canada. In the Assembly, he also served on the heath committee and employment and learning committee and was Party spokesman for both portfolios during his times on those committees. In 2010, he was awarded an MBE for his services on the Commission. Following his retirement in 2011, he championed the cause of special needs education and became Chairman of the Board of Governors of Castle Tower School in Ballymena, one of the top SEN educational establishments in Europe. He also held senior positions in the Ballymena Chamber of Commerce, and was President of the Ballymena Agricultural Show. He also served as a chaplain to the Ulster Defence Regiment Association and was President of the Mid Antrim Branch of the Ulster Special Constabulary Association.
His love of road racing continued throughout his life and he served as Chaplain to the Mid Antrim 150 road races. He was a faithful preacher of the Gospel and his favourite verse was John 3: 16. He passed away on 5 September 2018 after a battle with cancer. He is survived by his widow, Elizabeth, son John, daughter Liz, and grandsons Daniel and Adam. His service of celebration was held in Clough Presbyterian Church and his coffin was carried out of the church by members of the Kirk Session to the tune of Travelling Home, a Gospel tune which Robert himself composed in his youth. He was also a gifted musician on the piano-accordion and an accomplished artist.
While he is remembered most for his work in politics, preaching the Christian Gospel was always his first love. He viewed his work in education and politics as an extension of his pastoral work as a minister of the Gospel. This was reflected in some of the tributes from across the political divide which followed his death. Robin Swann, the UUP Leader, who gave the Party tribute at Robert’s funeral, said of his predecessor as North Antrim Assembly member:
Of the tributes that have been paid, everyone has acknowledged his warmth and the personal time he gave to anyone he met, he was a man who was as comfortable sitting at a kitchen table up a lane outside Clough or having tea with Nelson Mandela or addressing the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and achieving membership for Northern Ireland. I am blessed like many to have learned from Bob’s experience, and having had him as a political mentor and guide, a mentor is someone who wants to see you rise to the top and is willing to let you stand on their shoulders to get there, to me Bob was such a man.
DUP MLA Mervyn Storey said:
He was a man of personal integrity, character and Christian faith and acknowledged that while Robert and he belonged to different political parties, they shared a common love for our constituency, our country and our faith.
TUV leader Jim Allister praised Rev Coulter for his “unstinting work” in the constituency, and how Castle Tower Special School was “part of his abiding legacy”.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said:
Robert Coulter had a long record of public service. We obviously had political differences, but on behalf of Sinn Fein I wish to express my sincere condolences and sympathy to Mr Coulter's family and friends.
SDLP former Leader Alistair McDonald, described Bob as a man of great integrity and political decency through all the years he knew him at Stormont, a genuine Christian, who "reached out the hand of friendship to his fellow man”.