Sammy Wilson’s former 'apprentice' takes over as Minister for Finance
Hamilton now seen as one of leading contenders for DUP top job when Robinson stands down
Simon Hamilton: getting used to his prestigious Northern Executive post of Minister for Finance. Photograph: Press Eye
For the past two years he was former minister for finance Sammy Wilson’s private secretary or, as he was dubbed á la Lord Sugar, Sammy’s “apprentice”. Yesterday First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson told him “you’re hired” and here he is in the hot seat.
There will be plenty of difficult challenges to be confronted but just for a moment the 36-year-old Minister savours the elevation bestowed upon him. “I was never that shy or coy about saying this was the job I wanted but to be in the Assembly for only six years and to get this job, particularly this job, is a great feeling; it’s an honour. But it is also a bit of a shock. There are moments when you say to yourself, ‘Is this for real?’ ”
After his period as understudy he has taken over from the colourful Wilson, who for the moment will continue in his dual role as MP and Assembly member until the next Westminster and Assembly elections when he must decide which mandate to choose.
Change in style
The possibility of a return to ministry proffered by Robinson might keep him at Stormont.
Hamilton’s appointment marks a significant change in style. There will be no shooting from the hip or stand-up comedy from the Strangford MLA in the Assembly chamber. He is his “own man” and also has his own sense of humour.
With his wife Nicki, an accountant, and two boys, Lewis (7) and Kyle (5), he took a two-week holiday in Lanzarote so that he would be rested before his formal appointment.
His eldest son was well christened before the other Lewis Hamilton became a Formula One racing ace, but still he has this picture in his head of his son 10 years from now being stopped for speeding by the PSNI. “And your name is Lewis Hamilton? Okay, funny guy, step put of the car . . . ”
Hamilton’s appointment is a further indication of how many of those who jumped ship from the Ulster Unionist Party have thrived in the DUP. Think of Minister for Enterprise Arlene Foster, who acted as First Minister when Robinson stood down briefly in 2010 over Irisgate.
Robinson rates Hamilton highly and whenever he departs the political stage the newly appointed Minister for Finance and Foster would be seen as among the likeliest candidates to succeed him.
Other young UUP defectors who were rewarded include the First Minister’s chief adviser Timothy Johnston and Philip Weir, now adviser to Minister for Health Edwin Poots. Hamilton, Johnston and Weir publicly sided with what Hamilton has termed the “malcontents” who opposed the Belfast Agreement during those tempestuous Ulster Unionist battles in the late 1990s and in the early part of this century as David Trimble battled and bamboozled his party into accepting the 1998 agreement.
Hamilton crossed to the DUP in 2001 and for a period with Johnston and Weir was part of Robinson’s kitchen cabinet before becoming an MLA in 2007, holding his seat in 2011.
One big difference between Hamilton and Wilson is that the incumbent, unlike his predecessor, is in favour of reducing corporation tax to a rate in line with the Republic’s. It would result in some hundreds of millions being taken off Westminster’s multibillion grant to the Northern Executive but Hamilton believes it could create 50,000 jobs. “I think our economy would be revolutionised.”
Other items in his in-tray include welfare reform which may lead to ideological spats with Sinn Féin, boosting the economy, persuading ministerial colleagues to cut costs while maintaining services and eventually deciding whether water charges should be introduced.
Hamilton understands the challenges but is excited by the period ahead. He has great faith in Northern Ireland, saying “there is a buzz and a sense of youngness” about the place. “There is a sense of rebirth and regrowth going on here which is incredibly positive. This is an exciting place.”
He is an Irish Times reader, a Liverpool supporter and also a rugby fan.
“My hobby outside politics is politics,” he says.