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Ulster Unionist councillor grew up as a Catholic in west Belfast

Stephen McCarthy (centre, seated) became a UUP councillor for Antrim and Newtownabbey in October. Back row from left, Alderman Mark Cosgrove and Alderman Fraser Agnew. Front row, Ben Kelso, Stephen McCarthy and UUP leader Robin Swann
John Monaghan

A NEW Ulster Unionist councillor, who grew up a Catholic in west Belfast, has said there are many "de facto unionists within the Catholic community".

Stephen McCarthy (29), who was co-opted onto Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council in October, grew up in the St James area is believed to be one of the first people from a nationalist background to represent a mainstream unionist party.

Mr McCarthy said he is a unionist principally for "economic reasons" but also feels both "Irish and British", adding: "I don't feel the two are mutually exclusive."

His grandfather, Mickey Lenaghan, was shot dead in 1991 by the UVF while working as a taxi driver. The family believe there was security force collusion in the murder.

After living in west Belfast, Mr McCarthy moved to the Short Strand area of east Belfast.

He joined the UUP aged 19 despite coming from an "SDLP family" with a "few eyebrows raised at home".

Mr McCarthy said his experience in the UUP has been "nothing but positive" with members "inquisitive, not hostile".

"There are many de facto unionists in the Catholic community. People who don't consider themselves unionist because they associate unionism with Protestantism and all the baggage from the past," he told The Belfast Telegraph.

Mr McCarthy said he had never considered joining the DUP, describing the party as "a mix of Ulster nationalism and fear unionism".

Despite earlier experiences as an altar boy, Mr McCarthy said he is now a "nominal Catholic" who doesn't "find comfort in it". He supports reform of Northern Ireland's abortion and marriage laws.

"I'm not in favour of the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland as I think it goes too far. But I support reform for cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality. Our abortion legislation is Victorian," he said.

Although he learnt some Irish at school, he does not back a Language Act "in the form proposed by Sinn Féin".

Mr McCarthy replaced Ben Kelso as a councillor, who resigned after The Irish News revealed that he was living and working in Dublin.

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