Lives Remembered

Rev Robert Coulter: 'True blue' unionist and Presbyterian minister with penchant for planes and bikes

Rev Robert Coulter (right) with UUP leader Robin Swann

ON the face of it Rev Robert Coulter conformed to the stereotype of a senior unionist politician.

A minister in the Presbyterian church. A chaplain in the loyal orders. A "true blue" unionist whose only political regret was that unionist parties were not more united.

But look beneath the surface and there were also some surprises.

Rev Coulter initially practised the religion of road racing before becoming a man of the cloth.

He was a passionate pilot who once constructed an entire airplane inside his Co Antrim home.

And while he was an evangelical preacher, he left Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterians behind to serve the mainstream church.

Born in Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, Rev Coulter's parents were heavily involved in missionary work but he himself was not particularly religious until into his 20s.

After Cookstown High School he trained as a motor mechanic and rode bikes. He even raced in the Cookstown 100 and Ulster Grand Prix - although sometimes under a pseudonym as his mother didn't approve.

After feeling a calling from God he studied at Faith Mission Bible College in Edinburgh and spent time evangelising in America.

His first involvement in ministry was as a Free Presbyterian at Mount Merrion in Castlereagh.

However, while he remained friends with Dr Paisley throughout his life, he left his church to undergo training as a mainstream Presbyterian minister, completing his assistanceship at Westbourne on Belfast's Newtownards Road.

Rev Coulter was appointed to Clough in Co Antrim in 1963, where he stayed for 15 years until switching ministry to education.

At Ballymena technical college he lectured in media and religious education, and around this time decided to enter politics.

His family had UUP connections and in 1983 he attempted to win back the Westminster seat of North Antrim for the party.

While it was the only election he ever lost, his strong challenge served the purpose of tying down Ian Paisley as the Ulster Unionists concentrated their efforts in neighbouring East Derry and East Antrim.

Two years later Rev Coulter was elected to Ballymena Borough Council, where he would serve as mayor from 1993 to 1996.

He was then elected to the new Stormont assembly in 1998, a seat he held until retirement in in 2011.

As a politician he was an excellent communicator, getting on on well with people of all backgrounds and beliefs.

At his funeral at Clough Presbyterian Church last Saturday, UUP leader Robin Swann recalled how he courageously took on a role in the Police Authority at a dangerous time in the Troubles.

“He had many a story to tell, from travelling in the dead of night to meetings with government ministers to hosting delegations at his home in Springmount, and it is recognised that he was pivotal in supporting and helping David Trimble restore devolution through the Belfast Agreement."



As chair of the board of governors of Castle Tower special school, Rev Coulter also lobbied hard for a new building for its children and warm tributes were paid to him when it finally celebrated the opening of the £21m complex earlier this year.

It was through church work that Robert met his wife, Ballyclare woman Elizabeth Holmes.

They were married in 1956 and lived in Dundonald while he finished his studies at the Assembly's College.

He always kept a few bikes in the garage wherever they moved, and it was in the manse in Clough that he built his own plane.

It was rumoured at the time he would have to knock down a wall to get it out. In the event it was safely removed and sold to another enthusiast.

Rev Coulter also enjoyed sea fishing, a feature of the family's annual two-week holiday in Portballintrae on the north coast.

However, his son John said his faith was undoubtedly at the centre of his life.

Rev Robert Coulter with his son John

"Without any question his first love was not the political chamber but the pulpit," he said.

"It was an absolute privilege to be his son. I will miss him so much as he was the best Christian dad any person could ask for.

"I intend to follow his footsteps into ministry. My only regret is that when I complete my training he won't be there to hear my first sermon."

Rev Robert Coulter died aged 88 on September 5. He is survived by his wife, son John and daughter Liz.

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Lives Remembered