Born in 1951 in north Belfast Nelson grew up on the Ballysillan Road. He remembers attending the Belfast Royal Academy. “I did find it somewhat strange, because most of the children going to the Academy were from a more affluent background….”
Nelson studied physics at Oxford and returned to Belfast, firstly to train as a teacher at Queens University and then to become a teacher at Ballygomartin Boys School.
Nelson’s interest in politics began at school and would develop further at Oxford.
“….that period from 1966 with the Malvern Street shootings, the first emergence of the civil rights movement around 1968, I was going off to University at that point. In Oxford, you had a very strong Irish contingent, there were Irish folk clubs and also, beside the college I was in, there was another college, which was a trade union college, Ruskin College. There were folk from here over studying, who would be very much to the far left in politics.”
Nelson’s political career began during the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, standing in North Belfast for the United Ulster Unionist Party. The party had emerged from a division in the Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party in the late 1970s, which opposed the concept of compulsory power sharing with nationalists in the Sunningdale Agreement. The party was dissolved in 1984.
Nelson finally succeeded in gaining election for the Castle area of north Belfast in 1989, as an Independent Unionist.
Re-elected as an independent Unionist in 1993 Nelson announced that he would join the Ulster Unionist Party. He went on to become the High Sheriff of Belfast in 1997. Disenchanted with the UUP he joined the Democratic Unionist Party.
The DUP was originally involved in negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement). “I don’t think people ever believed we would get to that point where a Sinn Fein Minister would stand on the steps of Stormont Castle with the Chief Constable and the leader of the DUP.”
Nelson talks about the Ulster Scots Movement. He was the Director of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council. “Growing up in the 1950s, there was a very strong sense of the Scottish influence in Ulster. We never had television programmes in Northern Ireland that ever mentioned the Republic, but I remember you always watched ‘Doctor Finlay’s Casebook’ and the original black and white version of Para Handy and the White Heather Club, so I grew up knowing all the wee Scottish songs. The record collection in the house reflected that. When you went to Portrush for your holidays or Bangor in the summer if it was the Glasgow Fair, the place was just full of Scots. Come the Twelfth, there was an influx of Scots as well, so you had this East-West connection, which was very strong. We may not have called it Ulster Scots at that time, although the term Ulster Scots goes back to the middle of the 17th century and we had this 400 year history but never the less it was a part of me.”
Nelson developed a passion for the Ulster Scots language. “When I was introduced to the Ulster Scots Language Society I suddenly discovered all of these words that I had used for years…they were Ulster Scots words.”
Nelson was fascinated about the Ulster Scots history in Belfast and how it was a rich part of the city’s heritage, one that should be preserved and celebrated. “If you want to understand Northern Ireland, you don’t go down the old government line of there are two traditions here. There may be two main political traditions and two main religious traditions but culturally we’re much more diverse, if you go down to Downpatrick, the three streets that meet at the traffic lights are English Street, Irish Street and Scots Street and that’s Northern Ireland.”
Nelson is the Chair of the Ulster Scots Community Network, and believes more of Ulster Scots heritage should be taught in schools. “It’s actually a human rights issue, under the UN Convention, children are entitled to know about their culture to be taught about it and have it affirmed in the school, that hasn’t happened.”
“The way that you affirm any culture is you put it into schools and put it on the television. If you are not on the television, you might as well not exist, that’s why more programmes about Ulster Scots culture and history and language on television are important.”
Nelson is positive about Northern Ireland’s future. “There’s no going back to the terrorism of the past. The legacy of it is going to be with us for another generation in the terms of the damage that it has done but the one positive thing there is that there can’t be a going back to it, anyone who thinks they can go back to it, they’re going to be marginalised.”
Nelson has been a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2003. In 2009 he was appointed Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure and in 2011 Minister for Social Development.