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When the sad news of the sudden and tragic death of James Leslie reached us yesterday morning, there was a palpable sense of shock and a genuine feeling of loss. A young man, almost on the eve of his fifty-first birthday, had suddenly been cut off in the midst of his life.
James Leslie was a son of one of the historic families of North Antrim. Born on 1 March 1958 in Tanzania, east Africa, he had a relatively short but talented career. Educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, he soon showed the early promise that marked him out for distinction in his chosen vocation. He proved the worth of his ability in banking and marketing, both at home and abroad. James followed his father’s army footsteps, and gave courageous service in the UDR during the years of the Troubles.
I got to know James Leslie in the electioneering period before the 1998 Assembly. Enthusiastic and energetic, he gave himself wholeheartedly to the campaign. His wisdom and ready reply gained him favour with the North Antrim electorate, and we rejoiced together on being elected. For me, it was a happy experience to share a constituency office with him in Ballymena.
His abilities were soon recognised by the party, and he became the first junior Minister in the Assembly. During those formative early days, his wisdom and willingness to work long hours were invaluable.
James Leslie was a gentleman. His quietly spoken suggestions were of sterling quality. He conducted himself in an exemplary manner at all times; even when others who were motivated by malice or jealousy derided him, he always smiled and turned the other cheek.
Our sympathy goes out to James’s father and mother, his wife, his daughter, Charlotte, and two stepsons, his brother, John, and sister, Rose Jane, and the wider family circle. I am sure that I speak for everyone when I say that we assure them of our prayers and thoughts in these grief-filled days.
The death of James Leslie, so sudden and unexpected, reminds us all of the true realities of life. The Ulster Unionist Party has lost a colleague and a friend, but our country has lost a man of considerable worth. I will always remember what he once said to me:
“We may have won the war, but I hope we do not lose the peace.”
The greatest tribute that we in the Assembly can pay to the memory of James Leslie is to ensure that we win the peace.
From these Benches, and on behalf of my party colleagues, I express our sincere sympathy to the wife and family circle of the late James Leslie on the sudden passing of their loved one.
When the news of his death came through yesterday, it came as a profound shock to all of us who had worked and served with James in the Assembly. The news is all the more poignant and tragic when one considers his relative youth and that he had still so much to offer to Northern Ireland, through his work, and to his family.
I, and other colleagues, had the privilege of serving with James on a number of Committees in the House. I can testify to his unfailing generosity, courtesy, inherent decency, and quiet manner. He impressed everyone with whom he came into contact.
His loss will be keenly felt by civic society in Northern Ireland, but most of all by his family, and I assure them of our sympathies at this difficult time; they will remain in our thoughts and prayers.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I extend the deepest sympathy and condolences to the family of James Leslie. I knew him only briefly as a colleague in what is now referred to as the first mandate of the Assembly. I will always remember him with respect. His politics differed from mine, but he also had exceptional integrity. He listened to the arguments, and during his time in public life he always strove to make a contribution, and he will be remembered for that.
In particular, he represented a tradition that my culture knew as old unionism, and he demonstrated that politicians can span generations and cultures. His commitment to unionism was unfailing, but his ability to see the other side of an argument meant that his contribution invariably spanned all of the arguments, and his expertise and professional experience was invaluable, particularly in the early days of the Assembly.
I reiterate Sinn Féin’s sincere condolences to James Leslie’s family, particularly given the circumstances of his death; he was a young man whose valuable life has been cut short. However, he made a lasting contribution and will be remembered for that.
We were all shocked and saddened to learn of James Leslie’s untimely death. Those of us who worked in the Assembly with James remember him as a first-class legislator. He had a good eye for detail, without being pedantic, and he was concerned about the implications, interpretations and future consequences, financial or otherwise, of any measures.
He brought real consideration to his task as a legislator. He was upfront about his Conservative ideology, and he was honest when he was indifferent to issues. I found that refreshing when dealing with him when he was the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Finance and Personnel and when I was the Minister of Finance, and also in working with him when he was a junior Minister in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister when I was deputy First Minister.
James Leslie had a knack of asking that unnerving question — why? Why are we legislating on this matter? Why are we introducing this measure? Why are Government bothered about this issue? That is why he made such a distinctive contribution to political life. He was a man of courtesy, consideration and clear conviction, and this place was the poorer when he left it.
Our region has lost a good public servant who lent his professional and commercial experience to political life in a positive way. The sooner we can again recruit such insights into active and full involvement in political life, the better. James Leslie made a positive, distinct and, in his own insistent way, modest contribution; but it tells and it stands.
I will add a few words on behalf of the United Community group. It was, as others said, a huge shock when we heard yesterday morning of the death of James Leslie at such a relatively early age. He made a contribution, even in his brief time here, and had much still to contribute to public life.
I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Environment Committee; and in the Committee and in the Assembly one could see a man who had an eye for detail without being pedantic and who stood up for his principles while maintaining friendships across party lines. That is an example that we should all bear in mind. He was, in every sense of the term, a gentleman; one who came from a group in society that has largely distanced itself from public life in recent years. Yet James threw himself into the everyday life of an MLA to serve the people of Northern Ireland and of North Antrim in particular. He set a fine example, of which we badly need more.
On behalf of my group, I extend our sympathy to his parents, his wife and daughter, and the family circle.