POSITIONED comfortably behind his desk on the first floor of Jo-Anne Dobson’s revamped new offices in Rathfriland Street, Andrew Cromwell cuts a relaxed figure, belying an efficiency which underpins his job as political advisor to the Ulster Unionist Party’s newest female face on the political block.
When you are dealing with around 700 queries which have amassed over the past seven months - all of which are important to the many concerned constituents who come through the door asking for help - you obviously need to be on top of the case on a daily basis.
He may have only been in the job for over a year - the constituency office opened in May 2011 - but already the former IT specialist has developed an expertise in formerly unfamiliar fields.
“It has been a learning curve all the way, but a fascinating one,” he says with genuine enthusiasm for the brave new cut-and-thrust world of Northern Ireland politics in which he has found himself. “I was always interested in politics, but I never had any inspiration to work in the area, so this job has been a real sea change for me; a whole new change of direction.”
A Banbridge man “born and bred” and self-confessed ‘townie’ all his life, getting to grips with all things agricultural has been a particular challenge, although the former Banbridge Academy pupil and Computers and IT graduate has gained much help from Jo-Anne who sits on the Agricultural Committee at Stormont and comes from a farming background herself.
And, for someone who appreciates “plain English”, Andrew admits it has been frustrating trying to decipher the “gobbledy-gook” language often found in the reams of forms which spill out from officialdom.
“One particular case we are dealing with at the moment is based on the difficulty of what should be a simple form-filling exercise - but isn’t simple at all,” he explains. “An 80 year-old lady from the district is having real problems understanding the language used in an application relating to housing - it is ridiculous and we are trying to get those in authority to change the wording and structure, so maybe one form would do instead of five.
“Such things may seem trivial, but they pose real worries for people who basically just want to know what they have to do and how much they have to pay. This is a problem for the farming community as well, where there is a lot of form-filling required. If the language was simplified and the structure changed, it would make everyone’s life easier.”
Breaking through the literary barrier is just one of the many hurdles faced by Andrew and the team, with practical problems relating to housing, flooding, traffic calming, parking and planning all burning issues for voters in Banbridge and throughout the Upper Bann constituency.
“Homelessness in Banbridge is of particular concern and we are dealing with more and more people having problems sourcing social housing,” he says. “You wouldn’t maybe think in a relatively affluent area and commuter town like Banbridge that homelessness would be a big issue, but it is. There is a rising tide of people homeless and registered homeless who come to us for help.”
Parking charges are also a thorny issue - but as his boss in effect works for the Minister who initiated them, there’s not much he can say on this point other than “on the bright side, the charges are still much less than in Lisburn and Belfast and there is still free on-street parking to keep a quick turnover of spaces.”
Parking aside, he does what he can to help, with Jo-Anne raising issues at Ministerial level and often referring them to Ombudsman level if necessary. The job satisfaction, he says, comes when people go home with renewed hope and a smile on their face that wasn’t there when they first brought their problem to the front desk.
“You never know what you are going to be dealing with when you come to work in the morning, but that is what I love about this job,” he adds. “It is not nine-to-five and there is always some new challenge to overcome - and usually something to chew over at home. The most frustrating thing is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
“It is hard not to bring your work home with you, whether that is thinking about a rates review - and that is something I really think should happen for hard-pressed business owners in Banbridge - or whether it is worrying about a constituent who is struggling under the weight of a particular problem.
“You get involved with people; you get a real insight into human nature in this job. You get to know them and, thankfully, the majority you are able to help.”
He is proud to say no-one has evern been turned away and some of the most rewarding work goes on behind the scenes - a place where he likes to be stationed himself.
“We don’t always go running to the Press blowing our own trumpet, but obviously my job is to get Jo-Anne’s voice out there,” he says. “Having said that, there are times when we work quietly in the background helping people and sometimes that generates the most results. Something that may be important to one person now, could benefit hundreds more further down the line.”
And the personal qualities necessary for the job? “Definitely flexibility, patience and a real desire to help people. And an ability to see through the paper work, to see if there is a genuine problem and to get to the crux of it.”
Attending the Stormont get-togethers two days a week has also been a bit of an ‘eye-opener’: “I only ever had a tour of Stormont before I took this job and I didn’t realise how fast-paced it would be.
“It’s great seeing everyone in action, but I have always been a ‘behind the scenes’ person and I will always be happy with that.”