May Steele MBE JP, who died suddenly on January 6 at the age of 83, was Honorary President of the Ulster Unionist Party and gave dedicated public service both in her professional and political life.
Tribute was paid at her funeral service in 2nd Islandmagee Presbyterian Church by Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader, with whom she had worked closely.
Born in Larne in 1936, she was the eldest child of Kathleen and Billy Beattie and attended Larne Parochial School and Larne Grammar School before entering her working life at the post office, where she rose to senior position.
She became the first woman to become a postal executive officer, having started her career in Larne Post Office and then becoming postmistress of May Street post office in Belfast. While at Tomb Street office in the city she became involved with setting up post codes, a major undertaking at that time. She was also at Royal Avenue Corn office for a time.
She completed her post office career as postmistress of Carrickfergus Post Office before taking early retirement. She reflected with good humour on the occasion of the postal workers strike in 1971. May decided not to strike and remained at work, resulting in a report in the Larne Times that her work colleagues had sent her to Coventry. She was very amused when someone innocently asked her on the street in Larne about her time in Coventry.
As a teenager May Beattie faced the challenge of ill health and was in the Smiley Cottage Hospital in Larne for some time as a result.
Speaking at her service of thanksgiving, Rev. Peter Bovill reflected that maybe that was one of many experiences which gave May Steele the strength and determination which was seen throughout her life.
As a committed and dedicated Unionist, her retirement afforded greater opportunity to become involved in political life and she represented the Ulster Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Forum from 1996 to 1998. The Forum was the body established in the negotiations which led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement.
She also stood for election to both Larne Borough Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly, narrowly missing out on being elected to the Assembly after the signing of the Agreement, and was a loyal supporter of the then leader David Trimble and subsequent party leaders.
She was present in Oslo when Mr Trimble was jointly awarded the Noble Peace Prize with John Hume. She was given the honorary title of President by then party leader Mike Nesbitt in 2016 as recognition of her many years of voluntary service to the Ulster Unionist Party. She was a UUP officer and an officer of the East Antrim Unionist Association for decades.
Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Roy Beggs MLA, paid a fulsome tribute to her, saying that “May was deservingly awarded an MBE for political and public service, and previously served as Justice of the Peace (JP) for County Antrim”.
“May Steele MBE JP also headed up campaign teams for both my father and I and many Ulster Unionist council candidates. May will be sadly missed by all within the East Antrim Ulster Unionist Association, by her family and her many friends across Northern Ireland,” he said.
The senior Ulster Unionist described her as “a committed and dedicated Unionist”.
In a tribute the Ulster Unionist Party said May Steele had been “synonymous with the Unionist Party in County Antrim since the 1950s, holding many official positions within the party locally, and was a long serving party officer, and Chair of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council”.
Party leader Steve Aiken OBE MLA said: “May Steele MBE, JP, our Honorary Party President, embodied the Ulster Unionist Party in East Antrim for many, many years. Although she had been in failing health over recent years, she still made a point of trying to get out to attend meetings and conferences, right up to the EGM of the Ulster Unionist Council in Templepatrick in early November, where I was elected leader.
“May’s many friends within the Ulster Unionist family will miss her dearly and I send my deepest sympathy to her family circle. Her contribution to the party and her sage advice to successive Ulster Unionist leaders will always be appreciated and remembered.”
Ulster Unionist Party Chairman, Danny Kennedy, said that she had been “a very dedicated and loyal member of the Ulster Unionist Party for many years. May played an important role, particularly in the Ulster Women`s Unionist Council”.
Ulster Unionist Party Vice-Chairman, Roy McCune, said: she was “a colleague and friend for many years. She was someone who I had enormous respect for. May gave selfless service and was a leading and outstanding figure in the party over a lifetime. Her work, commitment, and support for the party is legendary. She will be sadly missed and fondly remembered by all who had the privilege and pleasure of knowing and working with her.”
East Antrim Ulster Unionist Chairman Alex Caldwell said: “I will always be grateful for the advice, guidance and directions from May, who was a kind generous, knowledgeable lady who is irreplaceable.”
A one-minute silence was held in her honour at a meeting of UUP Association chairmen last Thursday in Belfast, where tribute was paid by chairmen from all over Northern Ireland and UUP Chairman Danny Kennedy spoke at length on her contribution and dedication to the party.
Former East Antrim MP Roy Beggs and his wife Wilma also paid tribute in a statement, reflecting on the dedicated constituency work which May and Sam Steele had been involved in on a weekly basis through the caravan the party used at that time as a mobile advice centre in Rathcoole, Greenisland and Carrickfergus.
Rev. Peter Bovill in his tribute at the funeral service, said she was “one of a kind”.
May was married to Sam Steele, a local councillor for the Larne Lough and Islandmagee area and a former Deputy Mayor of Larne Borough. The couple met and married later in life, in June 1981, and they shared some very special years of marriage. The thanksgiving service was told by Rev. Bovill that the couple enjoyed life together – sharing a passion and interest in politics and enjoying many holidays together.
“Meeting and marrying Sam brought May to live in Browns Bay in Islandmagee and with that came a view of the sea that May loved. She enjoyed the coming and going of the Larne boat from her vantage point in the veranda of her home and watching and coming and going of people and the changing seasons. She was pleased in these last few weeks to get a move to Joymount nursing home and with that a view of the sea,” the local clergyman reflected.
She was involved in the community life of Islandmagee also, serving on the board of governors of Kilcoan Primary School and also the church committee of 2nd Islandmagee Presbyterian Church.
She also served as a board member of Oaklee Housing Association in the 1990s. Appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1990, she received an MBE for political and public service in the 2000 New Year Honours list.
Aside from her political and civic interests, one other great love and interest was for animals, including her pet dogs, cats and donkey at Islandmagee. She was a dedicated supporter of animal charities. Her love for animals also took her on holiday to Badminton horse trials and saw her involvement in the annual horse and pony show at Carnfunnock at one time.
This love for animals was something she shared with her late husband Sam Steele, who predeceased her in 1994.
The respect in which she was held locally and in her political life was summed up by the fact that she was known to many simply as ‘Auntie May’.
The thanksgiving service heard that she was someone who could be easily warmed to, a person with a kind and loveable nature with an interest in others, especially young people. Her agility of mind was retained to the end of her life, she was an avid reader of current affairs and a formidable opponent when it came to family games.
May Steele MBE JP is survived by her step-daughter Helen and her brother John Beattie. She was predeceased by her husband Sam and by her sister Kate.
Following the Service of Thanksgiving, interment took place at Islandmagee cemetery.
Donations in lieu of flowers were encouraged to Cancer Research, c/o Mulhollands of Larne Funeral Directors. 1 Exchange Road Larne BT40 1RX.