Sue Gray was running a pub near Newry in Northern Ireland during The Troubles in the 1980s when she was confronted by Republican paramilitaries while driving alone at night along a country road, according to a friend.
‘She said that one night she had a very heavy cold and one of her staff wanted to get off early and she closed the bar down,’ the friend said.
Formidable: Sue Gray is not afraid to ruffle feathers inside the corridors of power, a former colleague says
‘She drove the person home and was returning from South Armagh. She came across a light in the middle of the road and was ordered to stop.
‘She thought initially it was the Army and didn’t realise the guy was a paramilitary. He said to her, “We want the car, get out.”
And she just bluntly refused and said, “No.”
‘Taken aback, he said, “What?” And then he said to her, “Oh, you’re f***ing English as well?”
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‘Just as the situation looked like it was set to escalate, a voice came out of the darkness and said, “That’s Sue Gray from The Cove, let her go on.”
‘Two or three nights later, she was working in The Cove and a well-dressed man was at the bottom of the bar talking with people, before nodding at her and saying, ‘Sue, did you get home alright the other night?’
The Cove Bar has long since closed and a car dealership now operates on the site.
But the source said Sue Gray was a no-nonsense ‘Peggy Mitchell-style landlady’ while her husband Bill Conlon, a country and western singer, preferred to entertain the customers.
Her friend said he believed the experience of running the pub aided Ms Gray in her previous role as Stormont’s top civil servant in the Department of Finance from 2018 until last year.
‘She ran the show and she had a certain charm but she also would not suffer fools gladly,’ said the friend. ‘You knew who the boss was all right.’
A Stormont mandarin who worked in the Northern Ireland Assembly at the same time as Ms Gray said she was not afraid to ruffle feathers inside the corridors of power.
‘She very much saw herself as a constructive challenger and that was something that received a range of responses internally and externally,’ the former colleague said.
‘Some people externally thought Sue was very different and really warmed to her, but internally it was fair to say it was mixed.’