Don Concannon

Effective Northern Ireland minister

John Dennis Concannon, politician and miner: born Doncaster, Yorkshire 16 May 1930; MP (Labour) for Mansfield 1966-87; Assistant Government Whip 1968-70; Opposition Whip 1970-74; Vice-Chamberlain, HM Household 1974; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office 1974-76, Minister of State 1976-79; PC 1978; married 1953 Iris Wilson (two sons, two daughters); died Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 15 December 2003.

Some Members of Parliament are important in the Commons and in the Government to an extent out of all proportion to their public media persona. Don Concannon was far from a household name; yet in the Commons this 6ft 5in ex-lance corporal in the Coldstream Guards and representative of the Nottinghamshire miners was a figure of considerable importance.

As a whip from 1968 until 1974, both in government and in opposition, he was a central figure in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Thousands of times I heard it said that "you'd better clear it with Don". As a Northern Ireland minister in the 1970s, he was extremely effective. Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the Callaghan government, says:

I could not have wished for a better man as a deputy. Don Concannon had sterling qualities; he was upright, firm and fair, and respected throughout the province. Ours was a testing time; he was remarkably supportive.

John Dennis Concannon - no one called him either John or Dennis - was brought up outside Doncaster and educated at Rossington Secondary School, later taking an extra-mural degree at Nottingham University. Originally a national serviceman, he found that he liked being in the Guards so much that he opted to stay with the regiment until 1953, when he became a miner. He left regular service only because he became married to Iris Wilson and found that service life did not chime with matrimony. During his time in the Guards he served in Libya and Cyprus and in 1950 became a lance corporal.

The adjutant of the Coldstreams, Major Edward Crofton, says that Concannon loved visiting the regiment and was well respected by all ranks, being welcomed in both the officers' mess and the sergeants' mess and remembered by many as one of their star basketball players. For his part, Concannon would remember that the first time after becoming an MP that he went to Knightsbridge barracks in London he caused gales of laughter by stating, truthfully, to the colonel of the regiment, "The last time I was here in the CO's office it was because I was up on a charge." However the CO had the last laugh by presenting the charge sheet to Concannon before he left to return to the House of Commons. Another officer had asked him if he had been in the somewhat sumptuous mess dining room "Yes," said Concannon, with a broad grin, "when six foot five of me was on my knees polishing your floor!"

The circumstances of Concannon's selection and election to the House of Commons in June 1966 were unique. In 1964 Bernard Taylor, who had represented Mansfield since a by-election in 1941, defeated Kenneth Clarke by 29,055 votes to 10,021 votes, with a Liberal obtaining 6,628. The election was well into the second week of the campaign when Taylor suddenly announced, to everyone's surprise and consternation, that he was retiring.

There was no Labour candidate for the seat. Hurriedly a selection conference was cobbled together and the candidate chosen was Concannon, who had been on the Mansfield Borough Council since 1963 and was a branch official of the National Union of Mine Workers at Rufford Colliery in Nottinghamshire. It was literally true that he was working at the coal face for his last shift only a fortnight before he became a Member of Parliament for an impregnable Labour seat.

Clarke, later Chancellor of the Exchequer and much else, paid a heartfelt and warm tribute to Concannon:

He was a thoroughly nice man. It was typical of him that when I became a Member of Parliament in 1970 for another Nottingham constituency, Don was more helpful to me than any other Member of the house. In those days one got

no induction and precious little help. He showed me the ropes and kept an eye on me. He was an extremely caring man.

Concannon's interest in the services was exemplified by his maiden speech on the 10 May 1966 on second reading of the Reserve Forces Bill, when he said:

I was in the Coldstream Guards for six years, so now all the Guardsmen are no longer to be found on the opposite [Conservative] side of the House. I have been a Class B Reservist for six years and a Territorial for another eight years.

He displayed a ready wit in repartee. He was the first person to give Michael Heseltine the sobriquet of "Tarzan". And I vividly remember when Sir Gerald Nabarro, bewhiskered MP for Kidderminster, at his most portentous in rhetorical flow, declaimed: "And why do you think I have this miner's lantern in my lapel?" Quick as a flash, Concannon shouted across the chamber: "Because they've run out of canaries!" The House collapsed with laughter. Even Nabarro was reduced to a broad grin.

None of his contemporaries was surprised that John Silkin, then the newly appointed Government Chief Whip, should bring Concannon into the whips' office, after only a bare 18 months on the back benches. In 1970, with Labour coming into opposition, Harold Wilson, aware that it was good for the party's image to have a champion of the services, made Concannon a senior whip, and for a brief period in 1974 on Labour's return to government he became Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household. I am told by a friend in the Palace that the Queen was tickled pink by having such a good-natured Coldstream Guardsman as the MP with the duty of writing out in longhand the précis of the day's events in the House of Commons which he presented to her each evening. Certain it is that, in my 40 years, no Vice-Chamberlain of the Household performing his ceremonial duties of proceeding from the bar to the mace has done it as impressively as Concannon.

When he first came into the House of Commons, on account of Irish ancestry he was one of the few to express concern about the situation in Northern Ireland. His great friend Kevin McNamara, MP for Hull, was active in the campaign for democracy in Ulster, which pointed out the grievances of the minority that existed in Northern Ireland and urged the Government to do something about it. One of Concannon's formative experiences was to be taken by Kevin McNamara and Sir Patrick Duffy (with whom he then shared a flat in London, John Ellis and Neil Kinnock making up the quintet in the house of Anne Swingler) on a fact-finding visit to Northern Ireland.

Kinnock says of Concannon:

Unassuming courage, loyalty without deference, real political nous, and a bone-marrow sense of justice, were the basic instincts of the gentle giant. His wrath was reserved for duty dodgers and bullies. It was rarely displayed, but a joy to watch!

Appointed Under-Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office in 1974, then Minister of State from 1976, Concannon bore the brunt of flying backwards and forwards from Belfast to London as the Labour majority of five, and then three, dwindled to minus one. As the minister responsible for industrial development he championed the case of the DeLorean car factory which, along with Roy Mason, he passionately believed would bring jobs to Belfast and, with the jobs, an improvement in his second responsibility, that of security. Scrupulously loyal to Mason, Concannon was really a constitutional nationalist in my opinion, who wanted a link between the north and south of Ireland and got on particularly well with Brian Lenihan, then the Foreign Minister in Dublin. I believe that Concannon was genuinely distressed when he was asked to go and tell Bobby Sands that the Labour government would not support him in his hunger strike.

Before the critical vote which brought down the Labour government in March 1979, Concannon was despatched to find his friend Frank Maguire, the independent member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, in his pub. Concannon succeeded in getting Maguire to London but, because of a last-minute agreement with the Unionists, neither Maguire nor Gerry Fitt could be induced to support the government. The Callaghan administration fell.

In opposition Concannon was for a short time responsible on the front bench for defence, returning to responsibility for Northern Ireland in late 1980. At this time he was one of the first when the cause was very unpopular to support Palestinians. And until the end of his life he took an interest in the problems of the retired Palestine police. His political career really came to an end on a tragic night in 1985 when, coming off the motorway slip road, he crashed under a lorry that was doing an unlawful U-turn. He suffered terrible whiplash and related tinnitus. He wished to retire straight away, claiming that he could no longer do the job of a Member of Parliament, but was persuaded by his erstwhile flatmate Neil Kinnock to hold off until the general election.

Kinnock did this partly because the seat of Mansfield had become very unsafe owing to the fact that the Nottinghamshire miners had taken a very different attitude from the Yorkshire miners in relation to the strike of 1984. Concannon saw at first hand, and was tortured by, the mess, which he argued had been created by Arthur Scargill's failure not to have a vote before taking strike action. Concannon contended that, had there been a ballot, the Nottinghamshire miners would have gone along with the strike, but that they were damned if they were going to do so in the absence of a democratic vote. As it turned out, Concannon's forebodings proved to be only too correct and his successor Alan Meale, whom he declined to endorse and who had supported Scargill and the Yorkshire miners, scraped in with a wafer-thin majority.

In recent years Concannon did excellent work as a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Tam Dalyell