Dr Edward Haughey: Businessman who came from ‘bandit country’ to amass a fortune with his pharmaceutical company

‘He was an absolute dynamo, a phenomenon, he couldn’t stop – that’s the sort of guy he was’

The trajectory of the life of Dr Edward Haughey, who died with three others in a helicopter crash in rural Norfolk, took him from Northern Ireland’s borderlands to the House of Lords. Along the way he accumulated great personal wealth, creating an innovative pharmaceutical business which employed more than 3,000 people across four continents.

Some estimates placed his personal worth at more than half a billion pounds. It was a fortune built up after leaving school early in what a British minister once described as “bandit country,” the particularly troubled frontier which suffered from both deprivation and IRA activity.

He was not a strong ideologue and was never a committed republican. His first political move was to accept a seat in the Dublin Senate at the nomination of Fianna Fail. Although this is subtitled “the Republican party” he was an infrequent attender and was not noted for fiery speeches.

None the less, it was startling when he shifted from a southern organisation which advocated Irish unity to the Ulster Unionists, a party devoted above all else to maintaining Ulster’s link with Britain. He took his place on the red benches of the Lords as Baron Ballyedmond, the first person for decades to sit in the legislatures of both the UK and the Irish Republic.

Later he moved even further into the heart of the British establishment, switching allegiance to the Tory party and contributing substantial sums to its coffers. He was sitting next to Margaret Thatcher at a Lords dinner in 2008 when she became faint and was taken to hospital.

Not everyone in Haughey’s border heartland approved of his unusual odyssey, and not everyone approved of his sometimes abrasive and litiginous behaviour. But such reservations were eclipsed by the many jobs and high volume of trade he maintained in one of Northern Ireland’s security blackspots.

The authorities regarded his enterprise as a shining example of determination to overcome the most challenging of circumstances. His philanthropic donations, some of them very substantial, were also much appreciated. A headmaster revealed last week that in the late 1990s he had signed a cheque for £200,000 for a school building fund.

A menacing moment came in 2006 when the dissident Real IRA placed a bomb at a house being constructed for him. Luckily only part of the device exploded and no one was injured in what the government denounced as “a cowardly attack on someone who has worked tirelessly to create jobs and bring investment.”

Haughey’s principal residence was a spectacular seaside mansion in County Down not far from where he was born, but he also maintained particularly choice properties in England, including a castle and a majestic townhouse in London’s Belgravia.

Edward Enda Haughey was born into a Catholic family in 1994 on a smallholding near the border town of Dundalk, where he was taught by the Christian Brothers. After school he emigrated to New York, where he learnt the pharmaceutical business as a salesman and marketing manager.

He returned to Ireland in 1968 – just before the civil unrest broke out – to establish his own small-scale company, Norbrook Laboratories, with which he pioneered contract manufacturing of pharmaceuticals in the UK. Its growth was rapid, particularly in the veterinary sphere, so that today it is described as the largest privately owned pharmaceutical company in the world.

The success of Norbrook was not marked by any drastic setbacks though Haughey did admit in a rare interview: “I have made several mistakes and I’ve learnt from them. The worst mistake I ever made was probably not doing something – on three occasions I didn’t buy companies because I thought they were too expensive.”

Famous for his reluctance to delegate, he always maintained tight control over his firm’s activities. “I’m a self-made man,” he said. “I find it difficult to work with other people. I don’t know whether it’s an insecurity on my part or whether I’m an autocrat, or even a combination of both. But whatever it is, it has resulted in me not being able to work fruitfully with other people.”

Local journalist Eamonn Mallie said: “He gave a huge lifeline to south Armagh. He took over an old factory and he turned it into a huge concern. He was an absolute dynamo, a phenomenon, he just couldn’t stop – that’s the sort of guy he was.” A Unionist peer, Lord Reg Empey added: “He brought high-quality employment opportunities to this country during its darkest days.”

He was variously described as Northern Ireland’s richest man and the ninth richest person on the island of Ireland. His international property portfolio included land in Uganda and islands in Lake Victoria. He revelled in the trappings of wealth: in fact it was said of him that he lived like a lord. His County Down home was given a famously lavish makeover, one room’s curtains reputedly costing £30,000.

He was especially proud of a giant chandelier, of having a bathroom made of marble imported from China, and of having retained the Queen’s interior designer. He amassed a huge collection of art and, according to Mallie, “loved the idea of having a house in Belgrave Square and of having a castle.”

One thing which did not endear him to County Down locals was his readiness to resort to the law over matters large and small, the courts often hearing cases involving access to lands, planning rows and alleged libels. But some of the many tributes to him came from Cumbria, where he owned Corby Castle. Carlisle MP John Stevenson said of him: “He made a large contribution locally through his business interests and his charitable activities, many of which were done quietly and without fanfare.”

The Obama administration said: “His achievements brought significant employment to Northern Ireland and other places around the world, while his philanthropic endeavours helped improve the quality of life of countless others.”

Edward Enda Haughey, entrepreneur: born Kilcurry 5 January 1944; OBE 1987, cr. life peer 2004; married 1972 Mary Young (two sons, one daughter); died Norfolk 13 March 2014.