Sir Cecil Walker

Belfast Ulster Unionist MP

Alfred Cecil Walker, politician: born Belfast 17 December 1924; staff, J.P. Corry & Co 1941-83; MP (Ulster Unionist) for Belfast North 1983-85, 1986-2001; Kt 2002; married 1953 Joan Verrant (two sons); died Newtownabbey, Co Antrim 3 January 2007.

Cecil Walker was a long-serving Ulster Unionist MP who was noted for his support for his party's leader David Trimble, for the Good Friday Agreement, and for moderation in general. His consistency in supporting both the Trimble leadership and the politics of accommodation was all the more remarkable in a party containing so many senior members openly and adamantly opposed to both.

In addition, Walker's 18 years in the Commons, 1983-2001, were spent representing North Belfast, the tough sectarian cockpit whose deep divisions were exacerbated by one of the highest Troubles death tolls. Yet another surprise was to be found in the fact that, while he was never at any stage thought of as a shrewd political operator, he successfully fended off many plots to oust him, winning five Westminster elections.

However, he finally came a cropper in spectacular terms in 2001 when Protestant voters turned in droves to Nigel Dodds, an energetic lieutenant of the Rev Ian Paisley. Walker's vote plummeted from 21,000 to just 4,000.

That defeat was largely the result of one of Northern Ireland's most humiliating and embarrassing political moments. Walker had never been a vigorous politician, recording Commons attendance and voting records that were woeful. But in that campaign he was, in his seventies, cruelly exposed in a television debate as doddery and out of touch. He claimed his hearing-aid had not been working properly, protesting: "I had a hearing problem, I couldn't get the questions." The debate was held in the historic Crumlin Road courthouse in his own constituency.

So ended what had been a long but remarkably uneventful career in which he rarely courted publicity and only really seemed to come to life when his seat appeared to be at stake.

Born in Belfast in 1924, Walker joined the timber merchants J.P. Corry in 1941 and remained with the company until 1983, when he won North Belfast. He had also served from 1977 as a Belfast city councillor. In December 1985 he and the other Unionist MPs resigned en bloc in protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but he was re-elected the following month.

A rare outbreak of controversy came in 2001 when, asked about the possibility of a united Ireland at some stage, he produced the unexpected reply: "In 30 years I'll be dead, so I will, so it's hard to see then - but maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing then." In the ensuing storm, he received support from Trimble.

But the Trimble years were marked by a steady decline in support for the party which has now been thoroughly sidelined, as younger Paisleyites have displaced the old guard such as Cecil Walker.

David McKittrick

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