Sir Irvine Patnick: Former Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam criticised for his comments over Hillsborough disaster


In a political career spanning more than thirty years at local and national level, during which time he became the lone Tory voice in the Socialist enclave of South Yorkshire, Sir Irvine Patnick will have the misfortune of being remembered and tarnished for his comments following the Hillsborough disaster. It is a sad legacy to a long career.

Patnick, already a successful businessman, was the MP for Hallam when the tragedy occurred. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died after a crush at Sheffield Wednesday's stadium during the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest in April 1989.

In September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, set-up by David Cameron, confirmed Patnick as one of the sources for a notorious Sun newspaper story that smeared Liverpool fans.

Document released to the panel showed that members of the South Yorkshire Police Federation and Patnick were responsible for passing false allegations to Whites Press Agency in Sheffield that led to The Sun's emotive headline "The Truth" in which it falsely alleged that drunken fans had urinated on police and pick-pocketed the dead. Patnick referred to them harassing, punching and kicking the police and said that he had seen the bruises.

The Sun editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, later said of his coverage, "It was a fundamental mistake. The mistake was I believed what an MP said."

The revelation of Patnick's role in creating what Cameron called an "unjust and untrue narrative that sought to blame the fans" caused fresh outrage on Merseyside and consternation around the country. Abundantly repentant, Irvine apologised unreservedly, saying he was shocked by "the extent of the deceit and cover-up," adding he was "deeply and sincerely sorry" for passing on information from South Yorkshire police that was "inaccurate, misleading and plain wrong, without asking further questions".

Amid widespread revulsion at the police cover-up which sought to shift the blame for the tragedy to the fans rather than the negligence of the police, there were calls from the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, and some MPs, including John Mann and Steve Rotherham, for Patnick to be stripped of his knighthood for "shameful and disgusting behaviour", but he survived.

Born in Sheffield in 1929, Cyril Irvine Patnick was one of five children of Eastern European Jewish émigrés Aaron and Bessie Patnick. Growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Irvine witnessed his parents working hard and struggling to succeed against all the odds, with his father establishing a successful business and becoming well-known in the city as a general dealer. One of his slogans was, "Net curtains - we have enough for every window in Sheffield."

Clearly some of this determination and entrepreneurial flair rubbed off on Irvine. Educated at Central Technical School and Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University), he became a successful builder and surveyor, although he always harboured a desire to serve his community.

Known for his sense of humour, Patnick, unashamedly right-wing, was also articulate and had an instinct for weakness in others. In the staunchly socialist stronghold of Sheffield, this led to his election as a city councillor in 1967. The county of South Yorkshire was formed in 1974. A year earlier, he became leader of the opposition on the "socialist republic of South Yorkshire" county council, as he dubbed it, while retaining his seat on the city council. Although meant as a damning criticism, his description was instead adopted by many in the area as a proud declaration. In 1986, Margaret Thatcher abolished the county councils of the metropolitan counties.

Bemused by the stance of Labour's far left leaders from Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster and their desire for almost-free bus services, the extortionate business rates that forced firms away and the introduction of Sheffield's own foreign policy, Patnick found himself as the lone dissenting voice. However, by 1982, he was a valued member of the Conservatives' national executive.

During his council tenure, Patnick utilised his knowledge of run-down but habitable inner-city private housing to oppose wholesale clearance and re-development. Unseated briefly in 1970, he turned to representing landlords at public inquiries, scornfully asserting that "defects" which planners claimed left older houses uninhabitable, such as a step between the bedroom and the bathroom, were prized features of new council dwellings.

Thoroughly enjoying the verbal jousting and the rough and tumble of politics, after two unsuccessful attempts in 1970 and 1979 in his native Hillsborough, Patnick finally realised a dream, aged 58, becoming the MP for the Conservative stronghold of Hallam in 1987. This followed Sir John Osborn's retirement. Patnick lost his seat in 1997 to Liberal Democrat Lord (Richard) Allan, who was succeeded by Nick Clegg in 2005.

With the Conservatives all but wiped out in Sheffield, Patnick thrived as the only Tory in South Yorkshire and fought tirelessly, particularly through media broadcasts, against the local tide of anti-Tory feeling.

In his maiden Parliamentary speech Patnick reportedly attacked Sheffield's councillors for attempting to curb police activities during the 1984-85 miners' strike, while he went on to vote against gay rights reform, opposed sanctions against South Africa and voted in favour of restoring the death penalty for the murder of police officers. Much to his chagrin, this avenue was stopped upon his promotion to party whip.

Although Prime Ministers Thatcher and John Major acknowledged Patnick's talents and ability as a shrewd questioner in committee, a serious ministerial post was never an option. He did, nonetheless, enjoy some key positions, including the chair of the Local Government Advisory Committee, Lord Commissioner of the Treasury (senior whip), and membership of the Environment Select Committee thanks to his building experience, and deputy chairman of the Select Committee hearings on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

In 1994, Patnick received a knighthood and to his delight, a Downing Street press release listing him as "Sir Patrick Irvine".  Following the loss of his seat in the 1997 Labour landslide, Patnick started a lobbying firm at Westminster with fellow casualty James Pawsey.

Former deputy chairman of the Sheffield Hallam Conservatives, Alan Ryder, said "Sir Irvine always did his best for Sheffield, his record over the years shows that, and I'm sure everybody who knew him would say the same."

Patnick also served as vice-president of the Sheffield Jewish Congregation and Centre, life president of Sheffield Jewish Representative Council and a former national vice-chairman of the Maccabi sports and youth organisation.

Martin Childs

Irvine Patnick, businessman, politician: born Sheffield 29 October 1929; married 1960 Lynda Rosenfeld (one son, one daughter) Kt 1994; died 30 December 2012 .

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