Obituaries :Lord Rathcavan

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The Independent Online
Phelim O'Neill, Lord Rathcavan, was born into one of the most distinguished and active Ulster political families. The family motto is Invitum sequitur Honos - "Honours follow us without seeking" - and in his case that was largely true.

After Eton and a spell in the Royal Artillery he entered politics as a Unionist MP for North Antrim in 1952, at the age of 42, remaining in Westminster until 1959, when he became a Stormont MP for the same area until 1972. His father, the first Baron Rathcavan, had also served as a Westminster MP for North Antrim before becoming the first Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921. I remember the old Lord Rathcavan - he died in 1982 at the age of 99 - as a gentle, courtly, erudite f igure far removed from the rumbustious outspokenness of his son, who revelled in being outrageous.

Castigation, jovial and sometimes brutal, rather than the nicely turned compliment, was the hallmark of Phelim's conversation. But he was an unfailingly amusing companion, who over a large gin and tonic - without ice or lemon as his friend Lord Fitt emphasises - could set the table in a roar. I remember once finding him in the Ulster Club, where in the evening he often dined alone before a later meeting. He was not in good form. ``Unhappy?'' I asked. ``You'd be unhappy,'' he growled, ``if you w ere being cuckolded by a bloody monkey!'' ``What do you mean?'' ``My wife! That bloody monkey of hers spends most of its time in our bed!'' Then a beguiling smile. His wife is very fond of animals and kept around her a variegated menagerie.

He had his own funny ways - the present Lord O'Neill, a cousin of Phelim's, recalls: ``He never opened a typed letter. All typed letters went straight into the wastepaper-basket. Apparently on one occasion his cheque from Lloyd's went the same way into the bin. In the days when one received cheques from Lloyd's.''

As a practising politican Phelim Rathcavan would be highly ranked among the sceptics and John Major's ``bastards''. He never concealed his scorn for ministers in the Stormont Cabinet and took a special delight in denouncing as a scandalous waste the expenses of the Prime Minister's department - the PM was Lord Brookeborough. Though contemptuous of the ``placemen'' he was not averse to the honos invitum, the unsought honour.

Towards the end of the Sixties he was involved with others in an unsuccessful conspiracy to overthrow Brookeborough, a reflection of the premier's growing unpopularity.

In 1969 he was made Minister of Education by his cousin Terence O'Neill and shortly afterwards when Terence resigned he was switched to Agriculture by the incoming PM, James Chichester-Clark, who had previously held that portfolio and who had not escapedPhelim's lengthy critiques on the use of everything from bulls to barbed wire. The preacher became gamekeeper and in the event a very conscientious administrator.

He had always described himself as a ``left-wing conservative'' and had no use for narrow- minded intolerance. Though he had at the beginning of his political career joined the Orange Order, at that time essential for any aspiring Unionist politican, in 1958, during a community week in Ballymoney, he attended a Roman Catholic service and was expelled from the Order. Though North Antrim, always a strongly Protestant constituency - now represented by Ian Paisley - continued to re-elect him, with a reducedmajority, the episode heavily influenced his decision to join the newly formed Alliance party. He took this major step in 1972 when he was still a Unionist backbencher and just weeks before the abolition of Stormont.

Typically he defended his action with uncompromising vehemence. On the grounds that both the main parties, the Unionist and the nationalist SDLP, were sectarian. He became Leader of Alliance and led its delegation to a conference later that year which, under Willie Whitelaw, failed to reach inter-party agreement on the way ahead. For Phelim O'Neill that was his final political throw. In the 1973 elections for a Stormont Assembly he lost his seat.

His successor as Alliance leader, Oliver Napier - later knighted - says: ``I was very fond of Phelim. He could be difficult but he was very clear-sighted. He always said that Alliance would never sweep the country. He knew that. But he felt he had to make the move, if only as a gesture against sectarianism because he saw no future in continuing with the Protestant/ Catholic, Orange and Green division.''

In the Eighties the Rathcavan family moved from County Antrim to Killala in County Mayo. According to Oliver Napier, Phelim Rathcavan was a somewhat lonely figure who never really fitted in, as his wife did, to the hunting and horsy scene. Gerry Fitt is convinced that life in Mayo was the reason why Rathcavan always refused to take his seat in the Lords. ``I tried to persuade him to come over but the reply was: `Look, Gerry! I could easily take my seat but what do you think would happen? Next m o rning this lot here would have burnt my house down.' '' British landlords still kept their heads down in Mayo, apparently.

Phelim Rathcavan was one of the last real eccentrics in Irish politics, the maverick who took risks to stick by his principles. Raymond O'Neill still remembers the stir he caused when he brought the Republican Labour Gerry Fitt, then almost a hate-figurein Unionist circles, into the members' room of the Ulster Club, the heart of the Establishment. For Rathcavan that was more than a gesture. It was a matter of personal honour.

Roy Bradford

Phelim Robert Hugh O'Neill, politician: born 2 November 1909; MP (Ulster Unionist) for North Antrim, UK Parliament 1952-59, (Unionist) for North Antrim, Parliament of Northern Ireland 1959-72; Minister, Northern Ireland - Education 1969, Agriculture 1969-71; PC (Northern Ireland) 1969; succeeded 1982 as second Baron Rathcavan; married 1934 Clare Blow (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1944), 1953 Bridget Edwards-Moss (nee Coke; three daughters, and one daughter deceased); died Castlebar, Co Mayo20 December 1994.

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