Obituary: Patricia McLaughlin

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The Independent Online
Patricia McLaughlin was the first woman MP to be elected in Northern Ireland. She made an immediate mark as a bright thrusting personality whose range of interests spanned the parliamentary scene from Europe and Foreign Affairs to consumer protection, dirty books, industrial investment and family planning.

But it was above all as a saleswoman for Ulster and its products, especially linen, that she regularly hit the local headlines. And not just locally, for when she was chosen in 1963 to second the address in reply to the Queen's Speech, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, then Prime Minister, called her "a tireless advocate of the claims of Northern Ireland and her constituents need never fear that while she is here they will go unheard". Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition, in reply remarked on "her great charm. She is, I know, universally liked and respected by all parties in the House." Indeed, during a debate on the pay-roll tax in 1961, she had attempted to speak from the Opposition front bench to emphasise her Ulster independence on the issue.

Born in Downpatrick, Co Down, the daughter of Canon F.B. Aldwell, she was educated in Belfast and at Trinity College Dublin, where she studied Modern Languages. In 1937 she married Henry McLaughlin, a civil engineer and director of a large firm of building contractors, McLaughlin and Harvey.

After the Second World War she became very active in Ulster Unionist politics as Chairman of the Unionist Society and as an officer in Unionist Women's Associations. Much in demand as a speaker, in 1955 her sweeping victory in West Belfast over an Eire Labour candidate and Sinn Fein, by an amazing 18,000 votes, was the highlight of the elections. The joint total of votes for James Beattie, Eire Labour, and the Sinn Fein candidate, who was a convicted IRA activist, was still 10,000 less than the Unionist vote, and is a stark reminder of the demographic changes in Belfast since then. In the following election in 1959 her majority was 8,836.

In 1964 she resigned for reasons of health. But a contributory factor must have been her involvement in the notorious Seenozip firm which she had been instrumental in bringing to Newry in 1960 and which went bankrupt in 1964, defrauding the Northern Ireland government of pounds 30,000 - two men were convicted. A director from the outset, she had resigned in 1962, when she had informed the Government of her concerns about Seenozip's conduct.

But in 1955, when she first entered the House of Commons, her marketing zeal on behalf of the province had taken a much more effective and fashionable form. She boasted that every article of her attire was made in Ulster. Linen dress and coat, nylons, shoes and handbag. Already in 1955 she had made her debut on the BBC programme Any Questions, where a newspaper reported that "she had dominated the male panel". Later she appeared on television in a party political broadcast for the Conservatives - the Ulster Unionists and Tories were then in close alliance.

Every consumer protection interest was grist to her parliamentary mill: Dangerous fireworks, inflammable materials in the home, the importation of obscene literature. In 1960 her daughter Sandra was publicised trying out an unsinkable life- jacket in a London swimming bath. In 1975 she was appointed OBE for her work in the home safety and consumer field. But she was in no doubt as to the achievement which would put her name in the history books; the emancipation of British women from the penny turnstile in public lavatories. "The fact that I helped decide the kind of jet plane for the future defence of our country will be forgotten. I'll be known for making the phrase 'Spend a penny' obsolete!"

Her family background in the Church remained with her. Both she and her husband were diocesan delegates at Anglican conferences abroad. However she was not afraid to champion causes not conventionally comme il faut; in 1962, as secretary of the new Foundation for Marriage Education, she stressed the need for family planning. From the 1970s on she had espoused the cause of the Common Market and was a delegate to the Western European Union, and in between visits to the Middle East, where she engaged in talks with both Jordan and Israel, and fund- raising for the blind in London, she lent her house on the coast of Belfast Lough to make money for the Northern Ireland European Movement.

After 1964 she suffered from political withdrawal symptoms. In 1969 there was talk of a comeback when she was chosen as prospective Conservative candidate for Wandsworth Central, but nothing came of it. In 1966 she was a candidate for the North Down Unionist nomination. Also in the Sixties she became public relations officer to the Mushroom Growers' Association and a professional parliamentary lobbyist.

Latterly she lived for many years in Winchester but, as she said in 1970, "My home and my heart will always be in Northern Ireland."

Roy Bradford

Florence Patricia Alice Aldwell, politician: born Downpatrick, Co Down 23 June 1916; MP (Ulster Unionist) for Belfast West 1955-64; Vice-President, Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents 1962-85; OBE 1975; married 1937 Henry McLaughlin (one son, one daughter and one daughter deceased); died 7 January 1997.