Obituary: Robert Adley

Robert James Adley, politician and writer: born 2 March 1935; MP (Conservative) for Bristol North East 1970-74, Christchurch and Lymington 1974-83, Christchurch 1983-93; Chairman, Conservative Transport Committee 1991-93; Chairman, Select Committee on Transport 1992-93; books include British Steam in Cameracolour 1962-68 1979, In Search of Steam 1981, The Call of Steam 1982, In Praise of Steam 1985, Wheels 1987, Out of Steam 1990; married 1961 Jane Pople (two sons); died London 13 May 1993.

FOR ANY Englishman to have walked alone down a darkened ally in Beirut in 1991, three years after Terry Waite's kidnapping, was either exceedingly brave, or terribly foolish, writes Anthony Bevins.

But that is just what Robert Adley did do during his courageous campaign for the restoration of relations with Middle East states and groups that had been excommunicated by Margaret Thatcher because of their association with terrorism.

At a time when the Prime Minister would allow the Foreign Office to make no contact with the Iranians, the Syrians or the Lebanese Hizbollah, Adley acted as a discreet but deniable go-between; creating a web-like chart of contacts and links across the Middle East. 'But until there was a change of occupancy at No 10, neither the Foreign Office nor anyone else was really able to take any practical steps,' he said in November 1991.

That was somewhat unfair. While Mrs Thatcher's office had indeed repudiated a parliamentary visit to Damascus in 1988, Douglas Hurd was allowed to restore diplomatic contact with Hizbollah's Sheikh Mohamed Hussein Fadlallah in the summer of 1990. In October 1990, Mrs Thatcher also sanctioned a visit to Damascus by David Gore-Booth, a senior Foreign Office official. But that initiative for the restoration of relations with Syria only came after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and took place under heavy pressure from the United States and the Saudis.

Robert had his finger in all those pies, and many many more. Underneath that bluff, cigar-puffing, railway buff, there was a genuinely dedicated and honest person. He was the salt of politics.

Yet his political and physical bravery was best illustrated by his lonely walk down that Beirut alley in 1991. Terry Waite had been on his way to see Sheikh Fadlallah when he was kidnapped, and it was not without some trepidation that Adley waited in the lobby of a Beirut hotel to meet an intermediary. When the intermediary arrived, he said that a meeting had been arranged. Adley's bodyguard, an armed military policeman, went off to check with the embassy that he could accompany the MP.

He returned, and grimly told Adley that it was too dangerous; he had been ordered not to go. 'I had to make a very quick decision,' Adley recalled later.

'I either had to break my word to my wife that I wouldn't go on my own, or abort the whole mission. I agreed to go, and 20 minutes later I was walking down a darkened alley in South Beirut with a searchlight shining in my face. I get the flutters just thinking about it. I was frightened.'

(Photograph omitted)

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