PETER MILLS was, superficially, a contradictory character. A man of immense bonhomie, he could, quite suddenly, become most grave and serious about matters which had no connection - or one that he alone saw - with the subject in hand.
Thus, I had lunch with him in Stormont Castle when he was a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office during the time of the Heath government. I wanted to glean what I could about the Government's policy towards Ulster. He fenced amiably for a few minutes and, then, suddenly asked me whether I still held the view I had expressed seven years earlier opposing the liberalisation of the law on abortion on the mainland.
I told him that I did. He immediately asked me whether I supported capital punishment, particularly for terrorists. Again, we were in agreement. He then went into a moving soliloquy. He saw his role in Northern Ireland as striving as best he could to bring about reconciliation between the Catholic and Protestant peoples. This was entirely appropriate for a man who was to become chairman of the Houses of Parliament Christian Fellowship, but seemed to many who disagreed with him to be entirely inappropriate in a minister in a government which put measures placatory of the Ulster Catholic community, and the Dublin government, above all other priorities in Ulster.
To understand Mills, you have to understand that he was a West Countryman through and through, with all the stubborness and independence of spirit that the description implies. He cared nothing for ministerial office. He became a Conservative MP for Torrington in 1964, seeing off both Mark (now Lord) Bonham-Carter and David (now Lord) Owen with ease. But he had not applied for the candidacy: he was invited to take it on. However, even though the Boundary Commissioners arranged things to his apparent disadvantage, he had little difficulty in keeping the seat until his retirement in 1987. In the meantime, apart from Northern Ireland, he had served as a junior agriculture minister, as became a skilled and devoted farmer.
Above all, however, he was an MP of consummate devotion and skill. No problem arose in his constituency that he did not know about. No difficulty attended the affairs of a constituent that he did not act upon. He was both gregarious and dedicated. The Torrington Tories lost a lot when he decided to retire in 1987. The West Country has lost a doughty champion.
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