OBITUARY:Sir James Kilfedder

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The Independent Online
Synthetic anger in the House of Commons is cheap currency. Real, obviously felt, rage is rare and all the more worthy of explanation. For this reason the Commons intervention of James Kilfedder on the draft document on the peace process in Northern Ireland, on 21 February, is lodged in the minds of those who witnessed it in the Chamber or saw it on television.

Kilfedder asked:

Is it not manifestly unfair and totally undemocratic that I was not consulted, briefed or spoken to at any stage during the drawing-up of the draft document? Does not the Prime Minister feel that, in view of the involvement through Dublin of the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the drafting of the document and in view of the fact that Her Majesty's government, through their representatives, have been talking to the political wing of the terrorists, that this is a contemptuous way to deal with Unionist member of Parliament? Surely, when the Prime Minister speaks directly to the people of Northern Ireland they will remember this.

John Major was non-plussed. He could only stutter that there had been widespread consultation and that it was not the case that other parties had been involved in the drafting of the document. What he was seeking to do was to set down some ideas for consideration, discussion and negotiation between the political parties. When and if they were able to reach agreement he would carry the matter forward. The objective that he had was the same as he knew Kilfedder had. And that was to ensure that what had thus far been a ceasefire could be turned into a permanent peace.

Twenty-four hours later the Prime Minister, having been emollient in private, was conciliatory. Kilfedder arose in his usual place on the first row below the gangway and prefaced his question to Major by stating his passionate dedication to reconciliation between the two sections of the community in Northern Ireland and between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. He went on:

But the Prime Minister will understand that many have died over 26 years of terrorism in Northern Ireland. My mind goes out to all those who have been murdered by the terrorists, men who now pose as peacemakers. With regard to the last Northern Ireland Assembly, the prime minister gave the date as 1972. The last Northern Ireland Assembly lasted from 1982 to 1986 when it was brought to an end by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I was the Speaker of that Assembly. It was my regret that the SDLP and other Nationalists boycotted that Assembly, which was, in fact, a good basis for political progress in Northern Ireland. If that had not happened in 1982-86, just imagine where we would be today.

Kilfedder went on to ask Major to bear in mind that the surest foundation for political progress in Northern Ireland was trust and goodwill as well as consent. Would he therefore consider the establishment of another Assembly as soon as possible, which would allow elected representatives to get together, to get to know each other and to work out their own problems?

Major was obviously taken aback by the rebuke that Kilfedder had not been consulted. Soothingly he said that, as Speaker, Kilfedder had played a distinguished role for a long time. Afterwards, in the corridor, I observed to Kilfedder that he was obviously apoplectic with anger. It all poured out. He had repeatedly supported the government by vote and speech and felt that the least that they could do was to talk to him as well as talking to Dublin.

Kilfedder was a phenomenon or perhaps a left-over from a remote era of Northern Irish politics when Ulster was represented by such figures as Lord Robert Grosvenor, Major Robin Chichester-Clark, Stratton Mills, and Rafton Pounder. His spiritual home was Stormont, where he became Speaker and honed his considerable skills as a chairman. In 1992 the Arts and Heritage Group of the House of Commons went to Czechoslovakia and had the privilege of going to President Havel's private apartments in the superb Prague Castle. Kilfedder's comment to me, sotto voce, was "This is nearly as good as my Speaker's office in Stormont!"

I have never seen Kilfedder more distressed than when he was explaining what had happened on his visit to Stormont after the recent fire which, to his enormous distress, destroyed the walnut and rosewood chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was as if his own home had been burned down.

During one of the many fact-finding delegations from Westminster during the early 1970s, I walked through the streets of Bangor with Kilfedder. Progress was snail-like. Everyone seemed to stop to have a word with him and he introduced his constituents by name to his Westminster colleagues. Kilfedder was even then a local institution. Several times there came the refrain "If we lived in Scotland we would vote for Labour MPs like you. Here, we vote for Jim!" James Molyneaux, leader of the Ulster Unionists, yesterday described Jim Kilfedder as "a most diligent Ulster MP".

To explain how Kilfedder managed to cling to his seat one really needs to have gone to North Down, where he had amassed little pieces of personal gratitude here, there and everywhere. Not for him the profound political speeches of his parliamentary neighbour for South Down, Enoch Powell. Kilfedder would talk in public, he once told me, about anything other than sensitive politics. But he gave the impression that he had the best hotline to Conservative ministers at Westminster, which I suspect he had. Added to this there was a delicate, relaxed humour which must have been appealing to his constituents as it was to me and other sharp-tempered Scots who sat for 177 hours on the recent committee stage of the Local Government Reform Bill under chairmanship shared between Michael Martin MP and Kilfedder. Kilfedder was an exceptionally skilful chairman of Commons committees.

Kilfedder was born into a Protestant family of tenant farmers and grew up in Enniskillen. It was a very important fact about him that he went to Trinity College, Dublin, and did his first law degree in King's Inn, Dublin. He never, to my knowledge, gave vent to the extremities of invective against "the Republic", and was privately dismayed by and publicly as critical as he dared be of the Rev Ian Paisley.

Having won the West Belfast seat in October 1964 and played a part in promoting the case for Short Brothers and their role in the aviation industry in the first Wilson government, he lost his seat in March 1966 to Gerry Fitt, then of the SDLP. In June 1970 he was chosen as Ulster Unionist candidate for the safe Conservative seat of County Down, following George Curry, one of the old-style Unionist MPs.

Kilfedder claimed that in Down North there were fortunately no riots, and Protestants and Catholics lived happily side by side. They enjoyed a degree of prosperity and peace which his Unionist colleagues and himself wanted to see established throughout Ulster. He told the House that the Irish Republicans would go to any lengths to damage the fabric of society. The dead, the injured and the homeless were a sad monument to their ceaseless campaign. For Kilfedder their purpose was to usurp power and overthrow the state.

Kilfedder abstained on the Industrial Relations Bill in March 1971 on the grounds that the government had failed to stem the tide of terrorists. He differed from Ulster Unionist colleagues, however, in urging continued support for the Heath government in April 1972. During that summer he pleaded the cause of special courts for Ulster terrorists but at the same time urged the desegregation of nursery schools to end "religious apartheid". In March 1973 he was ferociously angry about the Sunningdale proposals which he saw as tantamount to a surrender to the men of violence. He was very sceptical about William Whitelaw's offer of a power-sharing executive.

In October 1975 he was expelled from the United Ulster Unionist coalition because he opposed direct rule. To the anger of other Ulster Unionist MPs, he supported devolution for Scotland and Wales and voted with the Labour government on the devolution guillotine of February 1977 on which the government were defeated. In January 1980 he launched, improbably, his own Ulster Populist Unionist Party and clung to his seat. There was much ribaldry about his getting a higher salary than the prime minister with a total of nearly £47,000, combining his Westminster pay with that of Speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The truth is that he did not accept a large part of it and behaved with perfect propriety.

The Commons will not see Jim Kilfedder's like again as that independence of mind and spirit is unlikely to be victorious in a present-day constituency.

Tam Dalyell

James Alexander Kilfedder, lawyer, politician: born Kinlouth, Co Leitrim 16 July 1928; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1958; MP (Ulster Unionist) for Belfast West 1964-66, MP (Ulster Unionist, Ulster Popular Unionist) for North Down 1970-95; Member (Official Unionist), North Down, Northern Ireland Assembly 1973-75; Member (UUUC) for North Down, Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention 1975-76; Leader, Ulster Popular Unionist Party 1980-95; Member (UPUP), North Down and Speaker, Northern Ireland Assembly 1982-86; Kt 1992; Chairman, Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs 1994-95; died London 20 March 1995.