Obituary: Roy Bradford

Paul Bew
Tuesday 08 September 1998 23:02 BST

ROY BRADFORD was the most intelligent of the Ulster Unionist politicians who flourished in the era of Terence O'Neill's premiership in Northern Ireland from 1963 to 1969.

In the mid-1960s Captain O'Neill, disturbed by the then vibrant Northern Ireland Labour Party which had grown strong in the last years of his predecessor, Lord Brookborough, attempted to modernise the Ulster Unionist Party at Stormont. O'Neill decided to "steal Labour's thunder" by putting up better educated and more articulate candidates. Bradford was ideal for the purpose: a product of the Belfast Royal Academical Institution and Trinity College, Dublin, where he took the Gold Medal in Modern Languages, he was a fluent French and German speaker with wide intellectual interests. In his Trinity days he was taught by Conor Cruise O'Brien.

In 1965, Bradford defeated David Bleakley of the NILP and sitting Stormont member in the contest for the Victoria seat in Belfast. This victory, in what had been Labour's flagship constituency, symbolised the early electoral effectiveness of O'Neillism.

Upon entering the Stormont Parliament, Bradford rapidly gained promotion. In 1967, he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Education. In 1969 - now a member of the Privy Council - he was promoted to the post of Commerce; in 1971, he moved to the Ministry of Development. But the emergence of the "Ulster Troubles" in 1968 severely complicated his career. In 1972 the Tory government of Edward Heath prorogued the Stormont parliament - to Bradford's bitter disappointment. In his later novel, The Last Ditch (1981), which had to be read for libel, he offered a thinly disguised account of the inside struggle against the imposition of direct rule - an imposition which Bradford personally saw as a major concession to IRA terrorism.

In 1974, however, he was back in office as a member of Brian Faulkner's power-sharing executive as head of the Department of Environment. He was always on the liberal wing of his party - he broke with the Orange Order long before it was fashionable - so his decision to back Faulkner was hardly a surprise. Indeed, at one point, it has been suggested, he attempted to persuade the SDLP that he, rather than Faulkner, was a more suitable leader for the new body. His period on the executive was a controversial one; his economic philosophy was strongly conservative and he was often locked in sharp conflict with the radical socialist approach of Paddy Devlin, the SDLP minister for Health - a conflict many felt needlessly debilitated an executive which had as it were, the broader task of attempting to mediate the end of a civil war.

Bradford angered his Executive colleagues when he suggested that there should be some contact between the British government and the Ulster Workers Council during the loyalist strike which eventually brought down the power- sharing experiment in May 1974. During this crisis, some cabinet colleagues, by no means all of them nationalist, felt Bradford had been disloyal; he claimed with some justice that he had been merely realistic. The fact remains that he was never thereafter trusted by many of his former colleagues in the power-sharing experiment.

At any rate, this was the end of Bradford's effective influence at the heart of Ulster politics. As Unionist politics swung sharply to the right, he was too liberal for most, but not liberal enough for others. Falling between two stools he experienced the early demise of a political career which might reasonably have been expected to culminate in the premiership of Northern Ireland.

In 1975 he was an unsuccessful candidate in the convention election in East Belfast; from this point onwards he began to cultivate his other extensive business, journalistic and literary interests in Belfast. He had after all inhabited such milieus in London until his mid-forties - working in television and co-owning a Covent Garden restaurant with the film director John Schlesinger - and he had little difficulty in recreating such a life in Belfast, although one of his restaurants, like so many at the time, was to be the scene of tragic violence.

Retaining one major link with public affairs, Bradford became chairman of the European Movement in Northern Ireland in 1977 and then in 1987 its president. He was a lively member of the cross-border Irish Association for Economic and Cultural Relations and both he and his wife Hazel, whom he had met at Trinity, became mayors of the prosperous Co Down town of Bangor.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he exercised considerable local influence as a regular Monday columnist for the Unionist Belfast Newsletter. He became a kind of Unionist grandee in a culture rather short of grandees. He was an effective critic of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, popularising the phrase "diktat" to describe it. He was also a strong critic of the Anglo-Irish Framework document of 1995. More recently, he regularly criticised the Blair government for its failure to countenance stronger security policies. Nevertheless, he was heavily involved throughout the 1990s in numerous north-south co-operative ventures and in the last weeks of his life cautiously supported what he saw as David Trimble's formidable leadership of the Ulster Unionist party, including the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

This decision reflected Bradford's political realism but also a certain generosity. In the Nineties, for all his many friends on Northern Ireland's prosperous Gold Coast, he experienced a sense of marginalisation, a sense - felt by many in Northern Ireland - that policy was determined by cliques in the Foreign Office; the Northern Ireland Office and, indeed, worst of all, the joint Anglo-Irish Maryfield secretariat. It would have been all too easy for him to condemn the Good Friday Agreement as he had condemned the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Framework document.

Bradford was a cavalier in an era of Unionist roundheads. His very cleverness, smoothness even, often made his relationship with political colleagues an uneasy one. The same cleverness, however, contributed to the success of his life outside mainstream politics. His novel The Last Ditch (perhaps more than his slightly lurid Excelsior of 1960) and, more importantly, his myriad journalistic essays constitute an invaluable resource for historians of the Ulster problem in the years to come.

Bradford resisted approaches to work for Germany while in Dublin in the early 1940s. His wartime service in Army Intelligence in France and Germany created in him a particular interest in other exceptional Ulstermen who had also served; hence his biography of Blair Mayne (Rogue Warrior of the SAS: the life of Lt-Col R.B. `Paddy' Mayne, DSO, 1987) and his researches into the work of the cardiologist Frank Pantridge. But he had also a strong interest in Irish history and was particularly fascinated by the politician Kevin O'Higgins, the Irish Free State cabinet minister who was assassinated by republicans in 1927 and whose daughter Una O'Higgins O'Malley he had come to know through the Irish Association.

A loyal member of the Church of Ireland, Bradford was always an Irish, rather than an Ulster, Unionist reflecting in part his family's Monaghan roots. The life of O'Higgins pointed up all those debates about public order and terrorism which dominated Bradford's own public life. How far was the state justified in acting strongly against terror in order to protect the lives of its citizens? Bradford delivered to the Irish Association a highly polished lecture on O'Higgins some years ago; a text which deserves a wider circulation. His two sons, Conor and Toby, are both well known in Belfast media circles.

Roy Hamilton Bradford, politician and writer: born Belfast 7 July 1920; MP (Ulster Unionist) for Victoria 1965-73; Chief Whip, Northern Ireland 1968-69, Minister of Commerce 1969-71, Minister of Development 1971-72; PC (Northern Ireland) 1969; Unionist Member for East Belfast, Northern Ireland Assembly 1973-75; Minister for the Environment 1974; Mayor of North Down 1994; married 1946 Hazel Lindsay (died 1994; two sons); died Belfast 2 September 1998.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in