Obituary: Baroness Ewart-Biggs

Alma Birk
Thursday 08 October 1992 23:02

Felicity Jane Randall, broadcaster, campaigner, politician, born 22 August 1929, created 1981 Baroness Ewart-Biggs, Labour Party spokesman on home affairs 1983-92, consumer affairs 1987-92, overseas development 1987-92, an Opposition whip 1988-92, President British Committee Unicef 1984-92, married 1960 Christopher Ewart-Biggs (died 1976; one son, two daughters), 1992 Kevin O'Sullivan, died London 8 October 1992.

ON 21 July 1976 Jane Ewart-Biggs was driving from Liverpool to London to buy curtain material for the Embassy residence and had reached Birdcage Walk when she heard on her car radio that her husband, Christopher, the British Ambassador to Dublin, was dead. He had been blown up in his car by the IRA. It was Christopher's first posting as an ambassador and it lasted a tragically brief 12 days.

Left abruptly at the age of 46, with three children at school, Jane went through a period of intense shock and grief. But what marked her out was not only her ability to pull herself out of her debilitating despair, but the steel will needed to achieve it. Five years later she was Baroness Ewart-Biggs, a Labour life peer and a national figure. Before leaving Dublin, she became involved in the Movement for Peace in Northern Ireland and launched a Memorial Fund in her husband's name to promote peace and understanding in the province.

Once back in London she led a march for peace and made a speech in Trafalgar Square, requiring great nerve and courage.

In her books Pay, Pack and Follow (1984) and Lady in the Lords (1988) she bravely describes how she built up a 'second life' for herself. Her frankness, courage and disarming flashes of self-deprecatory wit make up for what her books may lack in literary style. Jane's background was middle-class; her father, Basil Randall, a major in the Indian Army, died when she was a few months. She had one brother, who also went into the army. Her education at a boarding school and secretarial college prepared her for jobs in Whitehall and the British mission in Bonn. Her marriage in 1960 to Christopher Ewart-Biggs, a diplomat, opened up a new life and just over a year later she and their daughter Henrietta accompanied him to Algiers, where he was HM Consul.

There followed a spell in London and then Belgium, where he was counsellor at the Brussels Embassy. By now Robin and Kate had joined Henrietta, and in 1971 they all went to Paris where Christopher was to serve as Minister. Jane enjoyed all their postings, but particularly Paris. She had a happy knack of making friends, skilfully created comfortable homes wherever they were and squeezed all she could in interest and activity out of their different postings.

Her interest in British politics blossomed after her husband's death; with her experience of diplomatic life and knowledge of the European Community from their time in Brussels in 1978 she felt she could make a competent MEP. However, she first had to be acceptable to Labour Party selection committees; but her background, lack of constituency experience and strong enthusiasm for Europe worked against her. She was no more successful when she tried to get on the GLC and so she cheerfully threw herself into Labour Party constituency work. The phone call changing her life came in February 1981, when she heard she had been nominated for the House of Lords as a working peer.

On 3 June she was introduced and on 17 June she made her maiden speech, on Britain in the EEC. From the start she threw herself into House of Lords work, taking part in debates on home affairs, Europe - and always Ireland. Jane spread her interest to Africa, the Far East - indeed wherever people suffered repression, poverty and famine. She put down numerous questions and within two years became an opposition whip, speaking from the front bench on a range of home and Foreign Office subjects.

Jane Ewart-Biggs was a tall, slim attractive woman who made an elegant figure at the despatch box. We had desks in the same room in the House of Lords and she was a good companion and friend: considerate, helpful and with a sense of humour. A glutton for work, inside and outside Parliament, she was on innumerable committees dedicated to helping a huge range of people. From 1984 she was President of the British Committee of Unicef - a post of which she was particularly proud. She was in demand as an after-dinner speaker and lecturer and rarely said 'No' to an invitation to participate. Although not a good swimmer, she regularly volunteered for the Lords v Commons match. She was devoted to her three children and like all parents from time to time had problems - with which she had to cope alone.

Although not a natural orator, she was very effective at the despatch box; her sincerity, deep feelings and careful preparation carried her through. Her compassion was seamless and down-to-earth. She used to say that practicality was forced on her when her husband died. In spite of her workload she managed to enjoy a busy social life - and to write three books.

Basically a warm woman, she was a popular and highly regarded member of the House of Lords (where I first met her) and much loved by the Labour group of peers. Her appearances in the House in a wheelchair with her hair and make-up immaculate, smiling broadly, moved us all. She managed to attend the Lords' summer party to say goodbye to Neil Kinnock and to visit briefly Lord Joseph's debate on family values. It is hard to believe the House will not see her lively, attractive, quickstep presence any more. Three weeks ago she married Kevin O'Sullivan, her partner for many years.

In her last period of parliamentary activity (31 October 1991 to 21 February 1992) recorded in the Cumulative Index to House of Lords debates, she spoke, either in debate or questions, on 29 subjects (often with several different entries under the same heading). They included famine relief in Africa, the Asylum Bill, Croatia, East Timor, Fiji, human rights in Northern Ireland, prisons, the homeless and the United Nations. This is an epitaph which Jane Ewart-Biggs would have appreciated.

(Photograph omitted)

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