Ireland’s orphans in Mother of Parliaments

Posted By: September 27, 2016

Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News.  Tuesday 27, 2016

Northern Ireland MPs, though rarely discussed, are surely an odd phenomenon, as distant from political realities as some British MPs in Greatly-divided Britain. What are they for?

The thought is prompted by obituaries for a unionist who spanned pre-Troubles and early Troubles, Robin Chichester-Clark.

In an era now remote, he inherited a seat from grandfather, aunt and father, then found in Westminster, during the second of his two decades in it, ‘disillusionment, sense of rejection’ and, eventually, ‘complete betrayal’. The Daily Telegraph called him ‘a moderate, for a unionist’, like several of his fellows.

Nearly all of them were natural Tories who wore a suit well. ‘Sort of benevolent plantation owners’, an unillusioned student of history says, ‘though the benevolence didn’t stretch to jobs or housing or gerrymandering.’ Or sharing power with the mildest nationalists.

Fair employment pioneer Bob Cooper, originally a Young Unionist, used to reminisce about a rural chap who wanted to be a county council chairman, but the selection committee decided he hadn’t the necessary brains, or rigidity. But when a Westminister seat came up they readily gave him the nomination.

Today’s unionist MPs resemble earlier generations in being basically surplus to requirement back home. Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson, Jim Shannon and perhaps David Simpson may be the most industrious. Donaldson, who walked out as the Good Friday Agreement was signed, tours the international conflict-resolution circuit, Dodds who ducked the leadership has in Westminster exactly the prominence that he wants without the travails of leading the party.

Constituency power bases render most of the DUP contingent immune from Foster attack. Presumably most believe they have jobs for life, with no need to get involved in grubby assembly business. Maybe Gregory Campbell relies on Nolan performances to keep his voters sweet, or should that be sour, though how tragic if he should fall victim to boundary changes.

Who knows what Shinner London worker-bees do for their abstentionist bosses, or how well they do it. Though the pattern is surely embarrassing, it may be unfair to describe the Mother of Parliaments as a retirement home for ex-SDLP leaders. Tories have been heard to compliment Mark Durkan’s often-befuddling attention to detail. But Durkan, still a comparatively young man, performs so well in broadcasts now it must make teeth grind in voters who recall his frustrating leadership.

It was almost a shock to see that when he died last month Robin Chichester-Clark was 88, not older. The onset of the Troubles upended a world order for his class, though he still left politics in 1974 having tried and failed to become a Conservative candidate, with a knighthood. London had closed Stormont down two years earlier. The year before that his older brother James, Stormont’s second-last prime minister – Chi-Chi as Ian Paisley cruelly nicknamed him – had resigned in despair. The brothers were amiable, by all accounts, as unfitted for the age of Civil Rights and risen nationalism as they were to deal with their own hardliners and the rise of Paisley.

Maurice Hayes in his Minority Verdict, Experiences of a Catholic Public Servant called Chi-Chi ‘a very limited and extremely wooden man who had been far out of his depth as a parliamentary secretary and a cruel caricature as a prime minister.’

The younger Chichester-Clark was confronted with Republican Labour MP Gerry Fitt, elected in 1966, amid evaporation of the post-partitition ‘convention’ that NI was not to be discussed at Westminster. Now Labour MPs called for rapid and substantial NI reforms. They knew their leader, prime minister Harold Wilson, ‘absolutely detested’ the unionist MPs as automatic Tory votes in a time of tight majorities and as a partly romantic nationalist with a strongly Catholic Liverpool constituency. A Labour MP later remembered how the PM ‘would lean over the despatch box towards them, radiating contempt.’

The Guardian’s Chichester-Clark obituary, by Fitt biographer Chris Ryder, noted that having lost the fight to retain the convention unionist MPs asked the RUC inspector-general for ‘material from Special Branch to discredit Fitt, whom they had come to regard as an IRA agitator.’ Chichester-Clark cut ‘a woeful figure in the Commons’, Ryder wrote, when all he could cite as evidence of ‘subversive leanings’ was Fitt’s Irish passport.

Unionists still awed by their status as MP are careless of history, and probably fewer than those who mainly think the Mother of Parliaments a cosy berth. The Chichester-Clark generation would have blown a gasket at the very thought of today’s Sinn Féin MPs, outside the Chamber, true, but positively radiating ‘subversive leanings’.