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'If Belfast is to be a world class city of the 21st century, it has to tackle levels of poverty ... and you need leadership for that to happen'

By Rebecca Black

Northern Ireland's longest-ever serving Direct Rule Minister, Sir Richard Needham (74), now a businessman, tells of his frustration that Belfast is not developing as well as it could, how a directly-elected mayor would transform it and why he taped his cat-flap to protect his family from a potential bomb.

Q. What is it like returning to Northern Ireland, a quarter of a century after your term as Under-Secretary of State ended?

A. Belfast is improved beyond all recognition from when I came here in 1985. It is a wonderful and dramatic improvement.

However, I am not the slightest bit interested in what has happened or where we are at. And in fact I am getting concerned about this constant repetition of how Belfast is today compared with 30 years ago, because that's not the point.

The point is, what is going to happen to Belfast. How is Belfast going to continue to change for the better?

Belfast has major problems and I am not just talking about the remaining residue of dissident republicanism or UDA thuggery. I am talking about the levels of deprivation, poverty, unemployment, morbidity etc, which are still utterly unacceptable and have not been dealt with.

Some 48% of children in Belfast get free school meals - the comparable figure in Bristol is 20%. Now, who is hanging that around the necks of the local politicians? That is not acceptable and what is going to be done about it?

And what will happen post-Brexit? Is Northern Ireland going to become the back door to Europe, whereas before you could say it was at the front door.

What worries me about Belfast in the future is whether it has got the infrastructure, the leadership, the ambition, the understanding to turn it into a world class city of the 21st century.

It's got the perfect size and most of the bricks required - very good universities, very good Civil Service, both at Stormont and the City Council. It's got some major industrial powerhouses like Bombardier and others, some good service industries, but it has levels of poverty which are still unacceptable.

Q. So, how does Northern Ireland improve?

A. You need the right political structure to do that. You have got to find some system in Belfast where you have a leadership which is concentrated on the city and capable of delivering across all the services that matter in the city and its immediate surroundings.

Q. You don't think Belfast and Northern Ireland is well governed?

A. It is over-governed. Maybe an elected mayor and the deputy from the other side [would help].

The key thing is that everyone in that role is going to be looking for the same ends - which is the improvement in services and the city of Belfast, because it is in their common interests.

Once you take it up to Stormont, you have all the people who are jealous of Belfast. However good a leader you are, if you are incapable of being able to deliver anything because you don't have the authority, and everything you are trying to do can be immediately kiboshed by somebody or something else, then you can't do it.

Q. Would a directly-elected Lord Mayor of Belfast really make that big a difference?

A. Bristol, under a directly-elected mayor, is one of the 10 most exciting cities in the world, whereas Belfast is way down the list because it doesn't have the leadership. That is a real, real problem.

The one advantage that I had as a Direct Rule minister was that I could bring all the civil servants and councils together, and I had a real authority to get things done.

Now you have so many different departments, permanent secretaries, 11 councils, and, to my semi-despair, I see the Assembly is now not even giving the city council powers of regeneration.

I think that is potentially an incredibly retrograde step, because it means that decisions will be made on whether it is green or whether it is orange, whether it is for Belfast or for somewhere else. If Belfast doesn't work, Northern Ireland doesn't work so you have to look at Belfast as the place out of which its success, the success of Northern Ireland, will come.

You have to be imaginative and creative to do that.

I am proposing an international entertainment centre.

A small number of people in Belfast are against this idea, because a very small element of it will involve a casino.

If it were to happen it would be a £150m development with dear knows how many jobs.

It was my idea, but I really don't care who builds it or who runs it. That would be a smart development and it would involve hotels, recreation areas, offices, restaurants and shopping. That's just one example.

My worry is if that doesn't happen in Belfast, it will end up in Dublin or Spain. Those are the sorts of things that post-Brexit Northern Ireland cannot afford to lose.

Q. What is your day job these days?

A. I work for NEC. I have done that for 17 years, a huge Japanese company in the roll-out of their smart technology.

I am on the board of RANK, which is a big entertainment company.

I represent a Chinese law firm which is looking to have European clients to protect their IP and their trademarks in China.

I am chairman of a little political public relations company.

In Northern Ireland terms I have got Kilkeel Development, Oakgrove School in Derry, the entertainment centre.

I am also a close friend and advisor to the President of Colombia. I helped persuade him to come over here and wrote his speech. I do a lot of work with one of my sons, who has an IT start-up. And I am writing a book.

Q. Was the decision to leave politics in 1997 a tough one?

A. No! I had been a minister for 10 years - seven here and three as Minster of Trade.

My wife said that she was fed up with being a proxy MP by running a constituency, and I hadn't been home in 10 years.

I had hardly been to the House of Commons.

In my role as Minister of Trade, I spent all my life promoting British exports in an aeroplane and when I was in Northern Ireland I was here all the time.

I had really lost touch with the House of Commons.

I got offered a job, so it gave me an opportunity.

I am an industrialist in politics.

First and foremost, I like making things.

All my life since I left school I was involved in industry, and I was keen to get back to it.

Q. You have clearly not forgotten Northern Ireland?

A. No, I can't, that's where my family comes from. I am a Down man.

Q. Did you spend much time in Northern Ireland growing up, with your family's links to Mourne Park House in Kilkeel?

A. No, because my parents lived in Cornwall. I didn't start coming to Mourne Park until my father died in 1977 and I became the Earl of Kilmorey, although I never used the title because at that time it had absolutely no relevance in my life, I was a small-time entrepreneur trying to make my way in politics.

After 1977, when I went to Mourne Park and saw everything my father had rejected, that started my interest.

I knew I would always come back. I knew if I was going to make a career in politics I would end up here because that's where I wanted to come. Not many people wanted to come to Northern Ireland, but I really wanted to.

Q. Did Margaret Thatcher send you here as a punishment?

A. Well, it was partly punishment. In response to the question of why she didn't do more to look after the right wing, why for example did you make Needham a minister? She said: "Well I had to make a few of them ministers to keep them quiet."

It was ideal for her to send me here where I could practise Keynesian economics and it was good for her.

Q. What is the state of Mourne Park House now, after the fire in 2013?

A. I went there in the Spring and it is desperate. It was awful, just dreadful. It's just a shell. The fire was accidental. Very sad.

Q. Were you taken aback by revelations from the State Papers in 2015 that former SDLP MP Eddie McGrady complained to the Irish Government that you were "sly, devious and unionist-minded"?

A. No, because I had just arrived and it was just at the time of the starting of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, so I was trying to balance everyone together.

I hardly knew Eddie at that stage, but Eddie and I became great friends.

He certainly wouldn't have said that five years ago. God knows what is still to come.

Q. What was it like getting parachuted into Northern Ireland around the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 amid such a fraught time?

A. It was quite scary in some ways. I had this wonderful policeman who sat in the back of the car when I arrived at Belfast airport and said: "I think I ought to tell you what my job is. I am the man who shoots the man who shoots you."

I think it was much worse for my family than it was for me, because I was always very well protected, but for my wife and children sitting at home, it was worse. We had a policeman come around and say we had to tape up our cat flap because the IRA could put a bomb through it and blow up the house.

My daughter's bedroom was above where the cat flap was. You can't imagine how a little thing like that can really unnerve you, because I couldn't say to my daughter, 'you have to move from your bedroom to the other end of the house because you might get blown up'.

My wife was on her own a lot and occasionally got a call from police telling her not to move, and they were on their way.

I was in Kilkeel the other day with Mairtin O Muilleoir and Jim Wells. I said to Jim: "Last time I saw you, you were hitting me over the head with a union flag shouting Lundy." What could you do, you couldn't punch him back.

Q. You campaigned for the Remain camp, how do you think the UK will face Brexit?

A. Of course, disaster. I wasn't shocked by the result, as I thought it was going to happen.

I walked Chippenham High Street just before with Tom King and just knew that (result) was going to happen. You can get a good feel for public reaction when you have been in politics for as long as I have.

For Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland it (Brexit) is very serious, and somehow we have to work out how to deal with the Irish problem.

It's going to make it much more difficult to get investment, to get young people to stay here.

Business people may not have been able to think of many reasons to come to Northern Ireland before, and there is going to be even less reason after we leave the EU.

It makes it much harder for Britain.

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