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Lord Kilclooney: 'I'm impressed by Martin McGuinnness' development'

The Big Interview

Published 21/12/2015

Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Kilclooney
Former Ulster Unionist MP Lord Kilclooney

Former Ulster Unionist MP and owner of a local newspaper group, Lord Kilclooney tells Liam Clarke about how he believes the UUP is right to go into Opposition, that finding a way to reduce energy costs would be worth more to businesses than cutting corporation tax and that he believes he gave former PM Tony Blair the idea to have a child later in life.

Q. You have said power-sharing devolution is necessary because we can't trust the English. Didn't "Don't trust the Brits" used to be a Sinn Fein line?

A. I didn't say, "Don't trust the Brits", I said, "Don't trust the English", - and there is a difference. Northern Ireland people should not rely upon the English because they usually put their own interests first!

Q. You were a devolutionist when ex-UUP leader Lord Molyneaux was saying, "You are safe with the Tories", until the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed over his head.

A. I don't believe you are safe with the Tories. Jim overestimated his influence with them, as did Enoch Powell.

Q. So you would have gone with this recent Fresh Start deal to sustain the institutions if you had been there?

A. Oh yes.

Q. What do you think of current UUP leader Mike Nesbitt going into opposition at this point?

A. I absolutely agree with him. The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP were in rapid decline and the only way they could rescue themselves was to say they had an alternative to offer. To be credible, the alternative must be a cross-party operation.

Q. You would urge the UUP and SDLP to offer a common programme?

A. Yes, I would. With the DUP in government, let's have the Ulster Unionists and SDLP in opposition. People will start to vote for them if they see them offering an alternative.

Q. You are a successful businessman with several local newspapers yet you do not want the devolution of corporation tax?

A. No, and I see others are beginning to turn against it too. Corporation tax is simply a means of increasing the profits of profit-making companies. They are the ones who are going to benefit from it, and that is why they are pushing for it.

They suggest we will get 30,000 or 40,000 new jobs but the fact that that will be after 25 years is seldom mentioned. People think we are going to get 30,000-40,000 new jobs now. There is no way that will happen.

Q. As an investor yourself, would you not want to put your money in areas with the most attractive tax regime?

A. Those who are making profit in business will benefit. That is great for them, but I am not for it because it is not good for Northern Ireland. It is going to cost the Stormont Exchequer about £300,000 a year. Sinn Fein are beginning to catch on to that. That is the reality. I notice a few of them are beginning to question it and they are beginning to get it right.

Q. How should we kickstart our economy then?

A. There are lots of businesses who are not making a profit. What is damaging them are the overheads - things like labour costs, national insurance contributions and energy costs. Energy is one of the worst burdens that business here has to carry.

If the Stormont administration persisted in reducing energy costs rather than giving bigger profits to profit-making companies through corporation tax, you would have a better future.

Q. You were in the old Stormont during its decline and saw the problems. Does it ever strike you that when one party rules for 50 years, as the UUP did, and chaos follows, then that party must accept some of the blame?

A. Yes. We had a problem in the Ulster Unionist Party at that time. When I first entered politics, I was selected to contest South Tyrone in 1965. Those were great days for Ulster Unionism and we had a victory parade through Dungannon and a mass rally in the Market Square. You don't get things like that now.

I went up to Stormont as the youngest MP. I was sitting on the back benches, almost a child in the place. In the front row was Lord Brookeborough and the-then new Prime Minister Terence O'Neill. Terence recognised that there had to be changes in Northern Ireland. The problem was that he was not the kind of man who could sell that to the average Ulsterman. He seemed too like an English gentleman.

The man who could have delivered them was Brian Faulkner, but Brian was not made Prime Minister because in those days a new Prime Minister would emerge, he was not elected, and Brookeborough selected O'Neill.

When Terence ceased to be Prime Minister - he resigned after a poor election result and internal pressure - the Ulster Unionist Party had an election for Prime Minister. James Chichester-Clark won by one vote over Brian Faulkner.

I personally voted for Brian Faulkner. Chichester-Clark knew this, but he rung me and offered me the Home Affairs ministry. Chichester-Clark was a gentleman. He was from the old establishment, but he didn't relate to the average unionist on the streets of Belfast or Portadown or wherever.

I was addressing an Ulster Association meeting in a Birmingham hotel and I was called out from the function. It was Chichester-Clark who said, "John, I want you to be the first to know, I am announcing my resignation in the morning". Then Faulkner came in as Prime Minister. He began to deliver, but it was too late. If he had been Prime Minister a few years earlier, he could have saved a lot of problems.

Q. If a Unionist leader had complete support to make reforms, what should he have done? Should he have met the civil rights demands?

A. We needed to meet some of them and answer others. There was discrimination in housing, by nationalist councils such as Newry as well as by unionist councils. It was a problem in Dungannon in my own constituency, but the squat in Caledon was over exaggerated.

The person who squatted [the family of Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein who was a baby at the time] had not even been an applicant. It was a political operation. The girl who got it, Emily Beattie - a 19-year-old single woman who was the secretary of a local unionist politician - was on the list. However, the issue did need to be addressed and the Housing Executive was a good answer to it.

Q. What do you think of shared education?

A. It is a nonsense. It is totally misrepresented to the public. In Armagh city, there was to be a shared campus and we were going to have the Royal School and St Patrick's School and some others sharing the same sporting facilities, maybe library and dining facilities too.

The Roman Catholic Church under Cardinal Brady, who was a good man badly treated by the media... you look a bit guilty but I'm not blaming you! Anyway, the church moved the new St Patrick's up to the Cathedral, and it was still going to be called a shared campus to get grants. It stretches the concept if the schools are over a mile apart.

In reality, it will maintain separate education for generations. I'm afraid we may have to accept largely separate education, though I wanted to change that in the past. The Catholic church is determined to maintain their own system of education, something they have every right to do.

Q. Very few of the Catholic religious work in Catholic schools now. They used to be full of priests and nuns when you and I were young.

A. I am very concerned by the decline in the Catholic Church. The Republic of Ireland, was always looked on as one of the most strongly Catholic countries in Europe, but it has voted for men marrying men against the teachings of the church and only 15% in Dublin go to mass.

That is a dramatic decline and it affects all religions. I am myself a religious person, but I am not a Hallelujah person if you know what I mean.

There is a decline in moral standards here too as religious observance declines in the Protestant churches as well.

I believe gays should have equal rights in all respects and civil partnerships should carry the same rights as marriage. I backed civil partnerships with full rights from the outset. I am fairly liberal on things like that, but marriage is a red line.

Q. You were expected to win the UUP leadership when David Trimble got it in 1995. He was seen as a harder-line candidate.

A. That is because he walked down Garvaghy Road in Portadown with the Rev Ian Paisley. I still remained very supportive of him. I was, in the end, relieved that I didn't win. The problem was that we couldn't co-operate with Dublin because they didn't recognise the right of Northern Ireland to exist. That is why I opposed the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, because it would have given the Republic a say here while they retained their constitutional claim over us. That made it a stepping stone to Irish unity.

Q. Now that the border can only be removed by a referendum, is it right that our politics should be built around attitudes to partition? Do we need another division?

A. Yes. That is why I would like to see the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP becoming the opposition, uniting on social policies but while leaving the constitutional issue out of it.

I'm not sure about this new leader of the SDLP, though. We need to see more of him. I am slightly worried that he might be more nationalist than his predecessor. What we need is politics centring on social and economic issues for a better future.

Although the Catholic population has increased in Northern Ireland, the desire for a united Ireland is declining in polls. In the census, you find people saying they are Northern Irish, and I like to see people putting Northern Ireland first. We must all co-operate on that and depend on each other.

I would like to see the Northern Ireland Labour Party here again. When I was in Stormont, we had four Labour MPs. The Protestant majority has a large radical element who would be Labour if not for the constitutional divide. I would like to see the Labour Party back in the mix because it would strengthen politics here and it would shake things up in places.

Q. What about more co-operation with the Republic?

A. When I was chair of the Ulster Young Unionist Council, I decided we should meet the central branch of Fine Gael in Dublin. They threatened to expel me but I led the delegation and we issued a joint manifesto. I wasn't expelled but the central branch of Fine Gael were thrown out of their party for siding with unionists!

Q. How do you get on with Republicans nowadays? [Lord Kilclooney was shot 10 times in a hail of machine gun fire in Armagh city in 1972]?

A. The people who tried to kill me were the Official IRA, not the Provos, but they are all IRA to me. However, I am impressed by the way Martin McGuinness has developed in recent years. His support for the police, his stated intention to make Northern Ireland work and his attendance at Royal events has impressed me. I joked about Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, when he seemed to have some difficulty in meeting the Queen. I said some Republicans in Northern Ireland, one man called Martin McGuinness in particular, had set an example in going to Windsor and dining with the Queen.

Q. Do you get on with Jeremy Corbyn?

A. I know him and I have worked with him over the years on human rights committees to do with Cuba and Mexico. I take an interest in Latin America, and I am glad the US embargo on Cuba has ended. He is an intelligent, genuine, likeable person. In advance of his election, I sent him a letter congratulating him, but to be safe I put a PS at the bottom saying: "Don't misunderstand me, I don't agree with your views on Ireland." You have to be careful of things leaking out!

Q. You have often been to the US as part of peace negotiations? Did you like it?

A. I got fed up going. If the public saw the St Patrick's day event at the White House they would be shocked. You get these hordes of Irish people fighting over about two dozen prawns in the middle of the table. Then the [Taoiseach] of the Republic presents the President with a Waterford glass full of shamrock and the President looks at it as if he could munch it. The whole thing is sickening.

Anyway I refused to go the third time and my phone goes in London. It is Tony Blair. "John, where is David [Trimble]?" he asks. "I have been trying to contact him", because there was a bit of a crisis in Northern Ireland at the time. I couldn't resist saying: "Sorry Prime Minister, but he is with the President in Washington." He replied: "Well the minute he comes back, I want you and he to join me for dinner in Downing Street and come through the back door'."

When David got to the airport, he was met by two of his children, so next day the front page of the Telegraph and the front page of the London Times both had him standing with a child in each arm.

We had the dinner with Tony Blair, we settled the problem and went into a side room for coffee. Then Tony said: "That was a lovely photograph this morning, David. Have you any other children?"

David said: "Yes, two more. I have one starting first-year law at Cambridge and one starting boarding at the Friends School Lisburn." Then Tony Blair looked at me and said: "Oh, and have you any children?" I said: "Yes, Prime Minister, six." And he replied: "I didn't know you were a Catholic."

I laughed and told him most of them were in their thirties. Then I told him: "Prime Minister, we had a late child in life and she is only 13. It is great, because you feel young all over again, and secondly you get babysitters free of charge. I would recommend it."

About nine months later young Leo Blair popped out. So I always wondered if I gave him the idea.

Q. You take a different view from most unionists on the Middle East. You were against the bombing of Syria?

A. We didn't get to vote on it in the Lords, but yes I was. Unionists generally have been pro-Israel because they are against terrorists. I am against terrorists too, and I was very annoyed when David Cameron suggested that anyone who voted against him on all this was a terrorist sympathiser. Having been shot by 10 bullets by terrorists, I resent that.

I believe in supporting things that are going to work, and everyone accepts that bombing alone will not defeat Isis in Syria. You need boots on the ground, and they must not be British or American or Western boots. They must be Arab and Muslim boots.

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