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Obituary: Sir John Gorman's remarkable life on the home front and abroad

By David McKittrick

At several points in his long life, Sir John Gorman, who has died aged 91, found himself in the thick of things, ranging from confronting the German army as a tank commander and working with British intelligence against the IRA in the 1950s.

At other points he was immersed in less hazardous, but still challenging roles in Belfast politics and, during the 1980s, housing at a time it was particularly fraught with sectarian sensitivities.

Politically, what set him apart was the fact that he was a practising Catholic who represented the Ulster Unionist party in the Belfast Assembly.

As deputy speaker, he won praise from all sides though some felt he might have been sterner with the more unruly Assembly members.

One admirer spoke of his “qualities of honour and honesty and old-world charm and courtliness,” with Sinn Fein commending his “sense of duty, dignity and balance”.

He was born in 1923, the son of the Royal Irish Constabulary officer who ceremonially handed over the RIC depot in Dublin to Michael Collins.

Sir John wrote in his memoirs: “My father rode across the square to meet him, dismounted and symbolically handed over the key of this bastion of Britain in Ireland.”

His father was a lapsed Catholic, while his mother was a devout Catholic from a unionist family in Cork. Sir John himself was educated mainly at non-Catholic establishments, including Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Sandhurst, Glasgow University and Harvard Business School.

It was as a youthful Irish Guards tank commander in Normandy during the Second World War that he distinguished himself. His vehicle encountered a massive German Super-Tiger tank and, hopelessly outgunned, resorted to disabling it by ramming it at speed.

The German commander's head, Sir John recalled, “emerged from the turret — he must have been totally bemused by what was happening to his impregnable monster”.

He was awarded the Military Cross and later the French Croix de Guerre for the action, which after the war was depicted in The Victor comic for boys.

Post-war, Sir John spent 14 years with the RUC before going on to hold posts in BOAC, which became British Airways, and later the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

In his memoirs, he described his experiences during the IRA's 1950s campaign, when he co-operated closely with gardai, he wrote, in drawing up lists of candidates to be interned.

He also worked closely with both MI5 and MI6, recalling that he travelled all over the Republic, “My English accent and a fly-rod, or a shotgun in its case, gave me quite a convincing alias, as a visiting Englishman, to meet MI6 contacts”.

He wrote of an informer within the IRA who took him and another RUC officer to a large chamber concealed underneath St Patrick's Cathedral in Armagh. “Here were bunk-beds, papers of all sorts and some bomb-making equipment — fuse wire, detonators and primers,” he recalled.

At first the cache was left in place under the cathedral, where the Gorman family worshipped. He remembered: “It was an eerie experience to attend mass every Sunday with our two elder children, knowing that below us was a chamber which by now might be filled with explosives.”

After a suspicious incident, Sir John contacted the-then Cardinal of All Ireland, Cardinal D'Alton, whom he said he respected. He wrote: “I phoned His Eminence who was at breakfast and said I wanted to see him urgently. Cardinal D'Alton did not hesitate. He said. ‘There will be outcries now about the RUC violating the sanctuary of my cathedral, that the church should give harbour to fleeing freedom fighters.

“As far as I am concerned, the hand of God has prevented murder in the cathedral today. Please arrange for me to go on the media at once deprecating this dreadful act.'“

In later life, Sir John received a knighthood, a CBE and other honours. Within unionism, he disapproved of the UUP's links with the Orange Order.

Although he counted the Rev Ian Paisley as a friend, he regarded David Trimble as Northern Ireland's most outstanding political leader.

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