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Legendary journalist and friend of unionists who predicted collapse of Northern Ireland power-sharing

Thirty years after Thomas Edwin Utley's death, his daughter Catherine tells Laurence White about his dedication to the cause of moderate unionism, why he stood for election against the Rev Ian Paisley and how he'd file copy for the Daily Telegraph from a Co Down phone box

Thirty years ago this week, the death occurred of one of the most remarkable journalists of the modern era. Thomas Edwin Utley, universally known as Peter, was blind from childhood yet won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a starred double first in history, became a firm friend of Margaret Thatcher and was described as "the truest Tory".

He was also passionate about the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and felt that the unionist cause, especially as espoused by moderate unionists, was gravely let down by successive Westminster governments. He even stood unsuccessfully against the Rev Ian Paisley in a Westminster election as the Ulster Workers Council strike was brewing.

He was an unmistakable figure with his black eye-patch and was nearly always accompanied by his devoted wife, Brigid, who took him to party conferences, political assignments, including reporting from Stormont, and picked him up from his office in Fleet Street every evening.

The couple had four children, Charles, Tom, Catherine and Virginia, and this week Catherine recalled a poignant memory of the day he died, June 21, 1988, at the age of 67.

"I was flying from Belfast to Heathrow, having been told that my father was gravely ill, and sitting beside me was a stranger, a Northern Irish businessman. Seeing me upset he asked if I was okay and I replied that it was just hay fever. But then he noticed me sobbing.

"In that gentle, sensitive way that I love about people in Northern Ireland, he managed to get more information from me. He knew I was English and wondered about my connection to Northern Ireland. I told him I worked for the BBC here, that we had been taking holidays as a family here for many years and that my father was a journalist who wrote about Northern Ireland.

"He asked his name, and his face lit up. He had been reading my father's articles in the Daily Telegraph for years. His latest column, he said, displayed to perfection the depth of his unique understanding of the problems of Northern Ireland and the remedies required.

"He realised, greatly shocked and saddened, that the deathbed I was visiting was that of his hero. He went quiet."

As they were leaving the airport, the man pressed some money on her in case she wanted to take a taxi and asked her: "When you get to the hospital, I want you to tell your father that you met a man on the plane who asked you to tell him that he is the greatest friend Ulster ever had."

Peter Utley's love of Northern Ireland began in the mid-Sixties when he and his wife first came to the province as the civil rights movement was beginning and attracting the attention of British media. Later, they were to holiday frequently in a cottage on the Castle Ward estate near Strangford, Co Down.

Catherine recalls: "As the youngest in the family, I first came here in 1972. My friends and their parents were very reluctant to accompany me as they thought the place was far too dangerous.

"However, my dad and mother loved the place, and his great joy was meeting influential people and learning about Northern Ireland from them. I remember great house parties attended by army officers, senior police officers, politicians and journalists. It was a great social life."

But, as Peter's son, Tom, a journalist with the Daily Mail was later to recall, the friendships forged in those days were to pay an unusual dividend at a time of need. The family were on holiday at Castle Ward when Mrs Utley had to fly back to London hurriedly after her father suffered a heart attack.

That left the family in a dilemma. They were booked to return to England on the ferry the next night. Tom, then aged 21, was the only one able to drive, but he had no driving licence.

His dad telephoned a prominent minister at Stormont, explained the predicament and wondered if a rushed driving test could be arranged. The minister later phoned back. The bad news was the waiting list for a test was weeks long but, as a special favour, he had arranged one for Tom the next morning. He also hinted broadly that he was certain the young man would pass, which he did.

In later years, Tom, who believed he was a good driver anyway, often wondered if he actually passed the test on his own merits.

There were funny moments too during those Strangford stays, as Catherine says: "In those days Mum used to type out his editorials and commentaries for the Daily Telegraph on an old battered typewriter, and he would bring some of us children with him to an old red telephone box in Strangford - it is still there - and get us to dictate the copy over to secretaries at the newspaper.

"He smoked like a train and we would all be crammed into the telephone box with him smoking away."

She says her father was regarded as something of a saviour in certain unionist circles, someone who could further their cause.

"As far as I can remember, in those days the perception in England was that all unionists were like Ian Paisley, loud and unyielding. There was little sympathy for the unionist position among the English middle-class, and my father was very keen to get that position better known and understood."

In the Westminster election of February 1974, he stood against Paisley, gaining 13,651 votes to the DUP leader's 41,282. It was quite a remarkable result for a man not widely known to the general population.

Peter Utley was a devout Anglican who went to church every Sunday, but his wife, Brigid, was an equally devout Catholic. The children, as was the rule in those days, were brought up in the Catholic faith without any protest from him - and on the hustings there were some suspicions raised about this candidate with the "Papish" wife, Catherine recalls.

It is a measure of his impact in Northern Ireland that on his death, every political party here bar Sinn Fein sent a representative to his funeral, which was also attended by the GOC and Chief Constable of the day, Sir John Hermon.

Peter Utley was actually born Thomas Edwin Cooper but was adopted and brought up by his maternal aunts, who were called Utley, as his mother was in poor health. She was later to die of tuberculosis. His eyesight was never good and continued to deteriorate until the age of nine when he became totally blind.

His aunts recognised that he was a precocious boy and decided they would try to improve every faculty he had that was not affected by blindness.

He was tutored at home, and the young boy became a very conscientious pupil, leading to his later academic success.

Catherine says: "My father had learned Braille before he went blind, but there were relatively few books in that format, and at Cambridge he depended on people reading aloud to him. That is how he continued throughout his life.

"Every morning my mother would read the newspapers to him at the breakfast table, and in the office his secretaries would do the reading."

She laughs as she recalls how her father always maintained that he could tell how beautiful a woman was by her voice. He was to prove it time after time. Colleagues, as well as family, used to remark on how stunning looking his secretaries were.

One person whose voice he fell in love with was former BBC broadcaster and now novelist, Roisin McAuley. Catherine explains: "At home in London, from the Sixties onwards, my father would listen to Radio Ulster on his little transistor radio, and one of the voices he loved to hear was Roisin's. In the early Seventies, the Northern Ireland Office arranged a trip for him to the province and asked who he would like to meet. One of them was Roisin, so she was summoned. We are friends to this day."

Catherine also recalls a conversation her mother had with Denis Thatcher at a dinner party in Number 10.

"When my mother met my father, he was blind and obviously never saw what she looked like. She was a very beautiful woman, but throughout her life dad was never to tell her how much he admired her looks or what she was wearing as, obviously, he couldn't see her. But many others used to compliment her.

"At the dinner party, Denis realised that my father had been blind before he and mum married in 1951. As she waited for the expected compliment, Denis said, 'It is the most remarkable thing that in all these years Peter has never seen … Margaret'.

"Mum felt deflated but realised at that moment how obsessed Denis was with his wife."

Peter Utley had a distinguished journalistic career. He was a leader writer on The Times during the Second World War, then worked on the Observer and Sunday Times. He went on to be assistant editor at The Spectator, and leader writer, columnist and chief assistant editor on the Daily Telegraph, before ending his career back at The Times.

Colleagues remembered him as smoking heavily, drinking nearly a bottle of whisky a day, and holding court in the King and Keys pub next to the Daily Telegraph offices in Fleet Street.

Young aspiring journalists often sought him out, and he was unfailing in his encouragement for them to join the trade.

But as Catherine remembers, it certainly wasn't a highly remunerated trade for much of her father's life. "Journalists, no matter how distinguished, were often not very well paid. Dad had to pay for a secretary out of his own pocket, and that continued until he reached a certain status in the newspapers he worked on.

"Mum had her work cut out for her. She was married to a blind man, had hardly any money and had four young children to bring up. Yet she managed to put three of us through private education. I missed out as the youngest because by then all the money was gone.

"Both of them were constantly entertaining and there would be fabulous food and loads of drink. It was always chaotic as Mum was always juggling things. My dad's life and achievements were actually a great tribute to her.

"They were a devoted couple and would have occupied the same room as each other for large parts of their lives. She went everywhere with him and put out his clothes each morning and cut up his food for him. In retrospect she must have had quite a tough time, but she loved all the political gossip and the parties. She and Dad were frequent visitors to Number 10 during Margaret Thatcher's time in office."

Peter Utley was a speech writer for Mrs Thatcher, and she described him as "the most distinguished Conservative thinker of our time".

His death was sudden. He had cancer and was receiving treatment for it. It was only 48 hours before his death that he took gravely ill very quickly.

His funeral took place in a little Anglican church at the foot of the street where he had lived. Margaret Thatcher, his son Tom recalls, arrived an hour before the ceremony was due to begin and sat alone near the front. She told the vicar that she did not want to arrive when the rest of the congregation was there and possibly upstage the widow.

On the night he died, she had penned in her own hand a long and touching letter to Mrs Utley from Canada, where she was attending an international conference. She was later to read a lesson at his memorial service.

Catherine says: "He wrote many speeches for her and she used to pore over them endlessly and require several drafts. That used to drive Dad mad. But at the same time she regarded him as the intellectual prop that she needed."

During his time reporting on Northern Ireland, he frequently wrote about the repeated attempts to form a power-sharing administration. His words, Catherine says, were prophetic.

"He outlined how the various power-sharing initiatives had failed to work and argued that they would never work.

"He also argued that the failure of successive British administrations to support moderate unionism would result in the extremes of nationalism and unionism coming to the fore.

"It is astonishing that 30 years after his death, those words have come true. Once again, we have no administration."

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