Belfast Telegraph

Downfall of philandering unionist MP, as told by his son

A fascinating new book on the Co Down politician, prominent Orangeman and prolific philanderer, is penned by his son Willie who charts his father's life of lies and reveals his own, often chaotic upbringing

Willie Orr, son of Captain Lawrence Orr, became a shepherd in later life
Willie Orr, son of Captain Lawrence Orr, became a shepherd in later life
Captain Lawrence Orr in his Orange Order regalia
Captain Lawrence Orr during his army days
Captain Lawrence Orr during his army days

By Laurence White

In September 1974, when Enoch Powell was making his final play to re-enter politics as an Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, an even greater drama was being played out across the Irish Sea by the incumbent MP, Captain Lawrence Orr.

Captain Orr was a well-respected figure in the constituency, having previously lived in the area. The father-of-five was a high-ranking Orangeman, leader of the Ulster Unionists at Westminster and a staunch critic of any attempts by the government to interfere in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

But, unknown to most of his electorate, he was a prolific philanderer and, in 1974, as the selection committee prepared to choose who would run for the party at the next election, his world came crashing down around him.

His fall from grace is told in a new book, The Shepherd and the Morning Star, by his eldest son, Willie, who has lived in Scotland for many years.

In what is essentially a double biography, Willie relates the often chaotic life of his family as he was growing up, including a courageously candid account of his father's life of lies as well as his own life which veered wildly, from being enamoured by acting life to becoming a shepherd and then a teacher with special emphasis on helping young men who had been ostracised by mainstream education.

Willie was born in 1940 in Bangor, Co Down, to Captain Lawrence Percy Story Orr, known to his family as PB (Poor Billy) and his wife, Jean. Captain Orr was almost immediately posted to Dunbar in Scotland and he was rarely home in the next five years.

Willie remembers: "When he went into politics, he disappeared again. I didn't really know him as a person. When I went to see him shortly before he died, the one thing I remember from that visit was when he said, 'We never talked'. That was really a sign of regret on his part. We had lived parallel lives."

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Captain Orr's life as a scion of the Ulster Unionist Establishment - at least until his fall from grace - was in stark contrast from his life pre-Second World War, as Willie recounts.

"When I set out to write the biography, it was an exploration into trying to discover how a young man who was very much into the Celtic Revival movement, and who was seen around Dublin in a green velvet jacket and yellow cravat and was regarded as something of an intellectual and a dreamer as well as a playwright and poet, could return after the war as a Right-wing politician.

"There was a sense of tragedy in his life as well, and I am not sure that I came to any conclusion about my father at the end of it all."

Captain Orr was a man who liked the high life. As an officer of the elite Life Guards regiment, he mixed with, among others, politicians, and Willie believes that is where his own political ambitions began - starting off as an election agent in Dromore.

His wife's family was wealthy and during the war subsidised Captain Orr's mess bills. It was a gesture not reciprocated some years later when his wife's finances spiralled out of control and he placed an advertisement in the local Press saying he was not responsible for her debts.

It was around this time Captain Orr and his wife were later to come to an understanding about their almost separate lives. He lived in England, she in Northern Ireland, at one time starting a commune in the North West to treat the children of well-to-do families who were feeling stressed out.

At one stage, when Willie went to visit his father in London, Captain Orr declined to come to the door, instead shoving a 10 shilling note through the letterbox and telling him to find other accommodation for the night. The reason was obvious: the MP was living with his PA at the time.

But it was a phonecall from another woman which proved Captain Orr's final downfall. She rang Willie asking him where his father was.

When he said he had not seen him for some time, she became distraught. She was standing at the altar, with several distinguished guests, waiting to be married. When Willie informed her that was impossible as his father and mother were still married - it was two years later that Captain Orr got divorced - it was the beginning of the end of his political career.

Quite how he had allowed things to get to the point of ditching a woman at the altar is not clear, but it was certainly an unlikely relationship for at least three reasons. He had bought her - Julia - an engagement ring costing more than £2,000, but he did not have the money. Secondly, he was still married and, thirdly, Julia was a Catholic, hardly the expected spouse of a man who was the head of the Orange Order in England and who had revived the House of Commons Loyal Orange Lodge, which had been founded by Edward Carson and Lord Craigavon.

Understandably, Captain Orr had fled and could not be found, causing widespread consternation. Julia naturally was keen to find him, but so too were the members of the re-selection committee in South Down, where Enoch Powell had been making serious overtures to be considered as candidate.

The BBC even ran a story about the missing MP which flushed him out. He phoned Willie to say he was fine and shortly afterwards tended his resignation to the Ulster Unionist Party. Broke and disgraced, he took a job as a receptionist in a London hotel.

Fate was to bring him and Julia back together again after she was involved in a serious car accident in which her five-year-old daughter was killed. He got in touch with her and eventually moved in with her, spending the rest of his life with her.

When Willie last saw him in Swindon he was a small, frail man who slept much of the time. As Willie was leaving he raised his hand in farewell.

According to his son, he died, appropriately, on the Twelfth in 1990 although other sources put it at the previous day.

Captain Orr was buried in a small English village although many of his relatives - the Storys - had their last resting place in Carnlough on the Co Antrim coast.

One of his relatives married a rector, Richard Bannon, who took charge of the local parish. He found that the local Catholic parish priest had become something of a recluse and decided to help out by visiting his parishioners as well as his own. On the rector's retirement the village threw two parties for him, one in his own church hall and one in the Catholic hall.

Now aged 79, Willie has a somewhat ambivalent attitude to this late father. He admits he hardly knew him but loved his wit and charm.

His politics are anathema to Willie, who is a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party and is strongly opposed to Brexit. Captain Orr had equally strongly opposed membership of the EU.

Willie says: "Brexit is the greatest mistake that has been made from every point of view. It is very much an English decision, with Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU. It is an English decision which is being forced upon us.

"I do hope it goes back to a public vote and included in the ballot paper will be the choice to remain. But who knows what will happen."

His father's support of the B-Specials he regards as "unforgivable" and his association with the Orange Order as "distasteful".

Like his father, Willie as a young man in his late teens was enchanted by the theatre and spent some years touring in the Republic with a travelling theatre company. It was reminiscent of the time when his father and mother first met and they had hired a gypsy caravan and spent an idyllic period in the west of the country.

However, Willie was to experience one of the darkest periods of his life during this time. He shared accommodation with another actor and both "were dizzy with drink". The homosexual relationship that happened that night left him the next morning walking to a bridge over the Liffey, wanting to "quench the furnace" in his head, but "cowardice" stopped him jumping.

"It was a very dark time altogether and certainly contributed to the mental health problems I subsequently suffered. There were all kinds of relationships within the theatre at that time which were quite unconventional."

Those problems were to lead him to Iona - the island long associated with Christianity, although Willie says "many members of the established Churches would be horrified by any suggestion of my association with their faith" - and to a meeting which would change his life.

"I was still working in the theatre at the time and had really lost the plot. I was leading a very wild life, doing everything it was possible to do and that was why I had what was described as a nervous breakdown.

"I had written to the head of the community on Iona, but he said they had no room, but I went anyway and I am forever grateful that that man spent two nights talking to me and weaning me off the psychiatric drugs which I was taking at the time".

Iona was also where he met his wife, Jan. She had first come to his attention on the island when a young man ran amok with a knife. She persuaded him to meet the police and accompanied him down to the ferry where the constabulary were waiting.

That meeting was to herald another extraordinary chapter in his life - as a shepherd.

"It was an itinerant life.

"We are sort of vagrants", he says, only half joking.

Most of the time was spent in the west of Scotland, often in remote locations, looking after the flocks of the big landowners.

It was a life Willie loved and which he says he would have continued with all his working life but for an accident which badly injured one of his legs.

Indeed, it was so badly mangled that the surgeon was contemplating amputating it until he saw Willie's occupation and managed to patch it altogether again with plates and screws.

"Shepherding was the best time of my life. I would not have changed it except for the accident - a collision with a lorry - but then I would not have gone to university and got involved in academic life."

Having become a teacher, he and his wife spent several years fostering young men on the edge of criminality and who felt disowned by society. This work was later to evolve into a project in secondary school designed to help them and which continued until his retirement.

"This had evolved from the Borstal camp on Iona and from my own experiences of life which meant that I was able to understand where a lot of these young people were coming from."

Willie also displays a wry sense of humour in describing some of the events in his life. Once, when living in a remote shepherd's cottage, a Muslim travelling salesman was marooned with the family due to heavy snow.

Each morning, Willie trudged through the drifts to a local stream to fill a baby bath with water, but was astonished at how quickly it seemed to disappear - until he realised his visitor was washing twice a day as required by his religion in the home of an "infidel".

On another occasion, Willie was travelling to London but had no money for a train ticket so when the conductor was due to arrive at his carriage he climbed onto the roof. Inevitably, he was arrested at the next station.

When out climbing with a friend they had a novel way of discouraging a visitor who came to their tent. A cat had kittens and they placed one between two slices of bread. The visitor was only too keen to keep walking when he saw the little animal's tail wagging in the sandwich. (It was unharmed by its experience.)

He admits writing the book was difficult in some respects.

"You have to have a degree of honesty about the work otherwise it becomes bland but you also have to be as kind as possible to the person you are writing about, and that includes yourself."

Does he feel Scottish or Irish? "I think of myself as Irish.

"I can only answer that by saying that if Scotland is playing Ireland at rugby I support Ireland.

"However, I am really torn between the two."

The Shepherd and the Morning Star by Willie Orr is published by Birlinn, priced £9.99

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