Belfast Telegraph

Lord Laird 'a gentleman, a real character, a committed unionist, a wind-up merchant, an Orangeman to the core, a fantastic colleague, one of a kind, a great dad and husband'

It was like one of those days when the Ulster Unionist Party was in its pomp. Five peers of the realm, all former big beasts of the party, had gathered in a church in east Belfast for a service of thanksgiving for the life of Lord Laird of Artigarvan.

He may not have achieved the same political profile as Lord Kilclooney (John Taylor), Lord (Ken) Maginnis, Lord (David) Trimble, Lord (Reg) Empey or Lord (Denis) Rogan, yet he was a man who made his mark on society here and in his party in a number of ways.

The current leader of the party, Robin Swann, doubtless wishes it was in the same popular state as when Lord Laird, know to his family and friends as John Dunn Laird, joined in 1970 as the youngest Stormont MP at the age of 26. He took over the St Anne's seat in Belfast from his father Dr Norman Laird, who died suddenly of a heart attack.

Historian Lord Bew, who is chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and Labour peeress Baroness May Blood, formerly an active trade unionist in Northern Ireland, were also among the congregation which filled the church.

Lord Laird came from a home steeped in unionist politics - his mother Margaret was a Belfast councillor.

The service of thanksgiving on Saturday was conducted by the Rev Mervyn Gibson, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Ireland, who had been with Lord Laird on Tuesday last, the day he died.

As the congregation entered the Christian Fellowship Church on Belmont Road, a lone bagpiper, Graham Harris, who runs a Scottish kilt shop in Sandy Row, played a number of laments and hymns and also led Rev Gibson and Lord Laird's family - wife Carol, daughter Alison and son David, to the front of the church. The coffin bearing a large floral tribute was already in place.

After the opening hymn, What A Friend We Have In Jesus, there was a nod to Lord Laird's abiding passion in the Ulster-Scots culture. A leading member of the Ulster-Scots community and friend of Lord Laird, John Erskine, read the 23rd Psalm in the Ulster-Scots dialect. Lord Empey also did a reading as did Alison, who chose the Rudyard Kipling poem, If.

Rev Gibson admitted that giving the address was one of his easiest tasks giving the huge amount of information available about the life of Lord Laird, but also one of the most difficult tasks, because he was "something special and a true friend".

He read some of the virtues used to describe Lord Laird - a gentleman, a real character, a committed unionist, a wind-up merchant, an Orangeman to the core, a great colleague, one of a kind, a great dad and husband were among those listed.

Rev Gibson in his address revealed many nuggets of information about Lord Laird which were hitherto not widely known by the public. Born in April 1944 in Belfast he was the younger of two sons, and is survived by his brother Jimmy who could not be at the service.

The boys grew up on the Somerton Road in north Belfast next door to the Jewish synagogue and spent many childhood days at his mother's home in Artigarvan, a townland three miles outside Strabane, and a place which Lord Laird often described as the greatest place on Earth, and which he used in his title.

Lord Laird met his future wife at a dance in the Floral Hall in north Belfast. Carol was from Fermanagh and a nurse at the Throne Hospital in Newtownabbey. They were married in 1971 in Fermanagh and it was after Stormont was suspended and the couple were expecting their first child that Lord Laird decided to abandon frontline politics and started a public relations agency in the front room of his home.

That proved a huge commercial success and today - he sold it many years ago when it was renamed JComms - it is the longest-surviving public relations agency in Northern Ireland. In many ways Lord Laird is regarded as one of the founding fathers of the industry in the province.

But while Lord Laird was no longer a frontline politician he was regarded as a good sounding board and advisor, and was rewarded with a peerage in 1999.

The Orange Order was another passion of his. He joined in 1966 and became Worshipful Master of his Lodge in 1973. In keeping with his flamboyant character he often dressed up in colourful period costume and was keen, as Rev Gibson said, to show true Orange hospitality in the tent at the Twelfth field.

He also helped to found two Orange Lodges, including one at Westminster.

From childhood he had a deep interest in trams and trains and in adulthood one room of his home was dedicated to model railway layouts with numerous engines and carriages on display.

Lord Laird suffered a heart attack in 2007 and was fitted with an implantable defibrillator. This malfunctioned in 2011 and had to be replaced.

Earlier this year he admitted that ill health was curtailing his duties in the House of Lords - the distance from his office to the chamber meant he was unable to attend as many votes as he would have liked.

His final illness began two weeks before his death when he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast and later transferred to Belfast City Hospital, where he died on July 10.

Rev Gibson admitted that Lord Laird was not a regular churchgoer but he felt that he would have made his peace with the Lord in his own inimitable way.

Lord Laird's funeral was to take place today at Roselawn Crematorium at 10.30am. It was primarily intended as a service for family and close friends.

Ahead of his funeral service today, the family of the late Lord Laird were joined at the weekend by peers and political commentators for a service of thanksgiving that revealed many new nuggets of information about him. Laurence White reports

Belfast Telegraph

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