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Lord Laird: NI's youngest MP at 26, campaigner for RUC widows, champion of Ulster-Scots, PR maestro, unionist peer... the life of 'true Ulster liberal'

The former John Laird, who has died aged 74, was anything but a typical unionist politician, forging a successful career in business after leaving frontline politics before serving in the House of Lords for 19 years. Laurence White reports


Lord John Laird

Lord John Laird

Lord John Laird in a 18th century military uniform

Lord John Laird in a 18th century military uniform

Lord Laird with Eileen and Ian Paisley and Ian Kennedy

Lord Laird with Eileen and Ian Paisley and Ian Kennedy

Lord Laird with Orangemen from Royal York LOL145 in Belfast

Lord Laird with Orangemen from Royal York LOL145 in Belfast

Lord Laird with his wife Lady Carol

Lord Laird with his wife Lady Carol

Lord John Laird

Lord Laird, one of the most colourful and, at times, controversial unionist politicians, has died at the age of 74. He passed away in hospital following an illness. John Dunn Laird became Northern Ireland's youngest MP in 1970 at the age of 26 when he won the St Anne's seat at Stormont, which had previously been held by his father Norman, a GP. He died of a heart attack in 1970 and his son found his body.

John Laird was educated at Belfast Royal Academical Institution and went into banking with the TSB rather than go on to university because of his dyslexia.

He was a bright student - "I could beat anyone at chess and could answer all the teachers questions" - but his dyslexia meant he did poorly in examinations.

In a typically tongue-in-cheek comment in his book, A Struggle To Be Heard, and carrying the strapline 'By A True Ulster Liberal', he said: "Those who are dyslexic will continue to increase their influence in society."

Nowhere was his influence more keenly felt than in the Ulster-Scots community in Northern Ireland. He described them as "a section of the Scottish race that was hardened on the anvil of Ulster".

He helped set up the North-South Language Body and the Ulster-Scots Agency, which were formed after the Good Friday Agreement, when the-then Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble argued that Protestant culture should be granted parity with Catholic culture.

John Laird threw himself into the task of promoting all things Ulster-Scots with typical flamboyance and achieved not a little success.

Even his supporters were amazed when Ulster-Scots gained European minority language status and a dictionary of a language few imagined existed was created.

His penchant for dressing up in a kilt when on official Ulster-Scots Agency business was to land him in deep water. He was severely criticised in 2005 for claiming a total of £2,505 for taxis to Dublin and Londonderry while on agency business, but argued that wearing kilts to functions would draw unwelcome attention to him and possible cause a security risk if he took public transport.

He was to resign as head of the agency later that year after its budget was cut by £600,000 and he accused the British and Irish governments of betraying Protestant culture.

He pointed out that Irish language broadcasting had received £12m. "I support that, but where is our slice of the cake?"

John Laird came from a staunchly unionist family and was already chairman of the Young Unionist Council when his father died and he became involved in frontline politics at Stormont.

He was later to recall that he was part of a delegation which went into Long Kesh - later to become the Maze prison - and, to the surprise of many, spoke to several republican prisoners.

It was not the behaviour expected of a unionist MP representing the Sandy Row area of Belfast, but he said he had more in common with those prisoners - even if he disagreed with them politically - than he had with "the Dublin 4 brigade I later met".

But he was only to serve as an MP there for two years before the British government of Ted Heath suspended the Northern Ireland parliament after the-then Northern Ireland prime minister, Brian Faulkner, rejected Westminster demands for power-sharing, an end to internment and security to be controlled from London.

This heralded one of the most divisive periods in Northern Ireland's political history and John Laird was to prove that he was his own man by defying the party whip on by opposing the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974 and later developing links with the Vanguard movement led by former Northern Ireland minister of home affairs William Craig. It was there that he formed a friendship with future Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, the man who was to put him forward for a peerage.

John Laird left politics in 1976 and set up his public relations firm, John Laird Public Relations. Naturally gregarious and a man who liked a drink - it was said he used to carry a glass of orange juice laced with gin at party conferences - the world of public relations suited him well.

In an interview with a newspaper in the Republic, the Sunday Tribune, in 2006, he wryly commented: "It's a bloody good place to get p*ssed. You can't come back from Dublin sober. They're highly sociable down there."

He was later to say that he decided to set up his own business when he lost his MP's salary. His wife was pregnant and he went to the dole office on Belfast's Holywood Road, but found it such a humiliating place that he never signed on.

Ironically, when he founded his PR firm he ran it from a building next door to that dole office. He was a man with a social conscience and he was a strong supporter of a campaign by this newspaper to secure proper pensions for RUC widows. Many widows of officers killed before 1982 - when new benefits were introduced - had been surviving on pensions of as little as £40 a week.

His old friend David Trimble re-emerged into the frontline of unionist politics in 1998, when he helped to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement. He subsequently became First Minister in the power-sharing Executive.

In an attempt to bolster Trimble's position, the Labour government of Tony Blair put three peerages in his gift to ensure additional support at Westminster. One of those was to go to John Laird, who took the title Baron Laird of Artigarvan in Co Tyrone.

When he first took his seat, his coat peg was next to Prince Philip, which delighted him, but later it was changed and placed next to Andrew Lloyd Webber - a move he regarded as being downgraded.

While many would believe that a career in the Lords would be low-key and without controversy, it was to prove the opposite for the new peer.

He used parliamentary privilege to name IRA members he said were responsible for the death of Paul Quinn, a young south Armagh man beaten to death by a gang in a barn across the border.

He also said there were up to 200 IRA moles in positions of influence in the Irish government and more in the media, including the national broadcaster, RTE.

In 2013, he was the target of a sting operation by reporters from BBC Panorama, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, which recorded him offering to lobby in return for cash.

After he referred himself to the House of Lords standards committee, it suspended him for four months, but he was forced to resign the Ulster Unionist Party whip by its then-leader, Mike Nesbitt, who described the undercover recordings between the peer and reporters as "not edifying".

He returned to the Lords in 2014 with a warning from the UUP to rein in his behaviour.

Just last year, he was criticised for claiming almost £50,000 in expenses despite voting only twice in the Lords the previous year. In 2008/09, he had claimed £73,000 in expenses, the largest sum by any peer that year.

He was in poor health at the time, but in typical fashion came out swinging, saying his conscience was clear and that his frail health meant his office was too far away for him to attend every vote.

He referred to the fact that he had had a heart attack some years previously and now suffered from arrhythmia, which left him unable to speak in the chamber.

In an interview with BBC Northern Ireland, he added: "I also suffer from heart failure. When I get up and speak anywhere, I go into a cycle of panic and that gets worse. It is difficult to speak."

Lord Laird said he believed that the amount of times peers vote or speak in Lords is "not a measurement of anything - only of how many times you've actually been there during a vote".

He defended his record of asking the most questions in the Lords consistently over his 18 years in the chamber and also argued that his expenses were inflated because he was in receipt of a disabled allowance for taxis.

But whatever differences he had during his political career with his Ulster Unionist colleagues - he ended up being a cross-bencher in the Lords - many of the power-brokers within the party have been quick off the mark to give voice to their regret at his passing.

Lord Laird is survived by his wife, Carol, whom he married in 1971, and their son, David, and daughter, Alison.

Belfast Telegraph