New Zealand diplomat visits Ulster birthplace of ex-premier

Mr David Twigg, Ulster New Zealand Trust, gives a guided tour to the New Zealand High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith and Lisburn City Council Mayor, Councillor Margaret Tolerton.
Mr David Twigg, Ulster New Zealand Trust, gives a guided tour to the New Zealand High Commissioner, Sir Lockwood Smith and Lisburn City Council Mayor, Councillor Margaret Tolerton.

A top-ranking New Zealand diplomat has paid a visit to the Ulster birthplace of one of his country’s bygone leaders – and brought with him a “uniquely valuable” artefact.

Sir Lockwood Smith, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, was treated to a tour of the former home of John Ballance – one of his country’s key statesmen, who was born in a small farmer’s cottage at Glenavy, Co Antrim.

The site is now a museum called Ballance House; the former Ballance family home, built next to the now-demolished cottage.

Sir Lockwood had made the trip at the invitation of Ulster New Zealand Trust, which aims to highlight the powerful connections between the two countries (see story on top right of page).

And, during yesterday’s visit to the site, the High Commissioner brought with him a Maori dictionary, well over a century old, which had been used by Ballance during his time as New Zealand’s premier.

It is, said trust chairman David Twigg, the most significant artefact they have in their possession.

The dictionary came to light about 18 months ago, and was handed to the New Zealand government by a benefactor – although Mr Twigg said they did not know who.

“It’s a beautiful bound Victorian volume,” he said. “And we’re absolutely delighted it’s been presented to us.

“How you put a monetary value on something like that I don’t know. (But) it’s historic value is absolutely unique.”

Asked if it was the most important such object which they now hold, he agreed that it was.

The whole event was an annual commemoration which the trust hosts for the Treaty of Waitangi – a British colonial document signed in February 1840, “delineating the areas of New Zealand where the Maori people would live and where the settlers would live”, according to Mr Twigg.

It is effectively seen as the founding document of New Zealand, he added.

During yesterday’s festivities at Ballance House, the High Commissioner was treated to a customary Haka dance by three Maori school students, who are currently on a year-long exchange in a school in Dungannon.

A bilingual man himself, Sir Lockwood also sang the New Zealand national anthem in both English and Maori.

Asked what he had made of his trip to the ancestral abode of one of his nation’s former heads, Mr Twigg, 78, said: “I think he truly enjoyed it.

“He seemed absolutely at home, and was delighted to meet the three Maori boys. It went extremely well.”

Sir Lockwood is based in London, and the former agriculture minister was also yesterday giving a speech about food and farming at Queen’s University Belfast.

John Ballance was New Zealand premier between 1891 and 1893.

But he was born the son of a tenant farmer in 1839 in a cottage a few miles from the eastern edge of Lough Neagh.

He left school at 14, and four years later he sailed to England – then later onwards to New Zealand.

It was there he founded a newspaper, the Evening (later Wanganui) Herald, before entering parliament in 1875.

He rose to the premiership, which he held until his death in April 1893.

He passed away several months before a change in the law which he had backed made New Zealand the world’s first country to grant female suffrage.

But he was far from the only notable Ulster connection with New Zealand.

Mr Twigg said other big names include George Vesey Stewart and James Dilworth.

According to a New Zealand government encyclopedia article, Tyrone-born Stewart’s “ardent visionary nature and his ambition led him to plan a settlement of Ulster gentry and tenant farmers, of which he would be patriarchal head” – inviting Orange Lodge members in particular to join him in New Zealand.

The same source records Dilworth as a highly successful businessman, born in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone.

He had worked in banking and property, and founded Dilworth boarding school.