Lord Laird: Daughter leads tributes to ‘larger than life’ unionist peer

Lord Laird on parade in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. The life peer and former Ulster Unionist has died, aged 74
Lord Laird on parade in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal. The life peer and former Ulster Unionist has died, aged 74

The daughter of Ulster-Scots enthusiast, PR man, and veteran unionist Lord Laird has described him as a “larger than life character” who was brimming with energy.

Alison Donnelly told the News Letter that his family circle were just grateful to have “loved him, and been loved by him”, as tributes flowed in by colleagues in politics and the loyal orders.

The Belfast-based former Ulster Unionist peer died late on Tuesday evening in hospital in the city.

He had been unwell for some time, something connected with a heart attack he had 11 years ago.

His funeral will be this Saturday at the Christian Fellowship Church in east Belfast at 2pm, open to all to attend.

Senior Orangeman Rev Mervyn Gibson will take the service.

Born John Dunn Laird in north Belfast on April 23, 1944, and attended Inchmarlo and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst).

He was dyslexic, and lacked confidence with reading.

However, this did not prevent him from carving out a career for himself, first in politics, then in public relations.

He was elected to the St Anne’s constituency of the Stormont parliament in 1970, after the death of the previous post-holder, his father Norman.

Then he was comfortably elected as an “anti-white paper Ulster Unionist” Assembly candidate for Belfast West with 11,479 votes (compared to 7,743 votes for nearest rival Paddy Devlin of the SDLP).

In 1976, he started a firm called John Laird Public Relations – one of the first PR firms in the country. Today it is called JComms, and is understood to be the oldest firm still going in the Province.

His daughter Alison, 42, said: “We’ve been inundated with lovely words and kind messages from so many people.

“I think the words that have been used the most are probably that he was a larger than life character. He was very well respected by everyone...

“For us as a family, he was a devoted husband, father and papa (a family term for grandad). The thing about my dad was he had so much energy; he was very enthusiastic when something caught his attention.”

His passions included Ulster-Scots heritage, Inst, and railways, she said.

Whilst not a regular church attender, his daughter said he described himself as a ‘New Light’ Presbyterian.

He also supported community groups for children with dyslexia.

She said the family’s overriding feeling is they are “so pleased to have known him, to have loved him, and been loved by him”.

He “looked for the positives in everything” and “always gave everybody the benefit of the doubt”.

He had turned his focus away from political office to build his PR firm, but in 1999 was appointed to the House of Lords.

He was suspended from the Lords for four months in 2013 after telling undercover reporters that he could circumvent rules on declaring interests.

He denied wrongdoing, but resigned from the UUP. He continued to serve as a non-affiliated lord.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland said he was a founder and active member of Boyne Obelisk Lodge LOL 1690, and the Houses of Parliament lodge at Westminster, and belonged to Royal York LOL 145.

Grand Master Edward Stevenson said: “As well as an articulate advocate for unionism and Ulster-Scots, Lord Laird was also a proud Orangeman.

“As a parliamentarian, he lobbied on behalf of the Institution and would always have sought to defend and uphold the ideals of Orangeism.

“Spectators at the Belfast Twelfth became accustomed to John in period costume, interacting with the crowds in his own distinctive way. He was a unique character, who will be sadly missed.”

UUP leader Robin Swann said he had “cared deeply for Northern Ireland” whilst Ulster Unionist peer Lord Rogan, who said Lord Laird had been his best man at his wedding, described him as “a great stalwart for Northern Ireland”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “The news of his death will be felt across unionism and the Ulster-Scots community, of which he was a strong advocate. It is very poignant that he should pass away at this time of year and I am very sorry to hear of his passing.”

His mother Margaret was from Co Tyrone, which was why he took on the title of Lord Laird of Artigarvan upon becoming a peer.

In addition to his other roles, he had also been a visiting professor of public relations at the University of Ulster.

He is also survived by widow Carol, son David, and grand-daughter Ellie Mae Donnelly.

He will be cremated after Saturday’s service.