In memory of Chris Moncrieff: His reflections on Paisley, Molyneaux and Thatcher

Chris Moncrieff, who died last week aged 88, was a veteran political correspondent at Westminster for the Press Association. He continued to write a political column that was published in this newspaper every Monday until a few weeks ago. Here we reproduce some of his key columns over the years, starting with this tribute to Ian Paisley in September 2014.

Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 12:43 am
Updated Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 1:46 am
Chris Moncrieff

So the Big Man of Northern Ireland politics, Dr Ian Paisley, has finally succumbed.

But behind all the fury and the bellowing there lay a kindly man.

More than once after he had vilified his political enemies in the most extreme way, he would come up to me with a smile and a wink and say: “I socked it to them, didn’t I?”

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Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux outside Buckingham Palace in London in 1987. Moncrieff got to know both politicians well as a Westminster editor

I remember once, when I was flying from London to Belfast, the aircraft suddenly became the victim of some pretty violent turbulence.

Everyone went silent, but then we heard this booming voice from the front of the plane, “Oh Lord, thou knowest I still have works to do.”

He was easily the finest rabble-rouser I have come across — and I mean that as a compliment.

He always said he would never “bend the knee” or sit down with the “monsters” who were his bitter enemies, but in old age he tempered his wrath and turned out to be one of the most important figures in the largely successful search for peace in Northern Ireland.

That was shown by the warm tribute paid to him by his once arch enemy, Martin McGuinness.

An extraordinary man — but a good one, too.

• From March 9 2015

Jim Molyneaux, who has died aged 94, was one of the most genial and affable — and yet one of the toughest as well — of all the hundreds of politicians I encountered during some 50 years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries — notably the late Dr Ian Paisley — he was the very antithesis of a rabble-rouser. He was the quiet man of the Unionists at Westminster, yet dogged and firm in his dealings with successive governments whose policies over Northern Ireland he often disagreed with.

Many thought that Molyneaux would be overshadowed by Enoch Powell when the former Tory MP became an Ulster Unionist at Westminster. But that was not the case, and the two men worked together with great harmony.

That was a measure of the strength of character of Molyneaux — a man who always got things done without ever shouting from the rooftops. The unionists — and Northern Ireland generally — have lost a great but often unsung man.

• From June 2019, 25 years after Moncrieff retired as PA political editor, he reflected on his memories of Westminster

I remember Margaret Thatcher once gazing at the immaculate rubbish-free streets of Tel Aviv, comparing them with our own litter-strewn thoroughfares. The moment she returned to England, the then PM set about picking up every bit of litter she could find, to the delight of Fleet Street’s photographers.

I remember once sneaking in to an MPs-only lift in the House of Commons. It stopped at the next floor and, to my dismay, in stepped South Down MP Enoch Powell — possibly the most demonised politician of his generation.

He took a long, hard look at the “This lift is for the use of MPs only” sign and then took an equally long, hard look at me, and commented: “I must have missed the by-election”.

• His last column, published October 22 2019, aged 88

Yikes! Sir Oliver Letwin has thrown a spanner into the works in the seemingly endless confusion over Brexit.

Everybody was expecting that, after the first vote in the Commons on Saturday, the Brexit row would subside and eventually disappear. But Sir Oliver’s amendment to that motion means the battle continues to rage.

This is the last thing, I would imagine, that anyone wanted — Leavers and Remainers alike. But Sir Oliver, who has quit the Conservative Party and now sits as an independent, has underlined that there is nothing simple about Brexit.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been forced to write a letter to the EU authorities explaining the position — but to his credit he sees no point in continuing the row, as one MP has said, to kingdom come.

Let’s hope that common sense will prevail, and that before too long Brexit could be a thing of the past. However, the prospect of that seems remote ...