A political giant who was unafraid to argue his case

Enoch Powell
Enoch Powell

One hundred years after the birth of political maverick Enoch Powell, ALEX KANE remembers an oratorical genius

It was a dazzling, almost hypnotic performance. He had them in his palm from start to finish, his slow, precise, slightly sinister voice echoing around the room: sometimes lowering to almost a whisper as he pursued a particular point and then rising to a whinny as he nailed it finally into place.

This was a startling change of style for an audience used to the platitudinous drone of their Stormont MPs and local Orange leaders. And they loved it, rewarding him with a long and very loud ovation.

Yet the most extraordinary aspect of the speech — and I read the complete script afterwards — was that it demolished the arguments for a return of a majority-rule Parliament (and this was only about six months after Stormont had been prorogued) and made the case for Northern Ireland’s complete integration into the UK body politic.

It was a very bold speech to make to an Ulster Unionist audience at that time, many of whom would have taken part in the parades and protests opposing prorogation.

Only a truly great speaker could earn applause by telling an audience what it didn’t really want to hear. Only a truly great politician would dare challenge the certainties of his audience in the first place.

I didn’t see him again until September 1979, five years after he had become the Ulster Unionist MP for South Down. The association had been looking for an organiser and agent and I had been chosen for the job.

While the public image of Powell was of an austere, insular, brilliant, difficult, controversial political maverick, prone to pushing logic beyond the point of common sense and practicality, in private he was very different.

He adored and was adored by his wife and two daughters. He loved the Marx Brothers and Jacques Tati. He had a house in Loughbrickland, which I lived in and looked after and to which he came every other weekend.

He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of south Down and insisted on sharing that knowledge as I drove him around!

He probed every view and belief I had. He had a mischievous sense of humour and I still remember him drilling me with questions about why the men in Dallas (the programme) always wore their hats inside the house and how they never had difficulty driving after downing never ending glasses of bourbon. He was also the scariest, fastest driver I have ever known. He was a hugely entertaining man.

He was born on June 16, 1912, barely two months after the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill and three months before the signing of the Ulster Covenant and he liked to remind local audiences of that fact.

But what of his influence on unionism? He was of the view that the only way to undermine the IRA was for Northern Ireland to become an integral part of the United Kingdom, governed in precisely the same way as the other constituent parts; believing that the ambiguity surrounding the Province’s status encouraged terrorists to hope that it could be detached.

He regarded terrorism as a form of warfare that could not be prevented by laws and punishments but by the aggressor’s certainty that the war was impossible to win: “Every word or act which holds out the prospect that our unity with the rest of the United Kingdom might be negotiable is itself, consciously or unconsciously, a contributory cause to the continuation of violence in Northern Ireland.”

While there may have been logic at the heart of that argument (and this was a time when many unionists believed that London was looking for an exit strategy) it ignored the reality that integration would also deprive constitutional nationalists of the opportunity to promote their own agenda to any great effect.

And it also ran contrary to the stated position of the Government (supported by the other main parties at Westminster) that there would have to be an “Irish dimension” to any new political arrangements. Mind you, he also believed that power-sharing was a negation of democracy.

Yet Powell’s argument had enormous influence upon the UUP leader James Molyneaux in particular, as well as a significant section of the party. Indeed, it led to a fairly constant tussle between the integrationist and devolutionist wings of the party, with many (and not just in the UUP) believing that he was a malign influence on unionism because of his anti-devolutionary stance.

Put bluntly, they weren’t willing to put their trust in Westminster alone: which was, ironically, an opinion mirrored by nationalists too. Some critics also believe that it was Powell’s influence which led to the “inertia of the Molyneaux era”.

When he was persuaded to stand for the UUP (having deserted the Conservatives in early 1974) he was at the height of his popularity across Great Britain and key figures in the leadership of the party believed that the scale of that popularity would be of benefit.

But for all of the fact that millions supported him on immigration and the EEC (as it was still known) they didn’t share his interest in Northern Ireland.

The same was true of the Conservative Party. His influence within it shrank when he encouraged voters to back Labour in the February 1974 election and many who would have agreed with him on major issues never fully trusted him again: which partly explains why there was such a limited rebellion over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

He also developed something of an obsession with what he believed was American influence over British policy towards Northern Ireland; caused, in part, by his possession of a State Department Policy Statement (albeit from August 1950) that argued that “it is desirable that Ireland should be integrated into the defence planning of the North Atlantic area, for its strategic position and present lack of defensive capacity are matters of significance”. He went as far as claiming that the CIA was responsible for the deaths of Lord Mountbatten, Airey Neave and Robert Bradford.

Viewed from a distance it now seems to me that Powell’s influence within Westminster and in UK politics generally was diminished by the fact that he cut an increasingly isolated, seemingly paranoid figure when he left the mainstream.

He increasingly saw the world in black and white, believing that grey was mere illogic. But it was his close friend Iain Macleod who said: “You always had to get off the train of Enoch’s logic before it hit the buffers.”

I’m not sure what overall benefits he brought for unionism in Northern Ireland, although he was instrumental in securing extra Parliamentary seats.

Oddly enough, for someone who promoted the benefits of integration he did very little in the way of promoting the pro-Union argument to Roman Catholics and he was pretty hostile to the idea of either the Conservatives or Labour organising here.

Strangely, though, none of that matters now. He was a one-off, a genuine gold-plated political giant; utterly unafraid to argue his case and equally unafraid of any criticism that followed. It was a privilege to have known him and to have shared so many happy times with him.

See Morning View, page 22

Read Alex Kane’s column in the News Letter every Monday