Although theres no doubt of Andrew Mackinlays unionist sympathies, these are not exclusive. You fail to capture the essence of the man if you stereotype him as simply a DUP supporter or anything else. He is in fact that rare animal, a one man awkward squad who genuinely believes in Parliament. And he s that even rarer creature, an English MP with a real interest in our affairs. Regularly, he was one of only two of three Labour backbenchers present in the chamber for Northern Ireland business and you could be sure he wasn’t there only at the behest of the whips. In the days before the restoration of the Assembly, he used to rail to me about the laziness of (named) NI MPs who failed to turn up for duty. He felt he had to fill in for them. Fascinated by the part played by Irish MPs in the past who were even more than a nuisance to government than hes been, he deplored the use as a workman’s dumping ground of a corridor where portraits hang of the old Irish Nationalist party and a bust of their last leader John Redmond is displayed. He liked pointing out this was adjacent to Committee Room 14 where Parnell was finally denounced and more recently Gordon Brown has had to endure almost equally uncomfortable sessions.
I believe it was Mackinlays loathing for so much secret negotiation and the railroading of Northern Ireland business in all those one day Acts during Direct Rule that sparked his interest in our affairs. This was fuelled by his later sense of outrage that abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs seemed to be favoured over NI MPs participating in Parliament including the SDLP. He felt deceived by Blair and never forgave him over Iraq. Hes been a remorseless critic of government secrecy, a constant prober himself, even to the extent of attracting a warning from Downing St that he might have been targeted as a fall guy in the murky struggle between Russian oligarchs and Putins state. A small man physically and perhaps more than a bit chippy, he was always sensitive to the idea of anybody within his range being taken for a ride. That instinct I think goes quite a way to explaining his belligerence towards David Kelly whom he accused of being “chaff” and “a fall guy” at that fatal committee hearing. Mackinlay believed he was supporting Kelly not attacking him. Although shaken by the suicide and the flood of public and private abuse he received, he remains basically unrepentant. Only last week he unsuccessfully tried to have Irish citizens born in the Republic after 1949 recognised as British citizens. He’s been as keen on effective border security as on the common travel area. A continual bee in his bonnet has been the mangement of police officers in NI ports and airports. Never one to duck the hard cases, Mackinlay called for the release of GCHQ files on conversations between alleged Omagh bombers. He also supports the lifting of the constitutional bar on Catholics succeeding to the throne. On his retirement, I believe he intends to spend a lot of time at his (unsubsidised) home in Co Down. I doubt if we’ve heard the last of him.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London