Enoch Powell at 100: trust in parliament, not Paisley, he told unionists

I hope Mick forgives me for not burying my brief precious memoir of Enoch Powell in a comment below. I had quite a bit to do with Powell in the late 70s and again in the early 80s. His belief in the supremacy of Parliament had a mystical quality. For as long as Northern Ireland elected members to Westminster the Union was secure. No one would dare remove them against their will. Constitutional observance secures the Union. By implication therefore he was no traditional post 1922 Ulster Unionist but the sort of Unionist Carson would like to have been had circumstances permitted. In his view there was no existential threat to the Union (and in that, despite all sorts of manoeuvres and aspirations, I think he was right).

Paisley’s provocations and paramilitary flirtations were therefore anathema. Powell also came to despise the devolutionists in his own party, leaving poor old Jim Molyneaux, at heart an integrationist himself in a mainly devolutionist party, to hold the ring.  In 1977, after the collapse of the Paisley supported Action Council strike following which Paisley was unsuccessfully prosecuted, I did an interview for Newsnight saying that unlike the  UWC strike of 1974, this time loyalists did not have a target to tear down and could only rely on Parliament  to maintain their position. As I came off air, someone said to me: “Enoch Powell on the phone for you”. I groaned, fearing some kind of intellectual rocket; you never know if he would blow hot or cold. “Well done absolutely right,” he said. I admit I was relieved.

I had gone by the time of the 1985 Anglo Irish agreement when Powell’s faith in Parliament was put under severe test and he bitterly accused his partial protégé Margaret Thatcher of betrayal. She was later to recant over this as over other things. The Agreement – or the general unionist view of it which was in my view exaggerated  – signalled the beginning of the end for the Molyneaux/Powell trust in Parliament, although they had nothing to put in its place until Trimble’s surprising demarche a decade later.

Powell was a man of surprising parts. He proudly displayed the row of carpenter’s tools from which  he had made some of the furniture in his  little Loughbrickland cottage. And he could regale you with the history and topography of south Down as well as any local antiquarian.

There’s little doubt in my mind that he came to exult in perversity  to demonstrate  his sheer capacity as a politician to come back from near death experiences – at least after he had given up the hope of high office in the 1970s. The rivers of blood speech in 1968 was bound to be described as racist with its use of  the term piccaninnis  for children and his mordant view of black and Asian customs and culture. His ability to speak fluent Urdu was no excuse. But racism was  a sloppy intellectual category he despised.

Politically  the speech was probably a loner’s gamble at an  18th century  style coup inside the Conservative party. Paradoxically it delivered for him for a time the reputation of a demagogue in England which more than rivalled Paisley’s in Northern Ireland. At the same time he will have known it excluded him from power forever. He had served in cabinet for less than two years, as minister of Health His self image as a prophet might well have been more widely accepted had he simply used less apocalyptical language. But without it, he might never have touched a national nerve.

Powell never quite denounced devolution as such. Here perhaps the prophet trimmed out of regard  for Molyneaux whose position would have been made impossible had he done so.

I often told school teachers of whatever persuasion to take their senior pupils just to hear him speak and ask him a question. I myself went along to hear what I thought would be his last speech in south Down in 1987 . If memory is correct, it was in Shrigley Orange Hall just prior to the general election. It also served as the local pigeon fanciers club. The cooing of the pigeons provided the chorus for Enoch’s reedy tones. Defending a majority of 1800 he was likely to lose in the redrawn constituency when every vote counted, what was the subject he treated his solid Unionist audience to?    A fierce denunciation of an attempt to restore the death penalty which had been defeated three years previously . He was perverse to the end.

More on Enoch Powell is in a new book of essays on Enoch reviewed by Charles Moore the very pro UU former editor of the Daily Telegraph. The monumental biography is by Simon Heffer.


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  • aquifer

    Part of the attraction of Northern Ireland for Powell was how traditional it was, with perhaps three generations going together to the same church.

    However sectarian Orange unionism cannot be re-integrated into British politics in this century. No british squaddie will be asked to defend protestant privilege.

    Unionism had to chose between Protestantism or the Union, for politically it could not have both.

    It chose a sect with red white and blue ties to cover its modesty.

  • JoeBryce

    I think you are right, Aquifer, and that that was the significance of the UUP’s replacement by the DUP. And by that choice, the unionist people gave notice that they sought an all-Ireland settlement in the long run, subject to the appropriate entrenchment of their / our fundamental interests. At the time, I bewailed the electorate’s decision; I now incline to think it was right.

  • Turgon

    “And by that choice, the unionist people gave notice that they sought an all-Ireland settlement in the long run”

    Vastly more likely that Trimble had made a total hash of the situation: had meekly yet gracelessly conceded one line in the sand after another and people felt the DUP would do a lot better. They did indeed do a lot better. Short term practical considerations are much more relevant and plausible than some sort of bizarre view that somehow collectively unionism voted DUP as it had accepted the inevitability of a united Ireland.

    The vast majority of unionists remain unionists and there is vastly less defeatism within unionism than for many, many years: indeed nationalism and republicanism seems much less confident of achieving its aims.

    Still do not let such inconvenient issues stand in the way of your preferred “unionists want to become part of a new united Ireland” narrative. The fact that the vast majority of evidence is to the contrary can simply be ignored.

  • Turgon,

    I’ve had a problem with my e-mail account and not sure of your address. can you e-mail me. Joe

  • aquifer


    ‘unionists want to become part of a new united Ireland’

    Its not that they express a wish to do this. It is just that they have not pursued a strategy to achieve anything else.

    They are ineffective in countering Sinn Fein’s re-imagining of recent history, perhaps as former supremacists have trouble portraying themselves as victims or as pawns in somebody else’s games.

    Politically they are backed into a sectarian dead end. Maybe they started off there, but it is where SF like to keep them.

    The DUP came late to the fight and what did they gain?

    Trimble scalped like the rest but what of the Union?

  • tyrone_taggart

    “less defeatism within unionism ”

    The black knight of unionism needs to defeat who????

    The world have moved on dear knight. The UK is just a region of Europe.

    Northern Ireland gets 10 billion per year from England. Keep sending it I say. I just don’t think they will.