Sir Robert Porter, known to all as “Beezer” who has died aged 90 gave the lie to the image of a jack booted Unionist minister at the beginning of the Troubles. He was indeed minister of home affairs in 1969 when demonstrations gave way to riot and finally to the events of August 1969 when the Army took over control of the streets after days of rioting in Derry and Belfast culminating in the burning of Bombay St. He was a liberal Unionist, a member of the freemasonry of lawyers whose position in society allowed them to cross the sectarian divide with ease and who went into unionist politics for a while on the way to a judgeship. He was at home with things Irish and enjoyed the odd convivial drink. The Porters of today stay well clear of politics.
In early 1969 Beezer drew the short straw. I can’t swear to the truth of this but I suspect he was given the job because he could put up a measured lawyer’s defence of the RUC without getting flustered or angry, a rare skill among ministers at the time. This was in contrast to his hapless predecessor, the pipe smoking Willie Long or Bill Craig who had given the fateful order to halt the civil right march in October 5 1968 and spoke with quiet menace. Craig had earlier been known as a reformer but in Home Affairs he saw the IRA behind events. His hard line split O’Neill’s cabinet and sealed our fate for a generation.
Those were the fateful days before everyone had become hardened to trouble and a baton charge by the riot squad was regarded as effective policing. There was never any danger of Beezer or anybody else actually taking control of the situation as it drifted inexorably to serious sectarian rioting and then the guns came out.
Beezer was a genuine Derry patriot. In August 13 ( I think it was ) the rioting got so bad that the RUC asked his permission to start using CS gas. The story goes that Beezer insisted on submitting to a dose of it himself before authorising its use. A genuinely decent man he was not alone at being unable to rise to the level of events. His daughter Kathryn, an old friend and colleague, said of her Dad :
“My father was a man of very sharp intellect and propriety in a career in law and politics. He was also a very humorous man who loved the arts, opera, literature and sport. He had a great sense of fun and was an inspirational father.”
And I would add, a unionist who enjoyed good relations with many nationalists throughout his life. I never met anyone who held his time as minister in charge of policing against him We could have done with many more like Robert Porter.
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