Robin Chichester -Clarke, the last of the old unionist gentry to hold office in either Stormont or Westminster, died a fortnight ago at home in Norfolk at the age of 88. His elder brother Jimmy, later Lord Moyola, (familiarly known as “Chi-Chi,” after a notably infertile panda) was Northern Ireland’s penultimate prime minister in the darkening years of 1969 to 1971. Their family home was the handsome Moyola Park outside Castledawson, now a golf club. They belonged to a small elite family network that had enjoyed a leading role in political affairs for centuries but had vanished politically by the mid 1970s – and even personally, as many decamped to England and a quieter life.
For generations this network based on original seventeenth century Planter landowners, had a fine instinct for survival through strategic intermarriage, complemented by a long tradition of imperial service and local noblesse oblige. The double- barrelled name was created by his grandfather a Lenox Conyngham Clarke, to perpetuate his grandmother’s married name of Chichester the founding family of Belfast by her first marriage. Another branch adopted the name of the ancient Ulster chieftainship, O’Neill.
Their granny was the formidable Dame Dehra Parker, who had been minister of health during Brookeborough’s government, the only woman to serve as a minister in the old Stormont government. ( see Ric Wilford’s DNB entry). She was also the grandmother of Terence O’Neill who served as her junior minister for a time,
Jimmy replaced cousin Terence after O’Neill failed to gain enough support from a terminally divided unionist party for limited reform in the February 1969 Stormont election, the old parliament’s last. But neither of them could stem the tide that swept them and the old political system away. The Troubles rapidly foreclosed on the old order underpinned by Stormont which had seemed so secure until the mid 1960s. The end of deference was part of the social and political revolution that shattered what had seemed monolithic but was in fact a careful – and carefully concealed – set of trade-offs until the O’Neill era.
Most of the gentry like Robin Chichester- Clarke were beached on the losing relatively liberal side. Its last gasp was to prefer Jimmy as Terence’s successor to the obviously more able Brian Faulkner, whose roots were in textile manufacturing and Presbyterianism rather than in land and Anglicanism. As a plotter against Terence because he always thought he was the better man, Faulkner inspired less trust than the gentlemanly but none-too-bright Jimmy.
On November 11 1968 brothers Robin and James Chichester-Clark met in the library of their ancestral home at Moyola Park, Co Derry. With Robin writing on his knee, they drew up a list of reforms for housing, voting and local government..
Following the Macrory report in 1969, the housing allocation functions of local councils were to be scrapped and the gerrymandered Londonderry Corporation which had prompted so much of the civil rights protests was to be abolished. The numbers and patronage of the multi-tiered council system were drastically reduced and replaced by a system of boards and 26 councils with very limited powers – (“only to empty the bins” was the complaint). Stormont itself was to become in the phrase of the time, “the grand county council.”
But it was all to prove too little, too late, not least because of Paisley’s counter demonstrations which Robin Chichester Clarke deplored and the escalation of violence which too few tried hard enough to prevent. Jimmy’s bid for the succession to Terence was in fact based on a vague retreat from reform and on an appeal to unionist unity which turned out to fruitless, in the face of escalating violence.
Chris Ryder’s obit in the Guardian captures the atmosphere of the 1970s at Westminster in which the old guard Ulster Unionist MPs, operating largely independently of the Stormont leadership steered an implausible course between attacking Gerry Fitt then the sole nationalist MP as an IRA stooge, and tentatively supporting moderate reform, combined calling for the inevitable “tighter security”.
Robin Chichester -Clarke flourished in the more spacious days for Unionism in the 1950s. He was friendly with Ted Heath, perhaps because they had both served in the Conservative Whips’ office in their younger days. Soon after he became Leader in 1965, Heath visited Northern Ireland. What happened was typical of the era. In accepting an invitation to address Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Heath gave a dreary lecture about keeping careful accounts because of the notorious Westminster convention never to discuss Northern Ireland politics that then applied. Because of the same convention Heath hid under a blanket in the back seat of Chichester –Clarke’s car on a trip across the border.
In the dying days of his government Heath made Robin minister of state for employment in 1973 in the reshuffle which just preceded the Sunningdale conference and William Whitelaw’s abrupt and ill-timed move from the Northern Ireland Office to the Employment Department to try to end the miners’ strike and the three day week .
It was all to no avail. Robin Chichester Clarke did not stand for re-election in the February 1974 general election which Heath lost. He was replaced by a right wing local party official Willie Ross. The former retainers were now the masters. The power sharing executive that Sunningdale ratified collapsed three months later. The estrangement between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists which began with direct rule in 1972 was complete. And there was no room any more in politics for the likes of Robin Chichester- Clarke.
Today, his heyday seems even more distant than fifty years ago. For good and ill, others persisted, perhaps in part because they had nowhere else to go.
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