Sir James Kilfedder (1928 - 1995):
James Alexander Kilfedder, popularly known as Jim, was a Unionist MP for two Westminster constituencies and two Unionist parties almost continuously from 1970 until his death in 1995, and Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, 1982-1986.
He was born in Country Leitrim, in the then Irish Free State; his parents came originally from Enniskillen, County Fermanagh and he attended Portora Royal School in that town, proceeding to the University of Dublin, where he graduated BA. He was called to the Irish Bar at King's Inns, Dublin, in 1952 and the English Bar at Gray's Inn in 1958 and practised in London. In 1964 he was returned to Westminster with a majority of some 6000, for the constituency of West Belfast, representing the Ulster Unionist Party. During the election campaign, he became involved in what turned out to be a controversial incident with violent repercussions, when he, along with other Unionist political figures, notably Ian Paisley, objected to the display of an Irish tricolour flag in the window of a political organisation's office in an area of west Belfast very sympathetic to the Nationalist cause. The removal of the flag by armed police, with attendant demonstrations both supporting and criticising the action, led to street disturbances and many injuries, a scenario not at that time common in Belfast. Kilfedder thanked Paisley for his aid in having secured an impressive majority as a Unionist candidate in a majority-nationalist constituency, albeit against a divided opposition. In the General Election of 1966, however, Kilfedder was defeated by some 2000 votes in a straight fight with Republican Labour's Gerry Fitt (later a founder and first Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and later still Lord Fitt of Bell's Hill).
For the 1970 General election, Kilfedder was selected as the Ulster Unionist candidate for North Down, in succession to George Currie, the successor in the seat to Patricia Ford who was retiring from politics. North Down was a very safe Unionist seat, indeed, the safest seat in the entire United Kingdom: Currie in 1959 had won 98% of the vote (against one other candidate and on a turnout of 59%), the highest majority in any UK seat since the Reform Act of 1832. Kilfedder won the seat with a 69% majority in a five-way competition. In the subsequent seven elections and by-elections he would contest in North Down, Kilfedder was successful in every one, with majorities ranging from the clear to the resounding. This was to a large extent a personal vote, as he had in 1980 founded a new political party, the Ulster Popular Unionist Party. Although part of the United Ulster Unionist Council in the early 1970s, which opposed the proposals at the Sunningdale Conference of 1973 (effectively, enforced Unionist-Nationalist power-sharing with a not-clearly-defined, though hotly disputed, "Irish dimension"), Kilfedder leant strongly towards a "devolution" solution (a legislature for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom) as opposed to the increasingly-predominant "integrationist" view (Northern Ireland being administered as a more "integral" part of the United Kingdom) favoured by the Ulster Unionist Party. He was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1973 and was a member of the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention, 1975-1976. From 1977 until 1980 he sat at Westminster as an Independent Unionist (he won nearly 60% of the vote in the 1979 general election).
Besides his role as MP for North Down, Kilfedder's principal role in Northern Ireland generally came with the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982. This body was central to the "rolling devolution" policy of the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Prior. The Assembly was damaged from its outset by the refusal of nationalist parties to take part in it (though they stood in elections), and by fractious attitudes to Northern Ireland's governmental arrangements and direction amongst those parties which did participate, and eventually folded in 1986. Nevertheless, Kilfedder, who was elected Speaker, became a respected and independently-minded incumbent who from the outset was keen to see his role, and have it seen, as that of a servant of the Assembly, above political party considerations. Significantly, in contradistinction to Westminster where appointments to chair Commons Select Committees were decided by an all-party Selection Committee, the Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly was responsible for such appointments. When he came to make appointments to the chairs of Assembly committees, Kilfedder irritated his former Ulster Unionist colleagues by refusing to appoint their members to chair the key Agriculture and Environment Committees, and his appointment of a representative of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to chair the Education Committee provoked a protest from the Ulster Unionist Party's deputy leader on the sole ground that the individual concerned was a Roman Catholic, and the party threatened to boycott the Committees. The Alliance Party threatened to withdraw from the Assembly, which would effectively have rendered it ineffectual, and Kilfedder threatened to resign himself; the crisis was averted and the Assembly continued.
Kilfedder was firmly of the view that the Assembly offered the best opportunity for building effective structures of devolved government in Northern Ireland and was a trenchant defender of the institution. In November 1983, the notorious Darkley Gospel Hall massacre prompted the withdrawal of the Ulster Unionists from the Assembly; so that only a minority of elected candidates then occupied their seats. And in May 1984, the Report of the New Ireland Forum, a body comprised almost entirely of Irish Nationalist representatives from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, recommended several options for a "New Ireland" (while declaring itself open to other suggestions), none of which was acceptable to any Unionist opinion in Northern Ireland as they entailed what they saw as illicit involvement by the Republic of Ireland in internal Northern Ireland affairs. Kilfedder, alarmed that the Assembly might fail completely, announced that he would stand in the 1983 election to the European Parliament, "as a personal crusade to save the Stormont Assembly". Eventually, the increasing co-operation between the London and Dublin governments ensured the demise of the Assembly, which eventually was terminated formally on 23 June 1986. Kilfedder accordingly left the chair, not before making a valedictory speech, and having been the subject of a vote of thanks from the Assembly, which moved that his photograph be hung in the chamber alongside those of the Speakers of the former Parliament of Northern Ireland. It was generally agreed by members that he had filled the post with distinction.
Kilfedder continued to represent North Down, where he was personally very popular, at Westminster, where he was respected as a highly skilful chairman of Commons committees. One eminent Parliamentarian - no political ally - on one occasion accompanied him on a walkabout in his constituency, and was struck by how many of his constituents Kilfedder knew by name, and who clearly warmed to him. Some regarded him as an "old style" Unionist, redolent of landed gentry and a bygone age of Ulster politics.
Kilfedder died suddenly in March 1995 on a train from Gatwick Airport to London. His grave is in Roselawn Cemetery near Belfast.
|Born:||16 July 1928|
|Died:||20 May 1995|
© 2020 Ulster History Circle