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Patricia McLaughlin (1916 - 1997):

Patricia McLaughlin was an industrious MP with a wide range of interests and concerns, while also a tireless promoter specifically of Ulster industry and its products, and only the second woman MP to be elected from Northern Ireland to the Westminster Parliament.

Florence Patricia Alice Aldwell was born in Downpatrick, the daughter of a Church of Ireland cleric, Canon FB Aldwell, MA, LLD, later Rector of Holy Trinity, Aghalee, Rector of St George’s Church, Belfast and member of the Cathedral Chapter of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. She was educated at Ashleigh House School, Belfast, from where she progressed to the University of Dublin, Trinity College, where her father had studied law; she studied modern languages although did not graduate, instead marrying in 1937 Henry W. McLaughlin, a director of the prominent civil engineering firm McLaughlin & Harvey Ltd.  

Though she had long shown a keen interest in politics, being a supporter of the (Ulster) Unionist Party, then by far the predominant unionist party, and the largest party overall, in Northern Ireland, she became particularly active in the early 1950s, involved in various groupings within the party, such as the Ulster Society, which she chaired; she also served as secretary and treasurer of the Mid-Down Unionist Women's Association and in 1959 was elected to the Executive Committee of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council.

In 1955 came a spectacular breakthrough. She was selected to contest the Westminster seat of Belfast West. The incumbent was Jack Beattie, who had contested the seat several times representing various-named Labour parties, though another essential point in Ulster politics was that he was a nationalist; he had been involved with the Anti-Partition League and had accepted money from an anti-partitionist source, the Mansion House Fund. Beattie had been MP from 1943-1950, lost the seat in a by-election by the not large majority of 913, but won it back in 1951 with a majority of just 25, each time contesting it with the Ulster Unionists. However, in 1955, this rather see-saw pattern was disturbed by Sinn Fein deciding to run a candidate, Eammon Boyce. At this period, the IRA were conducting what came to be known as their “Northern campaign” and Boyce had been captured while attempting to seize arms from Omagh Barracks and imprisoned in Crumlin Road jail in 1954 (coincidentally, in the 1990s the by then defunct jail was renovated and converted into a museum by McLaughlin & Harvey, which firm had also built the Crumlin Road courthouse opposite the prison in the 1850s).

One effect of Boyce’s candidacy was to weaken Beattie’s vote. Nevertheless, McLaughlin received 34,191 votes as against 16,050 for Beattie and 8,447 for Boyce, a startling result in what had been for years a knife-edge constituency. McLaughlin was not the first female Westminster MP elected in Northern Ireland; that had been Patricia Ford in 1953. However, she was the first female MP to win a Northern Ireland seat at Westminster in a contested election, Ford having been elected unopposed. She was therefore the first woman from anywhere in Ireland to win a contested election to Westminster and to take her seat there.

McLaughlin, with her energy, enthusiasm and no reputation for taciturnity (she even listed “talking” as her favourite recreation; one senior Unionist party member nominated this loquaciousness as his principal memory of her), threw herself into her role as MP. She was Honorary Secretary of the Parliamentary Home Safety Committee 1956-64, Delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union (the Western European defence cooperation agreement) 1959-64, vice-chaired the Women’s National Advisory Committee of the Conservative Party, and was National Advisor on Women’s Affairs to the European Movement. She was unceasing in her promotion of Northern Irish goods while at Westminster, never hesitating to draw attention to the fact that all her clothes were produced in Northern Ireland, mostly though not exclusively from linen (still a major commodity in the Northern Irish economy). She was a member of the BBC Northern Ireland Advisory Council, and a special interest was expressed by her Vice-Presidency of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, 1962-1985. She chaired the Steering Group on Food Freshness, 1973-1975, and was a member of the Executive Committee of the British Standards Institution. Alongside all this, she was also an active churchwoman, frequently a diocesan delegate at Anglican conferences.

Patricia McLaughlin retained the West Belfast seat in 1959, again amassing a vote appreciably greater than her combined opposition, which itself was again split between nationalist Labour and Sinn Fein candidates. However, she did not contest the 1964 General Election, citing reasons of health, though some ascribed her withdrawal to the shadow of a financial scandal involving a clothing company called “Seenozip”, which had commenced trading in Newry in 1960, with her support: she was a director of the firm. Fiscal irregularities were brought to her attention and she resigned in 1962. Nevertheless, to some she was still tainted when the company went bankrupt in 1964, as it emerged that she had accepted free shares in the company. Two of its directors were jailed for defrauding the Northern Ireland Government of tens of thousands of pounds. Although criticised by a Northern Ireland scrutiny committee in October 1964, she was unanimously reselected to contest the seat, but declined the candidacy. Perhaps for the best, as the Belfast West campaign of October 1964 was marred by rioting, sparked off by Unionist campaigners demanding the removal of an Irish tricolour (nationalist) flag being displayed in the window of a nationalist party in a nationalist area, albeit illegally. (The seat was won by the sole Unionist candidate of four, James Kilfedder.) In 1970 she stood as a Conservative candidate in Wandsworth Central, London, but though she polled 16,830 votes, her Labour opponent was able to elicit 19,776.

McLaughlin certainly made a lasting personal impression. One British Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, described her as “a tireless advocate of the claims of Northern Ireland” adding that while she was at Westminster her constituents’ concerns would scarcely go unheard. A future Prime Minister noted that she was universally popular on all sides of the House of Commons. She was perhaps self-deprecating when she said that of all her activities, public safety, consumer protection and defence matters included, she would be for posterity best-known for securing the provision of free public conveniences for women, which she achieved along with one of the most celebrated woman MPs, and that apart, no political soulmate, Barbara Castle. 

McLaughlin was awarded an OBE in 1975. She died in Winchester, though always maintained that her closest affection she reserved for her native Northern Ireland.

Born: 23 June 1916
Died: 7 January 1997
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann