Mad cow in Ireland

Battling for Peace

Richard Needham <em>Blackstaff Press, 352pp, £20</em>

My enduring memory of Richard Needham is not in Ulster, but in Jim Prior's elegant flat somewhere behind Westminster Cathedral during the mid-1970s. Here, industrial correspondents would gather for a long and liquid lunch with Prior, who was then shadow employment secretary. His purpose was to pick our brains about how far a Thatcher government could go in reforming the labour laws. Our interest was in his very good claret.

Around the table were the creme de la creme of Fleet Street (or, more accurately, the froth on the beer) and a number of Prior sidekicks, including the old Etonian Needham, who was not yet an MP, Alan Haselhurst, now a deputy speaker but then also still in search of a seat, and Barney Hayhoe, the affable Conservative member for Brentford and Isleworth.

When, in mid-afternoon, all the bottles were empty, Needham would bark imperiously, "Come on, Corks, do your stuff!" and Hayhoe, by some measure his senior, would trot obediently into the kitchen to bring fresh supplies. Around five in the evening, in time for the opening of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, we would be decanted into the street, Needham baying his goodbyes.

I don't know whether Jim Prior learnt much about industrial relations during these encounters. I certainly learnt something about the Tories, whom I had hitherto regarded as double-headed monsters whose jaws dripped with the blood of working-class victims. I still feel like that about many of them, but Needham demonstrated that there was another kind: irredeemably wet, with a modicum of social justice and a genuine feel for industry and employment. It was his - and Northern Ireland's - good fortune that he was allowed to practise a sort of latter-day Keynesianism throughout the Thatcher years in a forgotten corner of the British economy.

Though he was not the longest- serving Conservative minister at Stormont during the years of direct rule, Needham is probably still best remembered for "the cow affair". In November 1990, when Thatcher was nearing her political nemesis, he was picked up by paramilitary scanners - almost certainly the IRA - saying in a mobile phone call to his wife, Sissy, that it was time "the cow resigned". A tape of the conversation found its way to the Sunday Times, via a Belfast news agency, and it was Needham who was almost compelled to resign. Instead, he apologised to Thatcher for embarrassing her; and she, with unusual magnanimity, let him off with a caution: "If 'cow' was the worst I have been called by my friends or my enemies, I should not have got as far as I have. Both of us, Richard, have jobs to get on with, so let's do that."

This was not the time for her to be making new enemies, but even so the incident almost brought Needham's passionate campaign as minister for the economic regeneration of Ulster to a premature end. As things turned out, he survived several more years to push through public spending that helped revive the local economy.

His political objective, stated bluntly in the memoirs of his ministerial career, was "to undermine the authority of the IRA and to try, through economic and social opportunity, to bring them into politics - politics alone". Needham's sedulous efforts in this direction did not end the long war, but they certainly played a part.

On the whole, there is too much detail about commerce and not enough about the man in this book. Needham (now safely out of Westminster with a clutch of directorships) was one of those parliamentary anomalies, an Irish peer - the sixth Earl of Kilmorey. He disowned the title to become an MP, but there is still much more that one would like to know about the family.

I knew that Needham unsuccessfully contested the coal mining seat of Pontefract in 1974, during the pit strike that was Edward Heath's undoing. I did not know that a previous Needham had been Tory MP for "Ponty" before the arrival of the miners, and that there have been Needhams in parliament since 1451. There is another book here, begging to be written. Come on, Needers, let's have it.

Paul Routledge's biography of Peter Mandelson, "Mandy", is published by Simon & Schuster, £17.99

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage