20 JUNE 1987, Page 11


Stephen Robinson reports on

the last days of the Unionist

MP for South Down `SHADOWS we are and shadows we pursue,' mused Enoch Powell, just a few seconds after the official declaration of the vote proved that he really had lost his seat. It was — as he himself might have put it a typically enigmatic response from the former Member for South Down. Mr Powell always enjoyed his encounters with the press on this side of the Irish Sea. A literary reference here, a classical parallel there — Mr Powell likes to make his interlocutor's head spin. I interviewed him two weeks before the general election and he was insistent that President Reagan's furling of the nuclear umbrella was going to be the only real issue in the 1987 poll. `The nuclear deterrent will be exploded from the stage before the campaign is over,' he told me, before adding helpfully: `That's a good theatrical expression, you understand.'

By the end of his parliamentary career Mr Powell had become a self-parody. During interviews his conversation was littered with journalistic aids: 'Mr Powell added acidly', or 'a typical classical refer- ence from Mr Powell'. When speaking of his favourite theme — American designs on a united Ireland — he would talk slowly and deliberately almost in capital letters, so the full force of his wisdom could be recorded accurately.

And Mr Powell maintained that typically acerbic manner until the bitter end. The man from the BBC asked him to account for his defeat: 'My opponent polled more votes than me.' But Mr Powell is this the end of your political career?' How should I know?' Would you take a peerage?' — I don't answer hypothetical questions.'

He certainly looked crushed in those few dreadful moments on the stage in the mournful setting of the Dromore High School, County Down. 'He looks slightly hysterical,' I remarked to the man from the Times. But the man from the Times, who

has been in Ulster for five years and knows about these things, assured me he always looked like that.

There was just a trace of moisture along the eyelids, a slight tremble in his voice, but the valediction drew warm applause even from his opponents, who for 13 years had worked ceaselessly to unseat him. 'For the rest of my life when I look back upon those 13 years I shall be filled with affec- tion for this province and for its people and they and their fortunes will never be out my heart.' Surely no other Unionist politi- cian could have made so dignified an exit after defeat at the hands of a Nationalist.

Ironically Mr Powell's vote actually in- creased substantially over his performance in the 1983 general election when he survived only after two recounts. Such are the tribal imperatives of Ulster politics that this was not enough to save him, because the Social Democratic and Labour Party managed to find 3,500 extra nationalists around the constituency to come out and support their candidate, Eddie McGrady. South Down has a natural Catholic major- ity so it was only really a matter of time before the Unionist — any Unionist — was thrown out. Indeed he did extremely well to hold on for as long as he did.

Mr Powell might have been many things in his long parliamentary career, but a typical Ulster Unionist he most emphati- cally was not. He illustrated the vast gulf between Unionism as it is practised in Britain — those rather grand dinner par- ties, the weekend conventions at the more agreeable Oxford and Cambridge colleges — and the vulgar, menacing, windbagging version of the creed on this side of the Irish Sea. Quite how Mr Powell managed to put up with his third-rate colleagues for 13 years must rank as one of the greatest political mysteries of the 20th century.

The refusal of the Wolverhampton Wanderer — as Ian Paisley likes to call him — to abide by the ridiculous and self- destructive Unionist boycott of Parliament renewed much of the criticism levelled at him ever since his arrival in Ulster in 1974. And how he loathed all the triumphalist trappings of Ulster street politics.

I ventured to the small town of Ballyna- hinch to attend one of his final campaign rallies. The mandatory marching band escorted him around the town, skirting the Roman Catholic housing estate, as Mr Powell skulked miserably like a puppy which had wet the carpet. At last the music stopped and he could rise to deliver his denunciation of the Anglo-Irish Agree- ment. It was a stunning piece of oratory witty yet withering — but only 19 people had bothered to turn out to hear him speak, and even the bandsmen departed prematurely to the chip shop. For all his love of Ulster, Mr Powell was never one to whack the Lambeg Drum.

Stephen Robinson is the Belfast correspon- dent of the Daily Telegraph.