It's rife with religious bigotry, corruption, and double-crossing
politicians. But Lord Laird, flamboyant British peer and critic of most
things Irish, reckons the Republic has one thing in its favour: "It's a
bloody good place to get pissed. You can't come back from Dublin sober.
They're highly sociable down there."
He's a man obsessed with "down there". Under parliamentary privilege in the
House of Lords, he's made a myriad of allegations on the Frank Connolly and
Phil Flynn cases, demanding the Taoiseach's resignation.
"If the Republic had crown jewels, Bertie Ahern has given them to Sinn Féin.
The only hope is that Michael McDowell can get them back again," he says.
He's threatening to name alleged IRA "moles" in the media and has asked two
senior RTE officials to explain their "extreme republican backgrounds".
"And that's only the tip of the iceberg. I've lots more to say about Irish
society. There are plenty of rats hiding in sewers and I'm determined to
sniff them out. Southerners mightn't like me sticking my nose in but they
can't have it every bloody way. They never stop interfering in Northern
Lord Laird is holding court in the drawing-room of his magnificent Victorian
mansion in east Belfast. Usually, he wears a kilt to celebrate his
Ulster-Scots heritage. But today he's all in black, save for a
It's still a dramatic ensemble for a 61-year-old with a mane of silver hair.
"I can't stand being under-stated. It's important to be properly stated at
all times. I love ostentatious shirts and ties. I have mine made by a tailor
in Canada whose family are Ulster-Scots."
To his critics, Laird is a reckless attention-seeker. While some of his
wider political concerns may be well-founded, his accusations against
individuals in RTE smack of McCarthyism to many who have no time for the
To his admirers, he's Ulster's Braveheart, leading the battle from the
Lords. "I like Braveheart but he met a sticky end hung, drawn and
quartered. I'm very well hung you know, but I wouldn't want to be drawn and
There's no-one else in the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) remotely like John
Laird. He bangs the table, mimics Northern and Southern politicians, and is
amazingly indiscreet. Even the DUP find "leaping Lord Laird", as they call
him, too hot to handle.
A Westminster colleague confides: "He's as mad as a hatter, bounding down
the corridors, arms outstretched to greet you, full of some wonderful new
idea that five minutes later he's forgotten. He asks hundreds of trivial
parliamentary questions. He seems to think if he keeps trying, he'll
eventually hit the jackpot."
Lord Laird is nonplussed: "Of course, I bound down corridors. I try to
counter the image of the dull, dour unionist. I asked 701 questions one year
- a record. The next nearest guy was on only 259. I found out we owe the US
$4000 billion from WWI, and I suggested fire engines would be more visible
if they were yellow, not red."
The Lords has experts on everything, he says: "In a debate on roads, one
speaker had a PhD in traffic bollards. The only debate where no-one admitted
first-hand experience was prostitution. It was a case of 'My butler tells
me . . . ' "
Originally, his coat-peg was next to Prince Phillip's: "I was very pleased
about that but I've been down-graded since. I'm now beside some chap, Lloyd
Weber. He's written a few musicals, I think."
Poor Baroness Thatcher has "lost the plot" but Baroness (Ruth) Rendell, the
crime writer, hasn't: "She's taken quite a shine to me. She studies me with
great interest. I'll probably turn up in her next book."
John Laird was born two months premature, the son of a Stormont MP. "Being
premature changed my life. I was the smallest boy in class. I was bullied. I
was bad at sport.
"In school plays, I got female roles. No boy my age had handled so many
female parts! We used to sing a song, 'Bobby Shafto went to sea with silver
buckles on his knee'. I wanted to be play Bobby Shafto, not his girlfriend."
Laird was dyslexic but didn't realise it for 30 years. "I could knock the
hell out of anyone at chess and I could answer all the teacher's questions.
'Who is king of Morocco?' There's me, hand in the air, knew the answer, but
couldn't spell Morocco.
"I did terribly in exams. So I daydreamed in class. I'd look out the window
and see armies marching and me the general, the centre of attention
"When I was 14, I sprung up to 6 ft 1 but I didn't fill out. I'd a rash of
spots, a huge Adam's apple and all this testosterone. I wanted girls. They
never looked twice at me, but I could make them laugh and I later discovered
making women laugh is a great attribute!"
On leaving school, he joined the bank but when he was 25 his father died and
he ran for the Stormont seat. "It was working-class Sandy Row. The IRA was
blowing these people up day and daily so they didn't mince their words.
"Here was this big, scrawny youth on their doorsteps, asking for their vote.
They'd look me up and down and say, 'You're Dr Laird's son? He'll be badly
missed'. I thought it unkind but that's Ulstermen for you. Unlike
Southerners, they say it to your face."
He was part of a delegation which visited Long Kesh. "I wasn't meant to talk
to the republican prisoners but I did. I told the press their conditions
must be improved. I got flak it wasn't what was expected from a Sandy Row
MP. I disagreed with these guys politically but I'd more in common with them
than with the Dublin 4 brigade I later met.
"They pretend to love the North but they've never seen a riot in their
lives. When they're half-pissed at the dinner table, their mask slips.
'F*** off. We don't want you Northerners', they'll say."
After Stormont's collapse, Laird was unemployed. "My wife was about to give
birth. I went to the dole office on the Holywood Road but it was such a
humiliating place, I didn't bother signing on. I thought 'I'll turn this
around. I'll make a disaster an opportunity. I'll set up my own business'."
And so John Laird PR was born. "It's the oldest PR company in Northern
Ireland but it was hard at first. The South took to PR like a duck to water.
The North was suspicious. Ulstermen would buy a heap of manure before
they'd buy something intangible like PR."
Yet, the business flourished. Within a few years, Laird bought the building
next to the dole office and ran his company from there. He decided to visit
his old school-teachers. "'Up you' I thought. I wanted to thank them because
by making me feel inferior, they'd inspired me to success. I thought they'd
singled me out as the stupidest boy ever. I was shocked when I went back
they didn't even remember me."
Laird sold his business when he entered the Lords. In 1999, he became
co-chairman of the cross-Border language implementation body, set up under
the Belfast Agreement.
His dislike of the Republic grew: "Take Irish civil-servants, the nicest
people you ever meet. They give you cups of tea and nod in agreement with
you. Then, the moment you're out the door, they betray you."
He's not enamoured with Government ministers either: "I arranged a visit to
Belfast for Eamonn O'Cuiv. Had him beating the Lambeg drum on Stormont's
steps. He promised more resources for the Ulster-Scots language.
"Six days later, he tried to cut our budget. For every £1 we got, the Irish
language got £10. When I challenged him about cutting our money he said he
was doing it so he could punish Sinn Féin. Thought that would fob me off.
'How dare you,' I said. 'They're bloody entitled to the money and so are
Laird was furious when John O'Donoghue refused to meet him to discuss the
situation of Protestants in Southern Border counties, yet met a visiting
Chinese delegation: "I asked the Chinese to raise the issue of Irish
citizens with the Irish minister.
"They're not straight down South. If it works out, you're a cute hoor; if it
doesn't, it's buried somewhere." Is there nothing about the Republic he
admires?: "Dave Allen but he's dead, and some of U2."
He enjoys crossing the Border for social functions though. He got into
trouble for spending public funds on return taxis to Dublin. "I don't see
the problem with a £250 taxi. Walking through the streets of Dublin from a
car-park, in my kilt, would have been a security risk."
He prefers trains to taxis anyway: "Travelling by train is a sexual thing.
It affects a lot of us men." Laird is a whirlwind of contradictions. He
sees himself as a champion of "the marginalized, the outsider". He's
campaigned for the Kurds and against blood sports.
His naming of alleged IRA supporters in the Lords sits with his opposition
to the British government's infringement of civil liberties post-9/11. He's
ashamed he didn't oppose internment in the North in 1971.
He hates being told he's Irish: "Being born in Ireland doesn't make you
Irish. If you're mother happened to be in Timbuktu when she went into labour
would that make you a Timbuktu person? You are whatever nationality you
think you are.
"It's an indictment of nationalists that after centuries of telling Laird
and his hundreds and thousands of people they're Irish, they still don't
want to be. The Duke of Wellington was also told he was Irish because he was
born there. He asked if he was born in a stable, would that make him a
Yet Laird is no run-of-the-mill unionist. His cat is 'Betsy Gray', named
after a Co Down Presbyterian rebel killed in the 1798 Rebellion. He had her
predecessor 'Ginger', "a swaggering orange tomcat", engraved on his baronial
coat of arms.
Dyslexia still affects his life: "If you placed a tomato and a banana before
me and said 'John, pick the banana', I'd probably hand you the tomato.' But
dyslexia has helped me think outside the box an advantage in politics.
John Laird has created quite a big wave."
After our interview, a friend tells me about recently seeing Laird "dressed
as a pirate, on a float, waving a sword in the air and shouting piratey
things". The boy who never got to play Bobby Shafto is having fun.