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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Ulster's 'Braveheart' on rebel hunt

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

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 Ireland."

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 hound's-tooth jacket.

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 Provos.

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 quartered!"

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 – leading them.

"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 we!'"

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 horse?"

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.

January 25, 2006

This article appeared in the January 22, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.