Richard Needham: One Man, Two Worlds

Brexit, COVID-19, economics, northern ireland, Troubles

Members will recall our October 2019 event The Belfast Agreement and Brexit and the dejected tone of most contributions that evening as we approached the January 2020 point of departure. While sharing the dismay of our panel at the shift to populism that had taken hold of British politics Richard Needham shifted the debate to consider the economic factors that sustain sectarian and divisive politics and the initiatives he taken to overcome such entrenched thinking to benefit the whole community. Such lateral thinking has marked his career in politics and business and informs the reflections in his new memoir ‘One Man, Two Worlds’. Below he introduces two excerpts.

Richard Needham: One Man, Two Worlds

My seven years as Britain’s longest serving Minister in Northern Ireland were the most demanding, exhilarating and enjoyable time of my life. There were huge ups and downs as the extracts describe. What I had to do was create places and opportunities where the two sides could come together, work together and feel safe together, enjoy themselves and isolate the men (and women) of violence. This book tells the story of how we got on! 

Richard Needham: One Man, Two Worlds, Memoir of a businessman in politics is published by The Black Staff Press and available via online retailers and to order via bookshops. Order your copy here or directly here.

Ulster during the 80s

When I arrived in 1985 there were small shoots of improvement. It all depended on imaginative leadership. Luckily for me the undersecretary in charge of urban regeneration at the Department of the Environment (DOE) was Gerry Loughran. He was one of the few Catholics at or near the top of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the only one who has ever been permanent secretary of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. He is exceptionally able and can be exceptionally provocative. He and I started off with a ferocious row when I ordered the final paragraph of one of his draft press releases to be amended and he changed it back again and released it in its original form. Peace was brokered and for the next seven years Gerry was to be my right-hand man in almost every initiative that we promoted in Belfast. Moreover, those he had around him had humour, optimism and guile against which no obstacle stood a chance.Shopping in central Belfast was a mess. With a few notable exceptions, the great retailers boycotted Belfast out of fear of the bomb and ignorance of the opportunities. Many of the old, established retailers and department stores had closed. Their frontages were boarded up, the offices above deserted. But there was one golden opportunity and it became known as CastleCourt. Could we get it off the ground?

It was an enormous project of 350,000 square feet of shops, 180,000 square feet of offices and parking for 1600 cars. It would cost around sixty-five million to build and a further twenty million to fit out. But without an anchor tenant and without a government grant the project was doomed. There were other questions. Who would become the longterm investors once it was complete? Could CastleCourt compete with new edge-of-town developments? Could we entice the people of Belfast back to the city centre? Most worrying of all, what would the IRA do to CastleCourt?

As important to me was what it would look like. The first design more closely resembled a Victorian jail – far from sympathetic to the ‘the beaux arts Grand Canyon’ of graceful Victorian buildings that were also awaiting restoration along Royal Avenue. I was alarmed at the prospect of a three-hundred-metre-long, unadorned brick frontage. I was determined only to agree to a building of international significance, with the finest street furniture and street lighting. Ministers have little enough to be remembered for by history for what they do or do not do and I was absolutely determined that my legacy would not be wrecking an immense opportunity for Belfast. The development team would have to go back to the drawing board. I pledged to find another anchor tenant to replace Selfridges, our first-choice – they had demanded a pitiful rent and a free fit-out.

‘The shoppers would not differentiate much between being decapitated by flying glass or crushed to death by falling masonry’

I also requested that the building should be faced in glass. CastleCourt was to be the defining landmark of the city’s new confidence. At a meeting with the planners this suggestion was greeted by silence, then disbelief, and then a fairly acrimonious discussion. ‘Glass, Minister? You must be mad.’ ‘What will happen to all the shoppers when the IRA blow it up?’ interjected a doubting Thomas. ‘Should we build it out of concrete blocks?’ I retorted. The shoppers would not differentiate much between being decapitated by flying glass or crushed to death by falling masonry. I was not to be budged. Roy Adams – who was managing director of BDP, one of the UK’s most original architectural practices, and who was then in charge of their Belfast office – supported me. Within a few weeks we came up with a spectacular design.

The total development covered a massive eight and a half acres and, when completed, would create two thousand new jobs. Our secret fear was that the IRA would not let us finish the building without destroying the confidence of future tenants. During the three construction years from 1987 to 1990, we held our breath and, despite the best endeavours of the RUC and the builders, the IRA did what they could to destroy our ‘diamond’. In all, during construction, there were four bomb attacks and an endless number of hoaxes, the last one just a week before we were due to open. The Department insisted on the most rigorous security monitoring.

The car park was built like a fortress, but the fear of an uncontrolled fire before all the systems were in place was a constant worry. We had also devised another strategy to try to neutralise the terrorist menace. Adams and his followers had criticised the project for introducing low-paid service jobs while the profits would find their way into the pockets of greedy English shop owners. We persuaded Debenhams, the anchor tenant, to take on 150 young trainee shop assistants from West Belfast, many of whom came from families with republican connections. We sent them over for training in their Liverpool store. Once they started work, the attitude in West Belfast changed. (Some witless Tory MP complained on the floor of the House we were giving in to terrorists by employing their children.) The only downside to the success of this neutralising plan was every time I was seen in the complex, there would be a coded bomb threat from the IRA within ten minutes. On the opening day in 1990, the winner of the free hamper as the first shopper through the door happened to be the mother of a Maze inmate.

We had CastleCourt up and running. We had at last the foundation stone on which to expand the city, east and west, north and south. By 1990 we had all the more major multiples setting up shop and more were in the pipeline. Twenty-seven years later CastleCourt had sixteen million visitors a year and the sales densities ranked in the top 10 per cent in the United Kingdom.

Brushes with Margaret

Meanwhile, quite separately, a note had been circulated, warning ministers that mobile phones were not secure. Under no circumstances should we divulge details, while using one, of what we were doing or of where we were going. Without giving me sight of it, my private office quite rightly read it and shredded it – there were some rules on security that were second nature to all of us after so many years. None of us would ever have dreamt of giving dates or times of visits on the phone. There was no mention in the note of the fact that equipment could be bought for a few pounds that would enable anyone to tape with crystal clarity any phone call on an analogue mobile. Nor was there any plan to provide ministers’ offices with secure phones as there was no budget for such items.

At the beginning of November 1990 Mrs Thatcher faced a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. On 6 November I was returning from Newry in the early evening and I phoned home on my newly acquired government mobile. As always, my day had been hectic and full of interest. The only times when I could call home were the evenings or early in the morning. The arrival of the mobile was a godsend, or so I thought, as it enabled me to be in touch when I was in the car. During the course of my evening call, I told Sissy that I thought it was time for ‘the Cow’ to resign. I have to admit that had I realised I was being taped, I would have phrased it slightly differently!

‘Its time the Cow resigned’

Three days later I had completely forgotten this phone call when, as I was touring a factory in my constituency, there was an urgent summons from my private secretary, Norma Sinclair. She had been called by Andy Woods, the NIO press officer, a blunt and, as it turned out, not very supportive Yorkshireman. He told her there had been a call from The Sunday Times. The paper had received a tape of a conversation between Sissy and me in which I had said, ‘It’s time the Cow resigned.’ They intended to publish under the headline ‘Security breach puts Minister at risk’ and they wanted my reaction! Andy’s view was that my number was up. Dry-mouthed I drove home, telling Sissy on my car phone that something terrible had happened but that I could not tell her what it was.

When I got back, I rang Andy Woods. Naturally I tried to wriggle. I did not remember making the comment. He then played the tape down the line. There was no escape. After a panicky half an hour I got hold of Alastair Goodlad, the deputy chief whip. Alastair doesn’t say anything when words have no purpose and so I stared at a noiseless handset for a good minute. ‘You’ll have to say sorry, old boy,’ he finally said, and that was that.

An hour or so later a call came through from Number 11 Downing Street to warn me that the chief whip would like to talk to me. That evening he rang from his car phone. ‘I will arrange for you to ring the PM and apologise,’ he said, ‘and that will be the end of the matter.’ Not if she survives, I thought to myself. I would be happy to apologise for embarrassing her, I told him, but I could not say ‘sorry’ – that would make me a liar. ‘I leave the exact words to you,’ he replied, and hung up.

Another hour went by and the phone rang again. It was the prime minister, who said, ‘If cow was the worst I have been called by my friends and 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.’ Click. She had behaved magnanimously.

As they had proposed, The Sunday Times ran the front-page lead under the headline ‘Minister apologises to PM for telephone insult’ and then stated that the call had been secretly recorded by a paramilitary group using a radio scanner. The implications throughout the piece were that the tape came from the IRA. The Sunday Times claimed an agency had passed the tape on to them. The agency stated they had received it from the terrorists. But I doubt if they revealed all. Why should the agency give the tape to The Sunday Times? Surely, having been lucky enough to obtain such Danegeld, any agency would have expected some reward or auctioned the story to the highest bidder. If money changed hands, did any find its way back to the paramilitaries? None of the London media professionals in the BBC, ITV, in the broadsheets, the tabloids or the weeklies sought to enquire. Nor did anyone seem to care that The Sunday Times lead was potentially giving an enormous victory to the terrorists, if indeed, it was they who were responsible. They had succeeded in undermining a wounded prime minister and they had put in question the position of Northern Ireland’s longest-serving minister. Well done The Sunday Times! It was left to a correspondent in the Spectator to point out that this invasion of privacy was perhaps one of the nastiest aspects of this self-serving repulsive piece of journalism.

Richard Needham: One Man, Two Worlds, Memoir of a businessman in politics is published by The Black Staff Press and available via online retailers and to order via bookshops. Order your copy here or directly, here.

Sir Richard Needham, 6th Earl of Kilmorey, Kt PC was a Member of Parliament from 1979 to 1997, he served as Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 1985 and 1992 and as Minister of State for Trade between 1992 and 1995. He served under Thatcher and later John Major as a Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 1985 and 1992 and under Major as Minister of State for Trade between 1992 and 1995, and was instrumental in transforming Northern Ireland’s economic base and the UK’s export strategy under Michael Heseltine. He was the longest serving British government Northern Ireland minister. Needham’s book Honourable Member and Battling for Peace: Northern Ireland’s Longest-Serving British Minister (1999); is an account of his years in Northern Ireland and his contribution to peace. Needham holds an honorary degree of Doctor of laws from the University of Ulster. He was made a Privy Counsellor in 1994 and knighted in 1997.