John Laird, Lord Laird, who has died aged 74, was pitched into a political career as the youngest MP at Stormont in 1970, at the age of 26. His father, Norman, the Ulster Unionist MP for St Anne’s, Belfast, died in April that year and John won the seat in the consequent byelection. He was catapulted out of politics in 2013 after being caught by reporters from the BBC Panorama programme, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times, offering to lobby for cash.
He referred himself to the House of Lords’ standards committee, which suspended him for four months. He then resigned the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) whip at the demand of the party leader, Mike Nesbitt, after Nesbitt watched recordings of meetings with the fake lobbyists – undercover reporters who had trapped Laird – which he found “not edifying”. Laird returned to the Lords in 2014 but under a strict injunction from the UUP to rein in his behaviour. He had previously used Lords’ privilege repeatedly to name those he claimed were IRA killers, criticised Ireland for failing to support Ulster Scots, and in 2008/09 had claimed £73,000 in expenses, which made him the most expensive peer that year.
Son of Norman, a GP, and Margaret, he was born in Belfast into a unionist family. He was educated at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and then went into banking rather than to university, owing to his dyslexia. He was already chairman of the Young Unionist Council when his father died of a heart attack – Laird found his body – and Unionist grandees offered him the constituency, St Anne’s, which included some of the toughest of Belfast’s loyalist ghettoes. Rioting was breaking out over Unionist government attempts to end discrimination against Catholics.
In 1972, after the UK government suspended the Stormont government, Brian Faulkner, the last Unionist prime minister, triggered Laird’s political involvement with the Ulster Scots heritage of those who were descended, as he was, from the Protestants settled in Ireland after King William of Orange defeated the Catholic James II in 1690. Faulkner wanted to counter the influence of Catholic Ireland’s lobbying of Irish Americans, and used Laird to make links with Americans of Ulster Protestant descent.
Laird became a senior party spokesman, a function he handled with a cheerfulness that would serve him well after 1976, when direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster meant that he, and other local politicians, lacked a political salary. He set up a successful PR agency, John Laird Public Relations, and remained its chair until 2001.
Laird had a liking for sociable drinking, something his teetotal Unionist and Orange Order associates lacked. At UUP conferences he would carry a glass of orange juice laced with gin, wisecracking that it was the correct colour. After a heart attack in 2006 he gave up alcohol.
I met him in January 1976, when the Guardian sent me to Belfast. He invited me to Sunday lunch when his wife, Carol, was pregnant with their first child, saying: “Belfast is bleak on Sundays.” For me, a stranger to Irish politics, he was an education.
He opposed the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement, voting in defiance of his party whip, and developed links with the Vanguard Unionist party, which had been founded in 1972 by the former UUP cabinet minister, William Craig, and which organised rallies against Sunningdale. In 1976, when a further political experiment, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention, was suspended, Laird left politics publicly but maintained links particularly with David Trimble, Craig’s deputy in Vanguard. Trimble joined the UUP in 1978, converted to power-sharing and then in 1999 became first minister in the Good Friday executive; and Laird, with shared pragmatism and now wealthy through his business endeavours, was privately among his backers. When Trimble ran into opposition from anti-power-sharing UUP MPs, the Blair government put three peerages into his gift to create Westminster support. In 1999 one went to Laird.
During the Good Friday negotiations, Trimble sought parity for Protestant culture with Catholic Irish culture. Laird, who in his autobiography, A Struggle to Be Heard (2010), described his ilk as Scots “… hardened on the anvil of Ulster”, helped to set up the resulting North South Language Body, and the Ulster-Scots Agency.
Laird was the agency’s first chair and his PR skills were tested, as even Unionists reacted in amazement as Ulster Scots gained a dictionary and European minority language status. Laird’s dress became increasingly flamboyant and he organised events in the Lords including a fundraising dinner at which re-enactment musicians played Lambeg drums. From 1993 he was a visiting professor of Public Relations at the University of Ulster, which in 2001 established an Ulster-Scots Institute.
In 2005 he was criticised for claiming £2,505 for taxis to Dublin and Derry as chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency, but countered by saying that because he wore a kilt to functions, walking would draw undue attention to him. He resigned as chair later that year in protest at cuts to the agency’s funding.
He is survived by Carol (nee Ferguson), whom he married in 1971, and their son, David, and daughter, Alison.
• John Dunn Laird, Lord Laird, politician, born 23 April 1944; died 10 July 2018