Obituary: War hero and politician Sir John Gorman
War hero who was the only Catholic to represent the Ulster Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly
SIR John Gorman, who has died aged 91, was a Northern Irish Catholic unionist with an unflinching sense of service, which he demonstrated in winning the Irish Guards' first Military Cross during a tank action in the Normandy campaign.
After the war, he joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary before becoming a manager with British Overseas Airways Corporation, then head of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Finally he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly as the sole Catholic member of the Ulster Unionist Party, and served as deputy speaker until the Assembly's suspension in 2002.
John Reginald Gorman was born on February 1, 1923 at Mullaghmore House, Co Tyrone. Both sides of his family were Catholics and unionists. His father, an RUC district inspector, had won an MC while serving in Palestine during the First World War and, as a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, had handed over the Phoenix Park barracks to Michael Collins after the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty – after which he moved north.
Having been educated by Loretto nuns at Omagh, John was sent to the Imperial Service College at Windsor. After war broke out in 1939, he attended Portrora Royal School, Enniskillen, which was then a firmly Anglican establishment and the North's leading public school. Despite the school's religious ethos, Gorman never found his Catholicism a source of comment.
Commissioned into the Irish Guards in 1942, Gorman first experienced action as a tank commander during Operation Goodwood on July 18, 1944. At Cagny, five miles from Caen, Gorman's troop was confronted by four enemy tanks, among them a King Tiger. He had previously told his driver, Corporal James Baron, that if they were to encounter any of the feared Tigers: "The only thing we can do is to use naval tactics – if the 88mm gun is pointing away from us, we shall have to use the speed of the Sherman and ram it."
The Sherman duly crashed through a hedge and careered down the slope at 40mph towards the King Tiger. With 75 yards to go before impact, the Sherman's gunner, Guardsman Scholes, fired a high-explosive shell at the King Tiger, but it failed to penetrate the armour. The British tank struck the Tiger hard on its right track, and both crews bailed out. The Sherman's front gunner, Guardsman Agnew, mistakenly took refuge in a ditch with the German crew; on realising his error, he saluted smartly and disappeared into a cornfield to join his comrades.
Having led his men to safety behind a hedge, Gorman raced 400 yards to leap into a lone Firefly tank, where one crew member had been decapitated and two others were in shock. The vehicle was still workable so, after removing the body and wiping the blood from the gun sights, Gorman fired its gun to disable the Tiger and his own tank, before driving behind three more Tigers to score two hits. He then carried three burning men from another Sherman to an aid post. For this action, Gorman was recommended for an MC and Baron for a Military Medal. Both men were presented with their medals in the field by General Montgomery.
Outside Brussels, the regiment was greeted by jubilant crowds, and an elderly woman presented Gorman with a copy of Some Experiences of an Irish RM, which had been left at her parents' house by another Irish Guardsman in 1914. But the war was not yet over, and Gorman, by now a captain, attended the briefing on the impending Arnhem campaign given by Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks. When Horrocks announced that the "honour of leading this great dash which may end the war" would be given to the Irish Guards, Gorman expostulated: "Oh, my God, not again!" Gorman's troop crossed the Nijmegen bridge before the advance was called off.
Having left the army in 1946, Gorman joined the RUC and became a district inspector in Antrim. There, in 1947, he came into conflict with the young Ian Paisley, who had objected to a proposed Catholic pilgrimage to a holy well at Rasharkin. Gorman gave the procession an RUC guard on the Feast of the Assumption.
In 1955 he was moved, as district inspector, to Armagh where, shortly after his arrival, he and an army officer, Major Brian Clark, helped to disarm a young fusilier who had gone berserk. Gorman suggested to Clark that their exploit was worth a medal – but only one. They tossed a coin for the honour and in due course Clark, on Gorman's recommendation, was awarded the George Medal. Later, with the approval of the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal D'Alton, Gorman uncovered an IRA bomb-making factory in the cathedral, which led to the arrest of three gunmen hiding in the confession boxes.
During the IRA's border campaign in the Fifties, Gorman acted as a liaison officer with MI5 and MI6, and in 1960 his security contacts put his name forward for the position of chief of security at BOAC. One of his first duties was to supervise the security arrangements for the royal tour of Pakistan, Nepal and Iran in 1961, at the end of which he was appointed CVO. He was later promoted the airline's head of personnel, with a seat on the board. In 1968 he moved to become the airline's manager in Canada, and, from 1975, in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
In 1979 Gorman became deputy chairman and chief executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the country's largest owner of public housing. He succeeded in cleaning up corruption and selling off council houses, and in 1986 became part-time director of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, an office he held until 1995.
In 1990 he aroused controversy when he invited the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, to address an IoD meeting in Belfast, in Haughey's capacity as President of the EU. Prominent among opponents of the visit was the unionist politician David Trimble. Nonetheless, after Trimble's election as Ulster Unionist leader in 1995, Gorman joined the UUP, and in 1996 was nominated as a member of the Forum for Political Dialogue, a body which had been set up in parallel with inter-party talks. He was subsequently chairman of the Forum, a position which he held until its last session in April 1998.
Following the Belfast Agreement of the same year, Gorman was elected as member for North Down in the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and served as a deputy speaker of the assembly from 2000 until its suspension in 2002. As the lone Catholic in the unionist camp, Gorman, with his neat military moustache, cut a somewhat idiosyncratic figure (his opponents called him "Captain Mainwaring"). On one occasion television viewers were entertained by the astonishing spectacle of him urging the bemused Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to blow up IRA arms in "one big bang".
In 2002, Gorman published an autobiography, The Times of My Life. John Gorman was appointed MBE in 1959, CBE in 1974 and was knighted in 1998. In 2005 he was appointed a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. He served as High Sheriff of Belfast in 1987-88.
Sir John Gorman who died on May 26 married, in 1948, Heather Caruth, who survives him with two daughters and a son. Another son predeceased him.