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Lady Lucy Faulkner

The widow of Northern Ireland's last prime minister helped lay the ground for the Good Friday Agreement

LADY Faulkner of Downpatrick, who has died aged 86, was the widow of Brian Faulkner, last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and who since his death in a hunting accident in 1977, had continued to champion his moderate brand of Unionism.

Lucy Faulkner was one of her husband's greatest assets. She matched his steely ambition with a personal warmth and charm -- and was reckoned to bake some of the finest cakes in Ulster.

Throughout, and after, the turbulent years leading to the imposition of direct rule, she was Brian Faulkner's mainstay. When in March 1972 he returned to their home at Seaforde, Co Down, from the final, abortive round of talks with Edward Heath which led to the resignation of the Northern cabinet, she was waiting up for him with a strong cup of coffee (Faulkner was teetotal).

Lady Faulkner played her part in creating the climate that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement. She was one of the six-strong Opsahl Committee (named after its Norwegian chairman) that proposed in 1993 that the British government talk to Sinn Fein to secure a ceasefire despite "universally felt revulsion at the (IRA's) atrocities". It also called for a Bill of Rights, more integrated education and the reversal of "segregation" in housing.

She said that her husband would have endorsed the report, based on interviews with 3,000 people across the North, explaining: "Brian was a very pragmatic man who believed in going for what you could get. When he entered negotiations for the Executive, it was because his overriding concern was that Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom, and I feel the same way."

She warned unionists that their links with the UK were in danger from the increasing frustration of mainland Britons.

"If I lived in the wilds of Somerset, I could not accept my boys were being killed 'over there' and my money poured in. What Brian accepted, and what was at the back of our minds in the inquiry, was that the government would not go on subsidising Northern Ireland indefinitely."

Lucy Barbara Ethel Forsythe was born on July 1, 1925. From Bangor Collegiate School she went to Trinity College Dublin, where she read History. She joined the Belfast Telegraph in 1947, leaving after two years to work at Stormont as personal secretary to Prime Minister Sir Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough. In 1951 she married Brian Faulkner, then Stormont's youngest ever MP.

Comfortably off through his family's shirt-making business, her husband became a full-time politician. He was chief whip at 32, Home Affairs Minister at 35 and four years later a successful Minister for Commerce, becoming deputy prime minister to Captain Terence O'Neill.

At the start of 1969, Faulkner resigned in protest at O'Neill's refusal to set up an inquiry into the violence that would turn into a quarter of a century of 'Troubles', and make modest reforms. That May he orchestrated the ousting of O'Neill -- but lost out by one vote to Major James Chichester-Clark in the contest to succeed him, becoming Minister of Development.

He finally became Prime Minister in March 1971, defeating the hardliner William Craig. That August, he brought in internment for suspected terrorists.

Pressure of events denied the Faulkners a holiday that summer. To Lucy Faulkner's relief, they finally got away to north Wales in October; though they travelled under assumed names, her husband was recognised by the porter in the first hotel they stayed in.

After just a year as Northern Ireland's 'first lady', direct rule left Lucy Faulkner -- like her husband and, indeed, all unionists -- effectively in opposition. She was a prime mover in a "peace petition" launched by the Ulster Women's Unionist Council in 1972.

Faulkner had high hopes of the Sunningdale power-sharing process, but the unionist rank-and-file were slipping away from him. He emerged from the 1973 Assembly elections with the largest group of members, and at the start of 1974 became the province's chief executive -- resigning as Unionist Party leader after its council rejected Sunningdale. The executive collapsed within months when strikes by loyalist workers paralysed the North.

For the Faulkners, there was a silver lining. They were able to watch the Burleigh Horse Trials with their daughter, and spend more time hunting. Faulkner was Master of the Iveagh, at one particularly sensitive moment straying over the Border in pursuit of the quarry.

Faulkner's political career tapered off as unionists took a harder line; and in 1976 left politics. The Faulkners were pictured relaxing on their garden swing: she sewing, he reading Horse and Hound.

In Britain's 1977 New Year's Honours, Brian Faulkner was created Lord Faulkner of Downpatrick. He was introduced to the Lords on February 22, but on March 3 he was killed when, after a successful stag hunt, his horse bolted, ran into a car and rolled on him. His wife, following in a car, saw the accident, and told reporters: "He died instantly. It is a terrible shock."

Lady Faulkner remained keen on hunting and dressage. She also became a researcher, then a trustee, for the Ulster Historical Foundation.

Her husband had had a stormy relationship with the broadcast media, resigning from the predecessor of the Broadcasting Council for Northern Ireland in 1959 in protest at the BBC giving the actress Siobhan McKenna air time to support the IRA. But in 1981 Lady Faulkner became its chairman.

She was also, from 1978 to 1985, a national governor of the BBC. When, in her final year, the governors banned a documentary on extremism in Ulster at the behest of Britain's Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, BBC management was criticised for not having referred the project to her at the outset.

She returned to the political stage in 1987 after the IRA's bombing of Enniskillen's Remembrance Sunday parade. She appealed to nationalists to stop finding excuses not to co-operate with the security forces, and for the unionist leadership to "put the clock back" and welcome power sharing.

Lady Faulkner was appointed CBE in 1985. She had two sons and a daughter.

Sunday Independent