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Friday 20 September 2019

Obituary: Paddy Ashdown

Long-serving leader of the Lib Dems who made the party a third force in politics

ACTION MAN OF POLITICS: Paddy Ashdow. Photo: PA
ACTION MAN OF POLITICS: Paddy Ashdow. Photo: PA

Politicians in Northern Ireland have paid tribute to former British Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who died aged 77 last Saturday night, after a short battle with bladder cancer.

Born in India, Lord Ashdown spent much of his childhood in Co Down.

Naomi Long, leader of the Lib Dems' sister party, Alliance, said she was deeply saddened by the news.

"Paddy was a great friend to Northern Ireland, having grown up here, and a strong supporter of our peace process. He was a true statesman of international stature and politics is much poorer for his passing."

Lord Ashdown, whose real name was Jeremy John Durham Ashdown, was born into an Irish family on February 27, 1941. Daniel O'Connell was an ancestor. His father was an Army colonel in the sub-continent, and when he retired, he moved the family to a pig farm in Comber.

Paddy Ashdown joined the Royal Marines and served as a commando and in the elite Special Boat Service, spending the last years of his military career in Northern Ireland, including being involved in the arrest at one time of the future SDLP leader John Hume. In 1971, he transferred to the Foreign Office, spending five years as First Secretary at the UK Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, much later disclosing an MI6 connection. In an interview in 2010, he said he counted himself "with great pride to be a Northern Irishman".

In 2014, he said: "I am really sad I lost my Northern Irish accent because I lost my identity and a bit of my blood."

His background and linguistic skills proved useful to the Heath government as it sought to re-establish relations with China. But after five years he took the "crazy, irresponsible, naive" decision to quit the service and move to Yeovil, his wife's home county.

Ashdown worked first for Westland, then for Morlands, makers of sheepskin coats, until made redundant. After six months on the dole - "nothing I have ever done was as hard as that; it unmanned me" - he found a job with Dorset County Council. Originally a Labour supporter (from the shock of discovering that the men he commanded did not share his public-school outlook), he now threw himself into Liberal politics. Within a year of settling there, he fought Yeovil in 1979, reducing the majority of the Conservative, John Peyton. Liberals nationally started to take notice, and by the 1983 election he was being rated as leadership material if he could get elected. While the Alliance's hopes that year were frustrated, Ashdown had worked the constituency hard, and he captured the seat he would hold for 18 years.

Lord Ashdown was credited with making the British Lib Dems a significant third force in politics during the 1990s. Nicknamed 'Action Man', he added steel to a traditionally undisciplined force, reviving its fortunes by leading it from the Left as the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major became increasingly unpopular. His strategy paid dividends: over two elections Lib Dem strength in the Commons increased from 22 to 46.

Friends attributed Ashdown's somewhat introverted nature to his experiences as a commando. One observed: "A lot of his life has been about finding a framework for his own unruly passion... a fairly raw young man attempting to impose discipline on himself." Ashdown himself said: "If I have a strength, it is enthusiasm. If I have a weakness, it is impatience."

His reputation did not suffer lasting damage when, shortly before the 1992 election, an affair five years before with his former secretary, Patricia Howard, was revealed. Ashdown's wife had forgiven him; bizarrely it came to light after a burglary at the offices of Ashdown's solicitor.

Though the publicity was traumatic for Ashdown's family, he survived The Sun christening him 'Paddy Pantsdown', and he went on almost to hold the ground won by the Alliance five years before.

Ashdown's keenest policy interest was the tragedy that unfolded in Bosnia as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He demanded intervention by the EU and Nato to halt "ethnic cleansing", mainly by the Serbs, and in the first two years of Blair's government paid several visits to Kosovo.

After leaving Parliament at the 2001 election, he went to Bosnia as the international community's viceregal "high representative", maintaining the settlement reached at Dayton in 1995 and banging heads together when necessary. He was later proposed as Nato's envoy to Afghanistan, but his appointment was vetoed by President Karzai and influential warlords.

Paddy Ashdown married in 1961, Jane Courtenay, cousin of a fellow officer. She and their son and daughter survive him.

Sunday Independent

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