| 9.5°C Dublin

The gracious woman behind Northern Ireland's last PM

Lady Faulkner of Downpatrick, who has died aged 86, was the widow of Brian Faulkner, the last prime minister of Northern Ireland, and since his death had continued to champion his moderate brand of unionism.

Horrifically, Lucy Faulkner saw her husband Brian killed in 1977 when, after a stag hunt, his horse bolted, ran into a car and rolled on him.

She 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 the North.

Throughout, and after, the turbulent years leading to the imposition of direct rule from London, she was his mainstay. When, in March 1972, he returned to their home at Seaforde, Co Down, from the final, abortive round of talks with British Prime Minister Edward Heath that led to the resignation of the Northern Ireland cabinet, she was waiting up for him with a strong cup of coffee (he 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 government talk to Sinn Féin 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 province, 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 United Kingdom 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 the prime minister, 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 Capt 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.

When the death toll reached three figures, Faulkner said to his wife: "Surely people will come to their senses now." But the violence intensified. He finally became prime minister in March 1971, defeating the hardliner William Craig. That August, he controversially brought in internment for suspected terrorists.

After just a year as Northern Ireland's 'first lady', direct rule left Lady 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, then travelled with Faulkner to America to tell Ulster groups there that an early plebiscite on the Border was essential.

Despite his initial frostiness to Willie Whitelaw, 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 leader after the party's council rejected Sunningdale. The executive collapsed within months when strikes by loyalist workers paralysed the province.

Faulkner's political career tapered off as Unionists took a harder line; he could not carry his constituency at the 1975 assembly elections, scraping home through PR, and in 1976 left politics. The Faulkners were pictured relaxing on their garden swing: she sewing, he reading Horse and Hound.

In 1977, Brian Faulkner was created Lord Faulkner of Downpatrick.

Lady Faulkner became a researcher, then a trustee, for the Ulster Historical Foundation. In 1981 she became chairman of the BBC. She was also, from 1978 to 1985, a national governor of the BBC.

Lady Faulkner returned to the political stage in 1987 after the IRA's bombing in Enniskillen. 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, who died January 20, 2012, is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Indo Review