UK Politics

Enoch Powell's last stand: Why did he enter Ulster politics during the Troubles?

Enoch Powell in front of the Union flag in 1969 Image copyright Les Lee / Getty Images

On 10 October 1974, Enoch Powell won a seat for the Ulster Unionist Party in South Down.

What made this high-profile and divisive figure leave the epicentre of political life at Westminster to enter the maelstrom of Northern Ireland politics at the height of the Troubles?

By 1974, Powell was best-known for his 'rivers of blood' speech at the meeting of the Conservative Political Centre on 20 April 1968 at the Midland Hotel, in Birmingham.

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Media captionEnoch Powell clashes with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985

In this speech Powell, who at the time was shadow defence secretary, painted an apocalyptic picture of Britain's future if mass immigration continued.

He compared racial tensions in the United States to the Roman poet Virgil's description of "the River Tiber foaming with much blood".

Powell claimed that he was giving voice to the concerns of ordinary people in Britain but he was sacked from the shadow cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath.

When Heath became prime minister, he was frequently criticised by Powell, particularly on the question of British entry into the Common Market, to which Powell was deeply opposed.

In a speech on 23 February 1974, five days before the general election, Powell turned his back on the Conservatives, predominantly because of their policy on the European Economic Community (as it was then known), and advocated a vote for Labour, which promised a referendum on the Common Market. The subsequent election resulted in a hung parliament.

General election

Another general election was called for October and Powell repeated his call to vote Labour. No longer a member of the Conservative Party, he was recruited by the Ulster Unionists to stand for election in Northern Ireland's South Down constituency.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Enoch Powell on the campaign trail in October 1974

Powell had become an increasingly frequent visitor to Northern Ireland and supported the Ulster Unionists in their desire to remain a constituent part of the United Kingdom.

In turn, the Ulster Unionists saw an opportunity to add a well-known figure to the roll call of candidates for the nascent United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC), an electoral alliance between three unionist parties formed earlier that year.

Alex Kane, a commentator and former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) press officer, believes the arrangement suited both sides at the time.

"When Powell was persuaded to stand for the Ulster Unionists he was at the height of his popularity across Great Britain, with many people supporting his stance on immigration and the EEC. Key figures in the leadership of the party believed the scale of that popularity would be of benefit to them."

According to Kane, the geographical and constitutional integrity of the UK was hugely important to Powell.

"I think he feared that any diminution of the link would have a knock-on effect in Scotland and Wales. His concern on the issue coincided with his concern that entry to the EEC would also undermine the UK," he said.

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Media captionDid Enoch Powell win the '74 election for Labour?

Labour won a narrow majority in the election, leading to speculation that Powell's decision to encourage people to vote for Labour helped swing the result in Labour's favour. Kane assesses what influence Powell had on the outcome of the election.

"His impact perhaps wasn't as big as Powell himself liked to think, because Heath was already 'damaged goods' at that stage," he said.

Upon winning the Conservative Party leadership election in 1975, Margaret Thatcher refused to offer Powell a Shadow Cabinet place, saying he had "turned his back on his own people". Powell agreed this was the right decision for two reasons.

"In the first place I am not a member of the Conservative Party and secondly, until the Conservative Party has worked its passage a very long way it will not be rejoining me," he said.

Northern Ireland politics

Powell continued to serve as an MP in Northern Ireland during some of the worst years of the Troubles.

He believed the only way to stop the IRA was for Northern Ireland to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, governed in the same as its other constituent parts.

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Media captionEnoch Powell surveys his new political landscape in Northern Ireland

He claimed the uncertainty surrounding Northern Ireland's status encouraged terrorists to hope the links with the rest of the UK could be broken.

During his 13 years as MP for South Down, Powell had a difficult relationship with his colleagues, in part due to his belief in direct rule from Westminster for Northern Ireland.

"He was instrumental in getting a Select Committee established for Northern Ireland, but he proved to be quite divisive," Alex Kane said.

"He opened up the debate between the devolutionist and integrationist wings of unionism and his influence over Jim Molyneaux (who became leader of the Ulster Unionists in the Commons) meant that the UUP became very lukewarm on a devolved government."

Losing support

Kane suggests that Powell lost significant popular support and political influence in Britain during this period.

"While millions of people in Britain supported Powell on immigration and the EEC, they didn't share his interest in Northern Ireland. The same was true of the Conservative Party. His influence within it shrank when he encouraged voters to back Labour, and many who would have agreed with him on major issues never fully trusted him again," he said.

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Media captionEnoch Powell takes on Lord O'Neill, former prime minister of Northern Ireland

"Powell's influence within UK politics was diminished by the fact that he cut an increasingly isolated, seemingly paranoid figure when he left the mainstream."

Kane recalls how Powell also developed something of an obsession with what he believed was American influence over British policy towards Northern Ireland:

"This obsession was partly caused by his possession of a State Department policy statement (from August 1950) that argued 'it is desirable that Ireland should be integrated into the defence planning of the North Atlantic area, for its strategic position and present lack of defensive capacity are matters of significance'. Powell went as far as claiming that the CIA was responsible for the deaths of Lord Mountbatten, Airey Neave and Robert Bradford," he said.

Anglo-Irish Agreement

Powell strongly opposed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave Dublin a formal say in the running of Northern Ireland for the first time. In a heated exchange in the House of Commons on 14 November 1985, the day before the agreement was signed, Powell accused Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of "treachery".

In 1997, Lady Thatcher said Powell was right to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement, as she spoke of her regret over the deal.

"I now believe that his assessment was right, though I wish that on this as on other occasions he had been less inclined to impugn the motives of those who disagreed with him," she said.


Enoch Powell continues to polarise opinion.

A veteran political commentator told the BBC that they considered Powell to have made no positive impact in Northern Ireland:

"I consider Powell's time in Northern Ireland as an aberration. He blew in as pretty sad reject from British politics, still bright, still energetic, in need of a role, leapt upon by Jim Molyneaux at Westminster as someone who at least talked passionately about the merits of the union."

"He was the oddest of recruits, in terms of personality and background, to unionism here. He took the seat in South Down because unionists just about held majority, inexorably lost it to a nationalist when the demographics edged across the line. He left no legacy."

But Alex Kane believes Powell has left a mixed legacy.

"I think he was a man of great courage and principle and a great speaker. While his public image was of an austere, controversial political maverick, in private he was very different, and he had a mischievous sense of humour. But he never quite grasped the reality that politics isn't about logic and absolute rights and wrongs," he said.

"He didn't understand 'grey'. He is remembered mostly for beliefs he didn't actually hold."

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