Martin O’Neill, politician

Born: January 6, 1945;

Died: August 26, 2020.

MARTIN O’Neill, latterly Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, who has died at the age of 75, was an able Labour politician who played a crucial role in moving the party away from the policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament under Neil Kinnock.

He was elected to Westminster in 1979, defeating the SNP’s George Reid in Labour’s Scottish landslide of that year, with a majority of 984 on a turnout of over 80 per cent. As a diligent and popular MP, he was returned with comfortable majorities until retiring from the Commons in 2005.

A well-liked figure across all sections of the party, O’Neill was appointed as deputy spokesman on defence by Kinnock in 1984 as the policy transition began to evolve, though Labour still went into the election three years later on a unilateralist platform.

In June 1988, however, the delicate balancing act fell apart. O’Neill’s boss as Shadow Defence Secretary, Denzil Davies, made a 2 a.m. phone call to the Press Association to intimate that he was resigning from the Front Bench because of disagreements with Kinnock’s leadership style. Later the same day, O’Neill was appointed to the role with the clear mandate of leading a shift in policy and facing down the critics. It was a challenging task which he carried off with the firm but good-natured demeanour of a pragmatist rather than ideologue.

Kinnock remembers: “He was always calm, always self-assured but modest. It was a great mixture when all of a sudden he became Shadow Defence Secretary in very difficult circumstances”.

Throughout most of his time at Westminster, Martin shared a flat with fellow Labour MP, Doug Henderson, who recalls: “ He worked very hard on building a case which was in line with NATO’s expectations of a Labour government and was more credible with the electorate.

“There was a lot of caution within the Parliamentary Labour Party but most of them saw that there had to be change. Martin approached everything with humour and that made him good at the gentle art of persuasion and disagreeing without rancour”.

In 1990, this work bore fruit when the Labour Party conference voted to ditch the unilateralist stance, aided by a changed global climate in which the perceived threat of Soviet attack had greatly diminished after Mikhail Gorbachev’s emergence as leader.

O’Neill was from the mainstream left of the party and held to the view that an unelectable Labour Party was of little use to anyone, including his constituents in the old industrial towns and villages of Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire which he represented, with some boundary variations, for 26 years.

If Labour had won in 1992, he would certainly have achieved Cabinet rank. As it was, he was given the Shadow Energy role and again found himself facing the “anti-nuclear” lobby in a different form. O’Neill favoured a balanced energy policy which included nuclear power – he later became president of the Nuclear Industry Association - but this had become unfashionable in Labour circles and he was dropped by Tony Blair in 2005 after 15 years on the Opposition Front Bench.

O’Neill thus belonged to a generation of Labour MPs who had done the heavy lifting of opposition through the Thatcher-Major years but whose moment had passed, in terms of Ministerial office, by the time New Labour emerged. By background, he was closer to Gordon Brown than to Blair but he was no factionalist; electable Labour owed him a great deal.

On leaving the Front Bench, he became chairman of the Trade and Industry Select Committee and made a great success of that role. Well-respected across party lines, and not afraid to inconvenience the Labour government, he retained the position until retiring. In particular, he was regarded as an ally by British manufacturing industry, a loyalty he maintained through his work in the Lords.

He was also the respected president of the Specialist Engineering Contractors trade body. A particularly apposite tribute came from Alan Wilson, director of the organisation which speaks for the Scottish electronics industry, who described him as “a warm and caring man … one of the good guys, and his wisdom, experience and friendship will be sorely missed”

Martin O’Neill was a native of Edinburgh. His father, John, was an engineer with Ferranti and a trade union activist; his mother Minnie a clerical worker. He worked first for Scottish Widows while graduating through a part-time course in economics from Heriot-Watt University, later gaining a teaching qualification from Moray House. Between 1974-79, he taught modern studies at Boroughmuir and Craigmount High Schools, and latterly doubled as an Open University tutor.

Having been president of the Scottish National Union of Students, he cut his political teeth as part of a talented young Labour team which included future Parliamentary colleagues Robin Cook and George Foulkes that was successfully challenging traditional Tory domination on Edinburgh City Council. O’Neill was secretary of Edinburgh Labour Party throughout the early 1970s.

His first Parliamentary foray was in October 1974 in the Tory stronghold of Edinburgh North. He was then a late selection to contest Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire in 1979 – the original nominee, Eric Clarke, having been appointed general secretary of the Scottish NUM. The constituency became Clackmannan and then Ochil which, in 2001, O’Neill held with an increased majority over the Scottish Nationalist, Keith Brown.

His passions outside politics and family were jazz, cinema and Hibernian FC, of which he was a director from 2004-2007. In a tribute, Hibs saluted “a staunch supporter all his life, who brought his considerable political skills and influence to the club. Latterly, he assisted quietly, in the background, in setting up Hibernian Supporters Limited”.

Doug Henderson says: “Apart from football, Martin and I agreed about most things, including the need for high tea before canvassing”. In many respects, O’Neill was a politician from a gentler age with a rounded life outside politics and a deep commitment to the people and communities he represented.

He is survived by his wife Elaine, whom he married in 1973, and two sons; Michael, an engineer in Australia, and Peter, a lawyer in Edinburgh.