Irish soldier and Unionist MP Sir Henry Hughes Wilson (1864 - 1922) attending Lord Pembroke's shooting party at Wilton, Salisbury. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

A shield for Sir Henry

Sir Henry Wilson was a duly elected MP murdered in post — he deserves a few square inches of paint

If you visit the House of Commons, you will notice that the walls are lined with wooden shields, and that some of these have been painted in. These pay tribute to MPs who have been killed in the line of duty. The most recent honours Jo Cox, assassinated during the 2016 referendum campaign.

But in a week in which Boris Johnson’s approach to Northern Ireland is once again making headlines, his party would do well to reflect on four others.

These are the shields that honour the memories of Airey Neave, Robert Bradford, Sir Tony Berry, and Ian Gow. All Conservative or Unionist MPs murdered by Irish republican terrorists during the Government’s confrontation with the IRA between 1979 and 1990.

The shield commemorating Ian Gow

Such memento mori are a rebuke to those Conservatives who might wish to treat Northern Ireland as merely a matter of hands-off crisis management. Generations of Tories have put everything on the line to defend Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Yet as I noted when the Prime Minister elevated Claire Fox to the peerage, that history doesn’t seem to snare the conscience as once it might. Recent events excepted, the Belfast Agreement has broadly achieved what Lloyd George’s creation of Stormont did before it: allowed London to largely forget about Ulster — at the price of condemning it to isolation and misgovernment.

More needs to be done to reconnect Conservatives with their proud tradition of resistance to republican terror

The Government’s decision to afford yet another tranche of IRA killers a de facto amnesty (one may be forgiven for being surprised there are any left not yet released or issued a “letter of comfort”) to justify offering the same for British ex-servicemen is just the latest decision which has dismayed the Ulster unionists who might once have been its natural allies.

It is not that the fire has completely gone out. Lord Frost is fighting the Union’s corner with refreshing zeal, whilst Brandon Lewis is overseeing a long-overdue overhaul of attitudes at the Northern Ireland Office. Meanwhile backbench MPs have organised as the Conservative Union Resources Unit (CURU), which now has a grassroots counterpart in the revived Conservative Friends of the Union.

But it is clear that more needs to be done to reconnect this new generation of Conservatives with their party’s proud tradition of fierce resistance to republican terrorism. Even a small gesture would be a start.

And I have just such a gesture in mind, because that list of shields to honour Tory MPs murdered by the IRA is missing a name: Sir Henry Wilson.

Wilson, an Irishman from County Longford who rose to serve as Chief of the Imperial General Staff after World War One, was returned to Parliament as the Unionist MP for North Down in February 1922. A few short months later, in July of the same year, he was murdered on the streets of London by republican assassins.

He was a duly elected MP murdered in post — he deserves a few square inches of paint

He was, to say the least,  a controversial figure. Like many Conservatives at the time, he was a staunch supporter of Sir Edward Carson and organised Unionist resistance to the prospect of all-island Home Rule. He also played a pivotal role in the “Curragh incident’, in which British officers threatened to resign or face dismissal rather than obey orders to coerce “Ulster” — there was yet no ”Northern Ireland” — out of the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, he was a decorated soldier who rose to the highest ranks in the Armed Forces. More importantly, he was a duly elected Member of Parliament, murdered in post. He deserves a few square inches of paint, and to be called to mind, even briefly, by those who sit in or visit the Commons.

The centenary of his assassination falls on the 22 June, 2022. Let the memorial be up by then. It would be a sign that Parliament cherishes its Irish members as much as the rest, and that the Conservatives in particular have not forgotten those of their party who gave their lives in this country’s cause.

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