Retro: Sheffield ex-MP still involved in world affairs at 95

Sir Patrick Duffy - taken in the early months of 1940 at HMS Royal Arthur (Butlins Skegness) where he was under training
Sir Patrick Duffy - taken in the early months of 1940 at HMS Royal Arthur (Butlins Skegness) where he was under training
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Former Sheffield Labour MP Sir Patrick Duffy recently celebrated his 95th birthday and is still very much part of world affairs, having just been to a meeting of NATO in Paris.

He’s only now thinking of slowing down a little and taking time to look in more detail at the extraordinary times that he has lived through, including his years as MP for Attercliffe in Sheffield.

Fitzalan Square in the old days - scene of protest during 1926 General Strike

Fitzalan Square in the old days - scene of protest during 1926 General Strike

He has shared some of his memories with Retro, which we are running as a series of articles.

His autobiography, Growing Up Irish in Britain and British in Ireland and in Washington, Moscow, Rome and Sydney, is described by Sir Patrick as recalling “a life dominated by industrial, military and political strife - personal and institutional”.

Sir Patrick’s father, James, and his mother, Margaret, were originally from County Mayo in the west of Ireland but eventually settled in Doncaster, where Sir Patrick still lives.

He splits his time between South Yorkshire and a much-loved cottage in Mayo.

Sir Patrick has vivid memories of the 1926 General Strike, when his father, a Rossington miner, was part of the great lockout of the pits.

The nine-day general strike by 1.7 million workers was called to support striking miners, who faced swingeing pay cuts, but the TUC gave up in defeat while the miners fought on.

Sir Patrick said: “Mum had no income coming in, the strike pay was exhausted. She was very self-reliant, as her generation were.

“She wouldn’t take any handouts and there were no benefits available.

“I think, how did you manage? We didn’t have much but what people had was shared with the neighbours.

“Dad was very independent. He never said much, he was a very quiet man.”

Sir Patrick said: “I was part of the General Strike romance of singing and marching and hearing speeches of denunciations of the employers.

“It was an early life appropriate for politics, coming from the General Strike and all those meetings. They were so big that they couldn’t fit into any hall, so it would be an open-air meeting.

“The platform would be a horse and dray with the horse uncoupled from it.”

Sir Patrick still has his father’s first pay slip when he returned to work on the night of Friday, December 3. He was paid just £1 16s 8d for four days’ work.

However, his political life was put on hold for a few years during World War Two.

Sir Patrick joined the armed forces as a teenager in Doncaster, taking him away from the area for six years.

He served as an ordinary seaman on the battle cruiser HMS Repulse in Scapa Flow in 1940 and then was sent for officer training.

Later he transferred to the Fleet Air Arm and flew Swordfish on Atlantic convoy duty.

In later life he was to become Navy Minister, chairing meetings with the Sea Lords in the Admiralty Board Room, something unimaginable for the teenage seaman.

During the war he suffered terrible injuries in a crash but refused to be invalided out.

Extraordinarily for someone who also served as president of the NATO Assembly and went to the White House, Pentagon and Kremlin, Sir Patrick said that was his proudest moment.

“When after I crashed flying with the Fleet Air Arm, despite a conviction by my parents that I would be invalided out, I went to the Fleet Air Arm medical board and stated my preference to go back to operational work to a frontline role and I did.

“They warned me that my medical category couldn’t possibly merit such an appointment but in wartime you can get around things like that.

“When the war ended and I went to the London School of Economics, I was still officially designated 100 per cent disabled but I finished the war flying with an operational squadron.

“I attach the utmost importance to tenacity, to never giving in and staying the course to resolution.”

On his return from the war, Sir Patrick studied in London and then went on to the University of Columbia in New York. While he was there studying for his PhD, he was offered a job lecturing at Leeds University.

However, politics was always bound to call him away from academia and Sir Patrick stood for his first parliamentary seat in Tiverton in Devon while still a student in 1950.

He won his first seat in the Colne Valley in 1963 and became the MP for Attercliffe in 1970.

Sir Patrick said: “I got the political bug during the General Strike of 1926. That stayed with me throughout my life. That enabled me to meet people whom I have valued and whose memories I cherish and whose examples I thought exemplary.

“And yet I am an economist by training. I always had an interest in finance but my beliefs prevented me from ever doing anything about it.”

He added: “If I had not gone into politics, I certainly would like to have gone into the city of London, or gone into law. Really my training at the LSE and Columbia fitted me for and City, but I preferred politics.”

Sir Patrick served as Navy Minister under Jim Callaghan in the 1970s and was president of NATO in the early 1990s as the Warsaw Pact nations joined for the first time as the Cold War ended.

He was the only MP to confront Margaret Thatcher in the Commons over the death of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands but remembers with pleasure the time when he had a meeting with her in her office when he had moved over to NATO.

Her clock-watching staff watched in horror as the prime minister poured him not one but two cups of tea because she wanted to talk to him for longer.

The lifelong Catholic was also honoured by a private audience with Pope John Paul II.

The Pontiff took the opportunity to urge that spending on arms should go to the Third World.

Sir Patrick recalls leaving the Pope’s private study with the words “remember the Third World” being called after him.

Next week: The struggle to become an MP in Attercliffe