Hillsborough was a devastating blow to his reputation, but Irvine Patnick was an enduring political character. Peter Kay looks back
IT has never been totally clear who coined the phrase, the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, but Irvine Patnick has as good a claim as anybody.
Probably the best known local Conservative over 30 years, he was the lively and colourful voice of the opposition on both the county and city councils, before going on to become the lone Tory MP in a sea of red.
He was a heavyweight who never gave up the cause, despite the overwhelming political odds, and his efforts were recognised with an OBE and, in 1994, a knighthood.
His death at the age of 83 comes at a time when his reputation was blighted by the independent report into the Hillsborough disaster, which revealed him to be one of the sources of newspaper articles blaming Liverpool fans for the tragedy.
He said he was “deeply and sincerely sorry for the part I played in adding to the pain and suffering of the victims’ families”, adding it was now clear information he had received from some police officers at the time was “wholly inaccurate, misleading and plain wrong”.
But the former Government whip continued to face calls for him to be stripped of his title.
Despite his many clashes with his Labour opponents since becoming a city councillor in 1967, there was sympathy this week from some of his old political foes.
Former council leader and Sheffield MP David Blunkett said: “I am deeply sorry that Irvine’s last few months were surrounded by such terrible controversy on the back of the tragic events of 1989 at Hillsborough. No one, with any humanity, would have wished for him to have died in such circumstances and I hope he will be remembered for the remarkable, often frustrating, and sometimes very amusing character that I knew back in the 1980s when we spent so much of our time in political combat.”
At a time when many politicians are criticised for being clone-like, Irvine Patnick was a one-off. The family name was renowned in Sheffield for its dealing in second-hand goods - its shop was called the ‘Junkarama’ - but he developed his own career as a successful businessman
Born in the city, he studied at Sheffield Polytechnic and was elected to the city council in May 1967, part of a group of energetic ‘Young Turks’ who did the almost impossible and seized control of the city for a year.
On the right of the party, he never missed an opportunity to make his point, often taking the most populist of lines.
He secured another platform when he led the Conservatives on South Yorkshire County Council from 1974 to 1986, leading wave upon wage of attacks on Labour’s cheap bus fares policy, which, it was argued, meant much heftier bills for local ratepayers. Socialist Republic? He saw it as a condemnation. His opponents wore the badge with pride.
One of his closest sparring partners, John Cornwell, who was Labour deputy county council leader, said: “He kept at it. He had the enthusiasm for being leader of the opposition, and he kept rallying the troops. Others didn’t stay the pace, but he was still active at the end.”
An eye on Westminster saw Irvine Patnick contest Hillsborough in 1970 and 1979 before finally taking Hallam in 1987. He could be abrasive, and there were some inside his own party who occasionally felt they had to temper his approach.
He lost the once Tory stronghold in 1997 to Liberal Democrat Richard Allan, who was succeeded by Nick Clegg.
Labour MP and former city council leader Clive Betts said: “What we should remember is the years of public service by Sir Irvine as a city and county councillor then MP to a city he loved. We had political disagreements, but he was very helpful when I was leader as a conduit between the council and ministers.”
Irvine Patnick, who lived in Abbeydale Road South, was also vice-president of Sheffield’s Kingfield Synagogue and a life president of Sheffield Jewish Representative Council.
He died on Sunday, leaving wife Lynda and children Suzanne and Matthew. The funeral was at Colley Road Cemetery, Ecclesfield, on Tuesday.