Liz Barker’s tribute to Paddy Ashdown

In a House of Lords debate on the Western Balkans this week, Baroness Liz Barker paid tribute to Paddy Ashdown:

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for this debate, which, sadly, is timely and appropriate. I thank her for giving me the opportunity to tell your Lordships’ House about an event that took place in Sarajevo on 27 December. Joseph Ingram wrote a report of it and he said this. Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina held a spontaneous commemorative service in the “iconic, reconstructed city hall”. The hall was,

“filled to capacity, and despite being nationally televised, had people lined up outside trying to be part of it. The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, a group that represents survivors of the most horrific massacre of innocent civilians on European soil since World War Two, had announced that they too intend to honour the work of this extraordinary human being”.

The event was dedicated to one man. He was born in India. He grew up as a lad in Northern Ireland. He left school, joined the marines and became a captain, a diplomat and spy. Then he gave up everything and, after a period on the dole, went on to become a youth worker and eventually the gallant MP for Yeovil. In this House, we knew him as Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, but he was always Paddy.

He had a wide range of interests. He had forgotten more languages than most of us have ever learned. He could quote the poetry of John Donne at will. He was an informed and passionate supporter of activists for democracy in Hong Kong, when nobody else took any notice, and he packed more achievements into a lifetime than most of us could imagine, but he was always first to admit that the source of his great strength was Jane. In public she was a quiet figure, but to those of us who know her she is a charming, funny and formidable woman.

I will give you one vignette which sums up both of them. Like all good leaders, Paddy used to invite people in to advise him, talk to him and argue with him. In 1992 I was one of the small group. Early one morning, he posed us the question: should I go to Bosnia? We went round the room and we all said no. We gave him all sorts of reasons why it was a really bad idea, and I left the meeting certain of only one thing. He was going to go. We all saw the TV pictures recently, but what we did not know until we read his autobiography was that he had come under fire, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, told us. But he went because he saw a group of people being treated unjustly, and he thought that he could and should do something.

Some months later, I was talking quietly to Jane at our party conference and I said to her, “It must be awful for you and the kids when he goes off on trips like that”. She said, “It is, but what is much worse is having to put up with him when they stop him going. Then he is just unbearable”. She went on to say that whenever Paddy went to the Balkans he carried thousands of letters backwards and forwards to people starved of news and desperate to know about their relatives. He never wrote about that.

From Somerset to Bosnia, from the people in the highest echelons of the UN to small groups of local Liberal Democrats, we were very privileged to walk alongside him, a remarkable man with a vision of a world in which freedom, justice and fairness exist for all in their diversity. It will be a great privilege to carry on his work.

I am pleased to say that one of the great things I got to do was to talk to Paddy a lot about the Balkans. I have been on visits recently to Kosovo and Serbia and have been to other parts of the Balkans in a private capacity. I am a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Kosovo. I would always come back and talk to Paddy about what I had seen, and he would give me a whole other level of understanding. It was not just his appreciation of the politics of the region but his absolute understanding of people—from the most hardened of embittered fighters to women and young people—that gave him a completely unique perspective, which he took back and forth and around the world to different policymakers. So it is with his help that I speak today.

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  • Yeovil Yokel 12th Jan '19 - 12:05pm

    I’m glad that modern Parliamentarians like Liz Barker and Margaret Beckett can still deliver spine-tingling speeches like this one, terrific stuff.

  • I had the honour and pleasure of being in a small audience of his not too long ago. What he shared was clear, brave and totally based on his personal experiences, alongside searching how globally we can be better by standing together against groups behaving like gangsters and bullies. A great loss.

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