Cork roots of only UK Prime Minister to be assassinated

Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a motion of no-confidence in the past few weeks, by a slender margin. John Dolan reflects on his 'win'
Cork roots of only UK Prime Minister to be assassinated

Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

THE ‘silly season’ is almost upon us - the term coined by journalists for when midsummer arrives, the courts, politicians and councils shut up shop, and ‘hard’ news often dries up.

Those in the media may have to turn to trivial or frivolous matters to keep the 24-hour news cycle fed. Exhibit A - Love Island.

But this summer, there are sure to be plenty of big news stories developing to keep the media and their consumers on their toes, what with the war in Ukraine, the ever-soaring prices, and the circus that is the UK political system.

This week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson survived a motion of no-confidence in him by his own Tory MPs, but by such a slender margin that he has been described as a dead man walking and a lame duck Prime Minister.

A lover of classical Greek culture, Boris will no doubt be aware of the concept of a pyrrhic victory. In 279BC, a Greek king, Pyrrhus, defeated the Romans in battle, but lost so many of his troops, that it came with too high a price. It felt like a defeat.

That is what many believe happened in the vote on Monday night: A victory for Boris that will ultimately be seen as a defeat.

However, for all his portrayals as a clown who isn’t just economic with the truth, he is practically parsimonious, Boris is a born survivor. As I wrote here just a few weeks ago, he still has a fair chance of clinging onto power until the next election - and he might just win that too.

The only people who can bring him down in the meantime are his own MPs, and if he retains their support, he might - unlikely and depressing for many of us in Ireland as it sounds - be around for some time to come.

There have been 55 Prime Ministers since the first one, Robert Walpole, more than three centuries ago, in 1721 - and he in fact remains the longest-serving, at 20 years 314 days.

But it might surprise you to learn that Boris is already in the middle of that pack, at No.35, when it comes to length of tenure - at two years, 322 days.

The day after he survived the no-confidence vote, he passed out Gordon Brown’s term in office, and on Thursday, Boris surpassed the legendary Duke of Wellington’s two short terms in office.

How he would love to be mentioned in the same breath as the man who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo!

Sadly for Boris, he is unlikely to be remembered by posterity as even being on a par with the fundamentally decent Gordon Brown, who came a cropper when a global recession decimated the economy on his watch.

Next in Boris’s sights on the longevity stakes is another well-known British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, who famously sought to appease Adolf Hitler. The present incumbent of 10, Downing Street, is set to pass him out next month - and his immediate predecessor, Theresa May, just a few weeks later.

In browsing through the list of British Prime Ministers, I was interested to discover the fascinating Cork links to one of the most infamous of them all.

Spencer Perceval served as PM for two years, 221 days from 1809 - Boris passed him out earlier this year.

However, Perceval would have served for much longer if he hadn’t become the first - and only - Prime Minister to be assassinated while in office.

He was shot dead in the House of Commons by a man with a grudge against his Government - John Bellingham, a merchant who believed he had been unjustly imprisoned in Russia and was entitled to compensation from the State.

The assassination in May, 1812, was mourned here in Cork, where the Lord Mayor Thomas Dorman stated that the King had been deprived of a “faithful, zealous, and enlightened servant, and the country of a virtuous and upright minister”.

It is little wonder that Perceval was held in high regard in Cork’s wealthy circles at the time, for it was the land of his ancestors...

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Spencer Perceval.
Spencer Perceval.

Spencer Perceval came from a long line of landowners in North Cork, dating back to the 16th century and Queen Elizabeth I.

In the 17th century, Sir Philip Perceval obtained grants of forfeited lands in Ireland amounting to just over 100,000 acres, and his eldest son, John Perceval, was made the first Baronet of Kanturk.

The fifth Baronet, John Perceval, represented Cork in the Irish House of Commons and became the Earl of Egmont. John was Spencer’s grandfather.

The Earls of Egmont built the magnificent Burton Park in Churchtown, North Cork.

This is now home to Slí Eile, an organisation which enables people with mental health challenges to recover and rebuild their lives.

Spencer also had wealthy Cork links on his mother’s side. She was Baroness Arden, of Lohort Castle, situated between Mallow and Kanturk.

Like Burton Park, Lohort Castle was a hugely impressive building in its day, and withstood attacks by Cromwell’s forces, and also the IRA 100 years ago. An information board for visitors was erected by the county council there last year.

As an aside, the 101 acres of land at Lohort Castle provided the first load of beet ever to be processed at the Mallow sugar beet factory when it opened in the 1930s.

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So, was Spencer Perceval a good Prime Minister during his cut-short tenure?

On the credit side, he was a charitable man who supported the abolition of the slave trade. He also had to contend with the ill-health of the ‘mad king’ George III on his watch,

On the debit side, here in Ireland, Perceval was opposed to Catholic emancipation, which finally came about, thanks to the efforts of Daniel O’Connell, 15 years after his assassination in the House of Commons.

Of course, Boris Johnson’s worst enemy wouldn’t wish that kind of demise on him - but all political careers are said to end in failure eventually, and after the events of this week, he is now far more likely to fall victim to a metaphorical night of the long knives, or else fall on his sword.

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