Don Concannon, Labour MP for Mansfield, 1966 to 1987 died just before the Christmas recess 2003, aged 73.
John Dennis Concannon – always known as Don – was born in 1930 into a South Yorkshire mining family. He was educated at Rossington secondary school and Doncaster Technical College. He signed up for six years in the Coldstream Guards, earning a lance corporal’s stripe. He stood on guard at St Jame’s Palace, Windsor Castle and at the Tower of London and took part in Trooping the Colour. He also served in Palestine and Libya. When his time in the Guards was up he went back to the heart of the mining community, down the pit at Rufford Colliery, Mansfield. There he became actively involved in the miners’ union and local politics. He also took an extra-mural degree from Nottingham University in economics, politics and trade unionism. In 1960 he became an NUM Branch official and in 1962 won a seat on Mansfield Council. Just before the 1966 election he was selected as Labour candidate for Mansfield, where he defeated the young Kenneth Clarke and increased the Labour majority by 5000.
From 1968 to 1970 he served as a Government Whip and continued in that role as an Opposition Whip between 1970 and 1974. After the 1974 General Election victory he spent a brief period as the Pairing Whip before being appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office. Two years later, he was promoted to Minister of State at Northern Ireland and remained in that office until the defeat of the Callaghan Government. After 1979 he served briefly as deputy Opposition spokesman on Defence, but was soon switched back to being the party’s spokesman on Northern Ireland, a position he held for the next three years. This was a very tough time, coinciding as it did with the dirty protest at the Maze and the hunger strike of the IRA prisoners. At the behest of the Shadow Cabinet he made a personal visit to Bobby Sands to make clear that the Official Opposition were determined to pursue a bi-partisan policy on security matters in Northern Ireland and that the Republican prisoners could not expect to drive a wedge between the Opposition and the Government. As a man deeply sympathetic to Irish nationalism, this was a particularly painful process but he bravely did what he saw as his duty, aware of the everlasting political consequences.
Many years later, when serving on the Energy Select Committee, he joined his colleagues in a visit to Belfast to investigate loft insulation in public housing, or some such. Whilst the rest of the Committee were driven to the Divis Flats in a mini-bus, Don followed behind in an armoured car, with armed protection. Superficially comical, yes; but tragic, too – and a stark example of the threat to the lives of politicians that shouldering responsibility as a Northern Ireland Minister, even an Opposition Spokesman, could and did occasion.
The encircling gloom occasioned by his Northern Ireland responsibilities was added to significantly by the miners’ strike of 1984-85 when the Nottinghamshire miners – his miners – refused to follow the lead of Arthur Scargill and broke away from the NUM. The bitterness of that time in the mining communities and in the Labour movement more generally made facing a reselection battle all the harder to bear and after a bad car crash in which he was very seriously injured, he announced his intention to retire from Parliament. It was his abiding loyalty to the Party, and to Neil Kinnock, which made him stay on until the 1987 General Election, at considerable personal cost; rather than immediately retire as he had wished to do after the crash, and cause a by-election which the Party would likely have lost. He never fully recovered from his injuries in that crash, though he enjoyed playing golf in retirement and for several years after leaving the House he continued to serve on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
He was a big man in every way and today we mourn his passing.
Alan Howarth, PLP