Parker, Dame Dehra
Parker, Dame Dehra
A prominent Unionist politician and the first and only woman to hold ministerial office in the Parliament of Northern Ireland, Dame Dehra Parker (1882–1963) was named after the place of her birth, Dehra Doon in India. In 1901 she married Lieutenant Colonel Robert Spencer Chichester from Castledawson in County Londonderry. Parker's early career showed both a public spirit and a commitment to the Unionist cause. She organized Ulster Volunteer Force nursing units during the third Home Rule crisis of 1911 to 1914 and was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her war work in 1918. She was a vice-chairman of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council from 1911 to 1930 and also served as a justice of the peace, a rural district councillor in Magherafelt, Co. Londonderry, and as a member of Magherafelt board of guardians, serving as chair of this body from 1924 to 1927. In 1921 she was elected as an Unionist MP for Londonderry in the newly established Parliament of Northern Ireland, one of only two women to be elected. Her maiden speech was received with cheers from the Northern Ireland Commons on 1 December 1921, and she quickly became recognized as a staunch defender of the Unionist government, particularly its premier, Sir James Craig. Her standing was such that in 1924 she was selected as the first woman in Britain to present the annual address on behalf of the Commons following the king's speech at the opening of the parliamentary session.
Widowed in 1921, she married Rear Admiral Henry Parker in 1928 and stepped down from her parliamentary seat in favor of her son-in-law, James Chichester-Clark, in the following year. She returned to politics after Chichester-Clark's death in 1933 and remained an MP for South Londonderry until she retired from politics in 1960. A stalwart Unionist, Parker was appointed Northern Ireland parliamentary secretary for education in 1937, retaining this post until 1944. In 1949 she was appointed Northern Ireland minister of health and local government, becoming the first woman in Northern Ireland to hold a cabinet position. She held this post until 1957. She was also grandmother to two prime ministers of Northern Ireland: James Chichester-Clark and Terence O'Neill.
A voluble orator with a wry wit, Parker was the most prominent and long-serving woman in the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1949, she retired from politics after a thirty-five-year career in June 1960 because of ill health. She died in November 1963 and was aptly remembered by one former colleague, J. A. Oliver, as "capricious, an adroit politician and a most formidable operator" (Oliver 1974, p. 81).
Hansard, Northern Ireland House of Commons Debates. 1921–1960.
Oliver, J. A. Working at Stormont. 1974.
Urquhart, Diane. Women in Ulster Politics, 1890–1940: A History Not Yet Told. 2000.