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'He was a gifted politician and powerful speaker' – tributes paid to Paul Hannon, who has died aged 70

Always politically controversial, but admired as an effective politician, former leader of Newbury District Council Paul Hannon has died.

He was 70 and had been living with prostate cancer.

“He was my soul mate,” said his wife Siobhan McClelland. “We both loved talking about politics and horses.

Paul Hannon at his wedding party at Newbury Racecourse (62010700)
Paul Hannon at his wedding party at Newbury Racecourse (62010700)

“We always used to have a glass of fizz when we went to the races. I shall raise a glass to him the next time I go, with fond memories.

“We had our first date at Newbury Racecourse.

“We got married in Las Vegas the same year we met in 2009 and had the party at Newbury Racecourse.”

“He was a proud Irishman,” his widow added. “He had a real passion for racing – and for the Nags Head.

“We moved to Newport in South Wales and he became elected on the city council there. Then we moved to Manorbier where he was a community councillor.

“Then we moved to Fakenham in Norfolk where he was a town councillor, so he always found his way in to local politics.”

Born in Dublin to an Irish father and an English mother from Cornwall, Mr Hannon was brought up in Croydon.

He was a Roman Catholic and went to Royal London Veterinary College, but decided politics was more for him.

His love of animals endured and he worked for both the Blue Cross and the RSPB.

He retained an interest in politics up until he died.

“He was pleased when Joe Biden won and couldn’t believe what was going on in British politics – particularly as a staunch European,” Dr McClelland said.

He was also a keen Arsenal supporter. The London team were top of the league when he was born – and when he died.

Respectful nods to his political prowess have been paid by former Newbury MP Richard Benyon – now in the Lords and a Government environment minister.

“I was leader of the Tory group on Newbury District Council and leader of the opposition when he was leader of the council and found him to be a very effective political operator,” he said.

“He and I would often go to the pub [The Dolphin] after a council meeting and resolve many issues over a pint of beer.”

But Mr Hannon fell out with his Lib Dem colleagues, and then joined Labour in the 1990s when he later he stood, and lost, as the Labour Parliamentary candidate in 1997.

He had another falling out with his Labour colleagues when he moved to Newport, where he was also a city councillor.

“He was good at falling out with people,” joked Lord Benyon. “He was a gifted politician and powerful speaker.

“He could be very combative, but was totally straight and when he said something would happen it did.

“I enjoyed being able to work with him, even though he was always a creature of the left. I was of the centre right. That didn’t stop us getting on.

“It taught me how to work across the floor, which I found very useful in coalition government.”

Tom Baldwin was the Newbury Weekly News council reporter during the early 1990s when Mr Hannon was the leader of the local Liberal Democrats.

“Newbury had been Conservative for so long that local politics sometimes seemed to work on the hereditary principle and everyone, including journalists, were expected to be quite deferential.” he said.

“But Paul came in and electrified the scene.

“He had learnt his campaign skills in student politics and the Irishman in him meant he wasn’t going to bend his knee to anyone.

“Council meetings are not most people’s idea of fun but, as the Liberal Democrats took control, Paul could be hilarious.

“He rang rings around the lot of them – Conservatives from Bucklebury, council officers who had been unchallenged for years, his own party – and, a few times, me.

“Afterwards he would hold court in The Dolphin, eyes sparkling behind his glasses, alongside his [then] wife and fellow councillor Sally.

“The rest of us would gaze on in wonder at Paul’s ability to keep talking in perfectly-formed paragraphs as the pints in front of him were emptied and the ashtray was filled.”

Mr Baldwin, who later covered national politics as a journalist on The Times and went on to work for the Labour Party, believes Mr Hannon “could and maybe should” have made the leap to being a Westminster politician himself.

“He paved the way for the Liberal Democrat by-election win in 1993 that itself presaged a much bigger upheaval with Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997,” he said.

“This was a time when Britain and British politics was changing fast. Paul Hannon was Newbury’s own agent of change.”

Mr Hannon’s first wife Sally, who died of breast cancer, aged 52, was a Liberal Democrat councillor in Newbury, and in 1995 she was elected the town’s mayor. She was, as a colleague said, “a remarkably unstuffy mayor”.

She and Mr Hannon met at the Young Liberals and they married in 1980.

Sally was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas 2005. The couple lost a little boy, Thomas, as a baby, but went on to have two daughters Eilis and Holly.

Old friends also paid tribute.

“Paul is a huge loss and we will miss him terribly,” said Prof Leighton Andrews, a friend and former Welsh Government minister. “He was my oldest friend – we met in the 1970s.”

Mr Hannon was a prominent campaigner for international development and for environmental and animal welfare causes, and lobbied at European level on behalf of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“Paul was highly popular, using wit, empathy and diplomacy to achieve change,” added Prof Andrews.

A Catholic by faith, Mr Hannon had a profound belief in the importance of the grass roots voice and the ability of local people to find solutions to problems.

Mr Hannon is survived by Siobhan and by his two daughters and four grandchildren.

“His grandchildren were a such a great source of joy to him,” added Dr McClelland.

Funeral details are yet to be announced, but will take place in Lincoln where he and Dr McClelland had been living. Donations to the Marine Conservation Society.

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