'Never afraid to speak her mind': Baroness Fookes pays tribute to Baroness O’Cathain
A pioneering businesswoman, Detta O’Cathain was a master of detail and forensic in her questioning. Known for her intellect, hard work and determination, she was also sensitive and generous to her friends
Arriving in the House of Lords in 1991 Detta O’Cathain immediately broadened its range of expertise as she was a pioneering businesswoman. Through formidable intellect, hard work and steely determination she had positively crashed through various glass ceilings to serve as a non-executive director on the boards of some of the most prestigious companies in the country, notably the Midland Bank, British Airways and Tesco.
Detta loved working in the House of Lords and was never afraid to speak her mind with searing honesty – a trait not always observed in politicians. Sharp of mind and sometimes with a tongue to match, these qualities did not endear her to everyone. This was especially the case when her deeply held Christian faith caused her to question some of the prevailing views of the day – on the nature of marriage for example.
As (Lord) Michael Bates has astutely observed, “I think the time she was happiest was as chair [though she would have said Chairman] of EU Sub-Committee B from 2010 to 2115. She worked incredibly hard and was assiduous in preparation, forensic in her questioning of ministers, and painstaking in the drafting of reports.” Her contribution as a member of the HS2 Committee was a further indication of her determination to master the detail of very complex and possibly tedious matters.
She had positively crashed through various glass ceilings to serve on the boards of some of the most prestigious companies in the country
Detta also embraced the campaign against smoking and Richard – Lord Faulkner of Worcester – has spoken warmly of her effective support over a number of years.
Never one to be idle Detta gave time and effort to the educational work of the Lords with schools. She always encouraged girls seeking a business career and would follow up formal sessions with helpful emails.
Being serious about work never meant looking dowdy. On the contrary her slim figure was always elegantly attired in beautiful clothes plus vertiginously high heels. Her colour palette was more restrained than mine and I shall never forget the expression on Detta’s face when she saw me wearing a suit of bright daffodil yellow!
She cherished a life-long passion for classical music though her good friend Annabel, Baroness Goldie, tells me they went to and enjoyed several musicals. She also appreciated and understood poetry and the arts and was not averse to a glass of champagne on social occasions. She loved the countryside around her beloved home in Arundel, ditching the heels for sturdy footwear as she was a serious walker.
Despite this wide range of work and interests Detta always had time for those who gave her service and several members of staff have expressed their sadness to me at her passing. This brings me to perhaps the least known aspect of her character – her ability to form strong friendships and to show heart-warming softness and sensitivity. She was firm friends with Angela Smith, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lords, which started as an early morning swimming arrangement. Angela has a small bronze statue in her office to this day originally bought secretly by Detta after Angela had admired it in a gallery. I too felt her kindness when recuperating from a really serious illness in Rye Hospital. She visited me undaunted by a tedious journey with train changing required from the far end of West Sussex to the far end of East Sussex.
When Detta herself was having health problems I was struck by the way the occupants of our office – Room 23 – rallied round to offer her support in innumerable ways. I came to regard it as a modern version of the Praetorian Guard defending a much valued and loved colleague. I found it truly moving and it would not have happened had there not been a sense of affection reciprocated.
In the aftermath I have been given further warm recollections of her, not least from Lord and Lady Lucas – Ralph and Antonia – who enjoyed a long friendship with a vibrant personality and one filled with both fun and wisdom. This includes their 18-year-old daughter Freya, so let her have the last word coming from a young woman about a much older woman: “Detta was really a really nice person. She was very kind, considerate and smart.”
Baroness Fookes is a Conservative peer