Baroness O’Cathain – economist, businesswoman, member of the House of Lords and Patron of The Christian Institute – has died aged 83.
Lady O’Cathain, who always insisted on being called Detta, was praised by the Institute’s Director for her extraordinary political courage, formidable intellect and strong Christian faith.
Detta died on Friday, 23 April after a short illness.
Born in the Republic of Ireland and educated at University College Dublin, Lady O’Cathain held numerous high-profile business positions during a long and prestigious career.
These included being the Managing Director of both the Milk Marketing Board and the Barbican Centre.
She also held Non-Executive Director positions at Tesco, British Airways, French bank BNP Paribas and Midland Bank (now part of HSBC).
Awarded an OBE for services to business, she entered the House of Lords in 1991 and worked with The Christian Institute on many campaigns. Respected across the political parties in the Lords, successive governments knew that Lady O’Cathain’s involvement in an issue had to be taken seriously.
Boldly speaking out on civil partnerships, assisted suicide, embryology laws and transgenderism over many years, it was her work to protect religious liberty from the impact of equality laws that has had perhaps the farthest-reaching effect.
The Equality Bill of 2009-10 originally proposed drastically narrowing historic church freedoms that enabled them to insist staff live consistently with the Bible’s teaching on sexual behaviour.
Lady O’Cathain led a campaign to stop the plans and won three dramatic votes in the House of Lords – defeating the then Labour Government.
Today churches – and other Christian groups – continue to benefit from her work as they freely choose whom to employ without the courts being forced to rule on Christian doctrine.
In 2008, when the Government proposed a ‘hate speech’ law, which threatened to criminalise criticism of homosexual acts, Lord Waddington relied on Detta in his successful campaign to secure a vital amendment to protect free speech.
Known as the ‘Waddington amendment’, it made sure that “discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices” were not caught by the new offence.
In his memoirs, he wrote that it was a “notable victory”, achieved because of the “heroic help I had from Detta O’Cathain”.
Elsewhere in Parliament, she held posts on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, numerous EU committees and a High Speed Rail Bill Select Committee.
Detta spoke about her faith often. It was through friends and an invitation to a Bible study at St Helen’s Church in Bishopsgate, London that she came to faith in Jesus Christ.
Years later, she said: “I am still reading the Bible every day, studying it and praying, placing my trust in the Lord to give me wisdom and strength to Love my Neighbour!”
Faith is a great motivator
Asked why Christians should get involved in politics, she said it was a “good way to find out what really is necessary ‘to love my neighbour’ and to do something about it”.
“I do pray that God may give me wisdom to do the right thing – even though it can be tough.
“Of course I make many mistakes but I hope that with God’s grace, everlasting love and kindness I am enabled to use my experience and expertise to effect an improvement in proposed legislation which will improve life in this country and elsewhere. Faith is a great motivator.”
Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, expressed sadness at her death.
“I will sorely miss Detta. It was a huge privilege to work closely with her.
“Detta will be remembered for her extraordinary political courage and formidable intellect, but above all for her unwavering Christian faith.
“Her principled support for vital causes in this nation made her one of the most influential Christians in Parliament of recent decades.”
Detta will be remembered for her extraordinary political courage and formidable intellect, but above all for her unwavering Christian faith.
Mr Hart added: “Churches across the land have been the beneficiaries of her successful campaign on the Equality Bill. Without her efforts, many churches would not be able to operate faithfully, free from the threat of hostile litigation from campaign groups.
“I always found time spent with her intellectually insightful and spiritually encouraging.
“Personally, I will miss her a great deal.”
Detta O’Cathain married William Bishop in 1968. He died in 2001; they had no children.
The Baroness O’Cathain OBE: 2 February 1938 – 23 April 2021
Watch a short video of Detta discussing her faith and her work with The Christian Institute.