Kilfedder, Sir James (1928–95), politician, was born in Kinlough, Co. Leitrim, on 16 July 1928, fourth child and youngest son of Robert Kilfedder, a farmer and former member of the RIC, and his wife Elizabeth Johnston. Robert Kilfedder originally came from Donegal; James's grandfather and uncles had signed the Ulster covenant (28 September 1912), were active in the UVF, and moved to Northern Ireland after partition. When James was two the Kilfedders left Leitrim for Enniskillen after facing intimidation, rowing across Lough Melvin at night to escape their tormentors.
Kilfedder was educated at Enniskillen model school, Portora Royal School, TCD (where he chaired the College Historical Society in 1950), and King's Inns, Dublin. He allegedly belonged to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at different times during his student days. Called to the Irish bar in 1952, he was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1958 and established himself as a barrister in London; he later claimed that seeing urban poverty in the East End inspired him to undertake public service. Before the 1959 British general election he unsuccessfully sought the unionist parliamentary nomination for Armagh.
Kilfedder, who was a member of the Church of Ireland and of the Orange Order, first came to prominence in 1964, when he held the West Belfast seat in the Westminster parliament for the Unionist Party. His campaign was marred by rioting after police attempted to confiscate a tricolour displayed at the Sinn Féin candidate's headquarters; his supporters included the Rev. Ian Paisley (qv) and individuals later linked to the revived UVF. In 1966 Kilfedder lost the seat to the republican labour candidate, Gerry Fitt (qv) (1926–2005). He returned to Westminster in 1970 as MP for North Down; his intense attention to constituency matters (he replied to most correspondence himself) helped him to hold the seat until his death. In May 1975 he was elected to the Northern Ireland constitutional convention. In 1977 he resigned the unionist whip at Westminster in protest against the influence of Enoch Powell (1912–98) within the party. He finally broke with the Ulster Unionist Party in 1979 after an exchange of letters with the party leader, Harry West (qv) (1917–2004), over his independent line at Westminster. Kilfedder then established the Ulster Progressive Unionist Party, which became the Ulster Popular Unionist Party (UPUP) in 1980. The UPUP elected five councillors in 1981 and three at subsequent local elections up to 1993; its support was concentrated in North Down with scattered outposts in Ards and Castlereagh. He was an unsuccessful candidate at the 1979 and 1984 European elections.
At Westminster Kilfedder was generally close to the Conservative Party and sat on their benches: he was the only Northern Irish MP to vote for the government's controversial poll tax; but he did not always toe the conservative line – he made vocal populist criticisms of NHS cutbacks. Kilfedder kept a low profile and generally avoided sectarian rhetoric (though he publicly welcomed the deaths of hunger-strikers in 1981, and called for Northern Ireland to be placed under martial law after the Enniskillen bombing in 1987). This may have been a factor in his election as speaker of the Northern Ireland assembly (established in 1982 under the ‘rolling devolution’ initiative of the secretary of state, James Prior); during this period (1982–6) his combined Westminster and Stormont salaries made him the highest-paid parliamentarian in Britain. He had a grandiloquent manner and dressed smartly; his dandyism reportedly took particularly colourful forms on holidays in Brighton.
Kilfedder's style of politics was well suited to North Down, the prosperous middle-class areas of which were somewhat detached from the troubles and were sometimes compared with the English home counties. The peculiarities of his constituency, however, produced serious challenges to Kilfedder in his later career. After the signing of the Anglo–Irish agreement (November 1985) North Down became the principal centre of support for integrationist unionist groups, which argued that mainstream British political parties should organise in Northern Ireland with the long-term aim of incorporating the province into the Westminster political system. In the general elections of 1987 and 1992 Kilfedder, though supported by the main unionist parties, was strongly challenged by integrationist candidates (the ‘Real Unionist’ Robert McCartney and the ‘Northern Ireland Conservative’ Dr Laurence Kennedy). On the latter occasion eighty conservative MPs signed a statement endorsing Kilfedder because of his support for the government, and deploring Kennedy's decision to stand against him. He was knighted in 1992 (shortly after being the only unionist MP to support the government on a crucial vote for the ratification of the Maastricht treaty) and became the first chairman of the Northern Ireland affairs select committee at Westminster.
On 20 March 1995 Kilfedder, who had suffered from a heart condition for several years, died of a heart attack on the London underground on his way from Westminster to Gatwick airport. He was unmarried. Shortly after his death it was claimed that he was one of twenty MPs who, after they voted to maintain a restricted age of consent for homosexuals, had received a letter from the gay group Outrage threatening to publicise their homosexual activities; this tactic attracted widespread criticism, and Outrage was accused of blackmail and blamed for Kilfedder's death. It was widely believed in Northern Ireland political and journalistic circles that Kilfedder was indeed homosexual, though family members denied this. (In 1987 Kilfedder denounced Robert McCartney for allowing gay activists to campaign for him.) The UPUP disintegrated after Kilfedder's death, with councillors defecting to the DUP and UK Unionist Party.
Kilfedder maintained an older style of unionist representation at Westminster, better suited to the halcyon days of Brookeborough than the era of the troubles. There is a collection of his personal and political papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (D/4127).