Parker, Dame Dehra (1882–1963), politician, was born 13 August 1882 in Dehra Dun, near Delhi, India, the only child of James Kerr-Fisher (1827–91), landowner of Kilrea, Co. Londonderry, and Annie Kerr-Fisher (née Kerr-Forsythe). Educated in Germany and America, where her father owned extensive property, Dehra married first (11 December 1901) Lt-col. Robert Peel Dawson Spencer Chichester (1873–1921), commander (1904–13) of the 6th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, and subsequently commander of the 14th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. A DL and JP of Co. Londonderry, he was elected unionist MP for Londonderry South in 1921 but died that year. By this time Dehra had already gained political and administrative experience; a staunch unionist, she was instrumental in the formation of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council in 1911, and the following year she helped to organise the nursing units for the Ulster Volunteer Force. During the first world war she worked in the war pensions department, for which services she was made OBE in 1918. On the establishment of the Northern Ireland parliament in 1921, she was one of only two women elected. As Dehra Chichester , she sat as unionist MP for Londonderry city and county from 1921 to 1929, when she resigned her seat shortly after her second marriage (4 June 1928), to Adm. Henry Wise Parker (1875–1940). On the death of the sitting member, her son-in-law, Capt. James Chichester-Clark, she returned to parliament as unionist member for Londonderry South, 1933–60.
Parker's political leitmotif was unionism: in thirty-five years in parliament she never voted against the government, and in the early years of Stormont, she consistently voted for measures that would strengthen the majority at the expense of the nationalist minority. Thus in 1922 she led the call for the abolition of proportional representation in municipal elections, and defended the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Bill, which gave the government the power to intern suspects, impose curfews, and ban organisations; the following year she supported the introduction of promissory oaths for those in government employ. Though sufficiently interested in women's issues to support the illegitimate children's bill (1924) and the widows’ pension bill (1925), and to bring up specifically female issues during debates, she put unionism before feminism. In November 1927 she rejected the opposition's representation of the people bill, which was to enfranchise women over 21, but was seen by the government as a measure to increase the nationalist vote. During the debate she depicted the nationalist leader, Joseph Devlin (qv), as ‘the pied piper of Hamlin, with the servant girls of Derry and Tyrone flocking behind him on the primrose path’ (Urquhart, 187), only to support the bill ardently the following year when it was government-backed.
Her loyalty, together with her family connections, strong-mindedness, and oratorical skills, helped advance her career. In December 1937 she was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Education, and in this capacity helped introduce the 1938 education act, establishing nursery schools, technical classes, and compulsory schooling for all children until the age of 15; however, she had a personality clash with the education minister, the Rev. Dr Robert Corkey (qv), and resigned in 1944 owing to policy disagreement. Returning to the back benches, she was made chairman of the NI health service board in October 1948, and a year later, on the death of the sitting minister, William Grant (qv), was appointed minister of health and local government (1949–57). She stood in good stead with the prime minister, Sir Basil Brooke (qv), as she had discreetly supported him in his leadership challenge to John Miller Andrews (qv).
As minister, Parker presided over the implementation of the national health service in Northern Ireland. Her 1956 housing bill, which decontrolled rents in the private rented sector, was at variance with housing legislation in Great Britain. It aroused great controversy and led to the resignation of the attorney general, Edmund Warnock (qv), who described it as unjust. Parker was forced to concede a number of amendments; and shortly afterwards suffered a stroke and had to stand down as minister in March 1957, in which year she was created GBE, having been made DBE in 1949. She returned to the back benches until her retirement from parliament in 1960, when she relinquished her seat to her grandson, the future prime minister James Chichester-Clark (qv), who became the fourth member of his family to sit for Londonderry South.
Dehra Parker was the only woman appointed to cabinet during the existence of the NI parliament (1921–72), and the sole female NI privy counsellor. She served in parliament for thirty-five years, where the average term of service for other female MPs was eight years. She was described by a civil servant as ‘a most distinguished minister, but hardly the most consistent of human beings’ (Oliver, 224), and also as ‘capricious, an adroit politician, and a most formidable operator’ (Oliver, 79). Well travelled and fluent in French and German, she charmed British and foreign visitors, reserving the forthright, aggressive side of her character for those nationalists and independent unionists whom she suspected of disloyalty to Northern Ireland.
She died at home, Shanemullagh House, Castledawson, Co. Londonderry on 28 November 1963 and was buried in Christ Church, Castledawson. By her first husband she had a son, who died aged 17, and a daughter.