Brush, Edward James Augustus Howard (‘Peter’) (1901–84), army officer, farmer, and loyalist, was born 5 March 1901 at Fermoy, Co. Cork, only child of Major George Howard Brush of Co. Down (who later fought on the Somme as a colonel in the Inniskilling Fusiliers) and his wife May Florence (née Farrell) of Halifax, Nova Scotia. His mother, who objected to his being saddled with four Brush family names, called him ‘Peter’, by which name he came to be generally known. In the early 1970s his upper-class mannerisms led him to be nicknamed ‘Basil Brush’, after a glove puppet with an upper-class accent, then starring on a children's television programme.
The Brush family came to Ulster from Kent in 1599 and had strong connections with the British army and the Church of Ireland; Bishop James Saurin (d. 1842) of Dromore was one of Brush's great-grandfathers. Brush was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, before becoming a professional officer with the rifle brigade. He served in India before the second world war and witnessed the activities of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement; during the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC) strike in May 1974 he reminisced about the Indian demonstrations, which he saw as a model for the strikers’ actions. During the British evacuation from France in 1940 Brush was wounded and taken prisoner after fighting in the defence of Calais. Airey Neave, who was taken prisoner in the same battle and befriended Brush during their subsequent experiences as prisoners of war, made several references to Brush's courage and leadership in his book The flames of Calais (1972). Brush spent over three years as a POW, lightening his captivity by preparing the first draft of a book on horses, The hunter-chaser. This was published in 1947 and went into a second edition; Brush described it as having earned him ‘about seven hundred quid for nothing’ (Belfast Telegraph, 4 Oct. 1976). Brush retained a deep love for horses throughout his life and was a member of the Irish national hunt steeplechase committee for more than twenty years, as well as a steward at the Maze races and a committee member of Down Royal racecourse. He trained horses till the early 1970s, when he gave up because of ‘old age and the Troubles’. Brush retired from the army with the rank of colonel in 1946, having received the DSO in 1945 and the OBE in 1946.
Brush then took up farming at Drumnabreeze, Magheralin, Co. Down (‘I farmed it all myself, there was no walking around with a stick’). He served as chairman of the Co. Down Territorial and Auxiliary Forces Association (1954–65), acted as vice-lieutenant of the county (1957–62), and became high sheriff in 1953. In that year he was appointed a JP in Co. Down and later he was made DL; he resigned both positions in October 1974 in protest against government security policy. In 1960 he was made a companion of the Order of the Bath. He also served on the Down and Dromore diocesan council of the Church of Ireland.
In 1972 Brush became co-founder and commander of Down Orange Welfare (DOW), a paramilitary group centred on north Down and claiming 5,000 members (mostly former members of the Ulster Special Constabulary, farmers, and small businessmen); it was allegedly sponsored by the Orange Order. DOW first appeared at a Stormont rally in 1972, where its uniformed members were mistaken by the media for a UDA unit. The uniforms were subsequently abandoned and it was reorganised into fifteen-member cells, each with its own commander; the group was run by a six-man inner council, and Brush claimed not to exercise day-to-day control over its activities. He stated that the group was financed by members’ subscriptions and that it had no formal connection with the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) or Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), though it maintained a liaison officer with the UDA. (In fact the UFF was a fictitious organisation whose name was used by the ostensibly political UDA to distance itself from responsibility for murders and other acts of violence.)
Brush's activities first came to public notice in September 1973, when DOW joined the UDA, UVF, and other paramilitary groups in the Ulster Army Council, which threatened to declare and enforce a unilateral declaration of independence in the event of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. There followed a Sunday Telegraph story on the ‘secret army’ (a term which Brush thought unduly sensationalist). Brush denied accusations of religious bigotry and claimed that his aim was ‘to prevent the powers of Communism from encircling us’; he was described as having ‘the mind of a Rhodesian planter . . . not so much an Ulster bigot as an extreme right-winger out of the Ark’ (Belfast Telegraph, 4 Oct. 1976). Although DOW presented itself as primarily a defensive organisation intended to safeguard Ulster against a ‘doomsday’ situation such as British withdrawal, it participated in the blockades and stoppages of the successful Ulster Workers’ Council strike of May 1974 (when Brush represented DOW on the UWC). His habit of socialising with army officers stationed locally caused some controversy.
In 1974 Brush became president of the South Down Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) constituency association, in which capacity he formally proposed Enoch Powell (1912–98) for election as MP for South Down in October that year. In 1975–6 he was one of the elected representatives of South Down on the abortive Constitutional Convention called by the British government to discuss possible terms for a settlement. His presence in South Down, even though his home was in the far north-west of the county, may reflect an attempt to fill a gap left by the defection of South Down UUP activists to the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland formed by Brian Faulkner (qv) early in 1974. In the convention he supported the UUP policy of a single-party devolved government with nationalist chairmen of committees. He was subsequently appointed to the UUP executive, and at the time of his death was president of the Ballylaney branch of the Upper Bann Ulster Unionist Association.
In February 1977, after a brief furore caused by his advocacy of a ‘pact with Cosgrave’ (by which he appears to have meant no more than North–South cooperation against the IRA), Brush announced his retirement from politics. He complained that Ulster unionists were being ‘treated as colonials’ by ‘imported civil servants’, whose politically motivated constraints on the security forces were responsible for murders committed by the IRA, and that the UUP were the only group who were asked to sacrifice their principles. He predicted a grim future unless devolution was restored. DOW subsequently participated in the abortive strike called in May 1977 by the United Unionist Action Council, but thereafter faded into obscurity.
DOW's true significance is debatable; J. Bowyer Bell (qv) suggests that it was primarily a ‘ritual’ organisation, and the journalist Alf McCreary thought it ‘as much a state of mind as an organisation’ (Belfast Telegraph, 4 Oct. 1976). Although Brush claimed that it acted as a restraining influence on people who might have joined more violent organisations, DOW had some overlap with paramilitary groups. In 1979 a prominent member was jailed for possession of machine guns and other weapons, and the controversial former RUC man John Weir claimed that DOW members supplied sub-machine guns to the mid-Ulster UVF.
At a time when many of the traditional unionist elites were withdrawing from political involvement after the abolition of Stormont and the defeats of Terence O'Neill (qv) and Faulkner, Brush's activities represented a throwback to the older function of rural Orangeism as a quasi-military protestant defence body, organised on the principle of deference to social superiors. They also owed something to the sense among the wider British ultra-right in the 1970s that Britain was disintegrating under attack from dangerous subversive forces.
In March 1937 Brush married Susan Mary, daughter of Major Francis Torbett of Salisbury, Wiltshire; they had one daughter. He died suddenly 22 July 1984 at his home in Magheralin. At his memorial service a former Church of Ireland bishop of Down and Dromore paid tribute to his deep religious faith; less reverently, the Sunday World described him as ‘Colonel Collusion’, and contrasted UUP condemnations of paramilitarism with Brush's continuing role in the party.