THE death of Ariel Sharon has brought memories flooding back for a former Bury magistrate who met the former Prime Minister when she helped to lead a fact-finding mission to Israel in 1981.

Mrs Sylvia Sheff, a long-standing campaigner for Jewish rights, was among the VIPs who took part in the trip when she was the national projects director of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI).

Along with former Bury and Radcliffe MP Michael Fidler, she took a personal message of friendship from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the President and Prime Minister of Israel.

The 26-strong delegation met Mr Sharon, then Minister of Agriculture, when he took the group to visit a much-disputed settlement on the West Bank which was named after him.

Mrs Sheff, aged 78, of Old Hall Lane, Whitefield, recalled: “It was a very interesting trip. Surprisingly, I found Mr Sharon to be a very warm and very friendly man who was willing to be interviewed about what was then a difficult situation. He took out a map and showed everyone where the settlement was and told us why it was being built in relation to Israel’s security. He was always a very interesting, if not also a controversial figure.

“He was sitting next to me on the front seat of the bus when we were travelling to the West Bank. At one point during the journey he turned to me and said ‘do you mind if I run over some points to see if they’ll go down well with the media?’ He was interested in what the Europeans would think.”

Mr Sharon died earlier this month at the age of 85 after eight years in a coma.

The 1981 tour was described at the time as the “largest and most prestigious” to be organised by the CFI to Israel and was led by the Duke of Devonshire, the CFI national president. The delegation included members of the House of Commons, the European Parliament, former MPs and members of the Conservative Party.

Mrs Sheff, who was given the MBE in 1995, was a magistrate in Bury for almost 30 years until 2005. Now she is a director of the Organisation of Jewish Lawyers in Greater Manchester.