Remembering Gerry Fitt…

Gerry Fitt’s death feels like the passing of an era. A world war coloured his political outlook and his perceptions of conflict. Even so, it never took the edge off his performance in the nightly TV jousts with unionist arch rival Ian Paisley of the early seventies – played out largely against a backdrop of murder campaigns, civil bombings and torturous executions. It intimately connected most political players with their respective audiences in a way that few modern politicians can expect nowadays.

Fitt chose Bell’s Hill in the County of Down as his title in the Lords. It’s a small and, otherwise obscure, townland not far from Crossgar. He was evacuated there in the early part of the war, before he was old enough to join the Merchant Navy. It was his first foray outside his own working class Belfast, and perhaps represented a calm before a storm that seemed to stay with him throughout his often tumultuous political career.

His former colleague and eventual SDLP successor to his West Belfast, Joe Hendron, compared him in stature to the Nationalist MP Joe Devlin, although Fitt’s first pre-occupations upon entering politics revolved more around issues of social justice, rather than Devlin’s traditional Nationalism per se.

Ruth Dudley Edwards knew the man, and recalls with a typical warts and all account of how they first met in the midst of one the most menancing and dangerous years of the troubles, 1972.

Don Anderson in today’s Belfast Telegraph probably has the most comprehensive sets of anecdotes, including a possibly mischievious accusation that the apparently teetotal Ian Paisley enjoys a quiet tipple every now and then.

Official Republican reaction has been muted for the most part, but much of the resentment emanating from that political quarter centres on Fitt’s stand against the Hunger Strikes of 1981 – a stand (also at vairance with his own party) that many believe cost him his West Belfast seat in 1983. However most of the press coverage, focuses on his earlier career and his pivotal role in raising the issue of Civil Rights in Northern Ireland with a wider audience.

Even the Newsletter yesterday devoted its leader to an affectionate valedictory to the co-founder and first leader of that alliance of often competing and fractious nationalist interests, the SDLP.

His funeral Mass will be in Westminster Cathedral tomorrow at 10.30am. His family have suggested that everyone is welcome. We can’t be there, but would respectfully welcome the thoughtful contributions of any of you in a position to attend. There’s also a memorial service in Crossgar at 9.30am.

Read also: Brian Walker (who reported him most of Fitt’s career); the Daily Telegraph‘s obit recalling the murder of his election agent in 1972; Alasdair Steven (reg needed) on Fitt’s middle of the road self diagnosis.

  • Tok

    Fitt has had an amazing impact on ni in regards to founding the sdlp as well as fighting secterianism and the disgraceful discrimination that came with it , It is also worth remembering he left the sdlp out of differences of personality , as barry white points out in his biography of john hume he had a jealousy of Hume s intellectual abilities and he could also be quite a thorny personality as comments from maurice hayes in the irish times that he could be vicouis and cunning as well and he did demonise hume with this personality in westminster and the ni media
    For somebody who stood as a reppublican labour mp some of his positions in later life were quite barmy such as keeping the name of the RUC .
    It really didnt fill me with any great mfort that unionists like danny kennedy were praising him for his opposition to the provos and had a dig at the nationlists over gerry adams electoral victory whilst forgetting the large numbers of unionists who elect bigots like paisley berry and mc crea and not acknowledging the massive discrimination against nationlists which spawned lord fitts rise

  • slug

    Good point Tok

    A bit of official unionist recognition that Fitt was the man to do business with would have been welcome. In fact the moderate unionists of the time, the Faulknerites, recogniseed this. Too bad they lost the argument.

  • Keith M

    I just watched the BBC’s programme on Fitt. I found it to be interesting, if a little tame and confined. I get the feeling that both Fitt and Hume were holding back on their differences. Perhaps retirement has mellowed them both. However the obvious mutal respect between Fitt and Paisley was surprising.