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.