Gerry Fitt is laid to rest

His funeral took place today at Westminster Cathedral in central London. In the Guardian’s report it only mentions the presence of prominent figures from the UUP (Trimble) and SDLP (Durkan and Hume) – are we to assume that no-one from SF or the DUP attended?Rivals unite in tribute to Lord Fitt

Press Association
Wednesday August 31, 2005

Figures from across Northern Ireland’s political divide gathered today to pay their respects to former Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) leader Lord Fitt.

Among the unionists and nationalists gathered for his funeral at London’s Westminster Cathedral were the joint Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ulster Unionist David Trimble and the SDLP’s John Hume.

Also present was Mark Durkin, the current leader of the party Lord Fitt once led.

The peer, who died at the age of 79 last week after suffering from a heart condition, helped found the Social Democratic Labour party in 1970 with civil rights and nationalist leaders from the province.

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A fierce opponent of terrorism and social injustice alike, Gerry Fitt served as deputy chief executive of Northern Ireland’s first power-sharing executive in 1974.

He continued to lead the party after the executive – formed out of the 1973 Sunningdale agreement – collapsed after just five months, brought down by a loyalist workers’ strike.

But in 1979 he dramatically quit his own party after it turned down an offer of talks by the then Conservative government because the agenda did not contain an Irish dimension.

His departure followed a period of growing disillusionment with the party which he accused of becoming “green”, moving away from the socialism which was Fitt’s guiding influence.

His political low point came in 1983 when, two years after refusing to support IRA hunger strikers, he lost the West Belfast seat at Westminster, which he had held since 1966, to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.

Having been wounded by RUC police in a civil rights march in 1968, he found himself burnt-out of his north Belfast home by republicans in 1983.

Today he was honoured both by the party from which he had become estranged and rivals from across the political spectrum.

Mr Durkin was among those who paid tribute to the former party leader.

Speaking just before the service he said: “People who were in the party with him during those years have fond memories of good work together in difficult times.

“Obviously there was subsequent differences but we are here to remember a man who contributed positively, a man of warmth and wit.”

The service, filled with Irish music and poetry, opened as hundreds of mourners sang the ancient hymn Be Thou My Vision.

Another hymn, Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace, continued the theme of peace and justice spoken of in the tributes.

Among those in the congregation were representatives of the British and Irish governments, MPs including Ulster-born Kate Hoey, and celebrities including the television presenter Henry Kelly and comedian Frank Carson.

Readings included a passage from the Book of Wisdom, read by his daughter, Eileen, which included the line: “The souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God and no torment will ever touch them.”

There was also a reading of The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yates and a violin performance of Danny Boy.

But the lightest moment came during a tribute from the journalist Chris Ryder, a close friend, who told of one incident on a flight from London to Belfast when Lord Fitt managed to persuade the crew to let him take the last available seat – the jump seat in the cockpit.

Mr Ryder told the congregation: “When he emerged through the door in mid-flight to visit the lavatory, there in the front row was an astonished Reverend Ian Paisley.

“‘Don’t worry, I’ve left it on automatic pilot,’ he told his great political rival as he pushed past.”