Tribute to the late Paddy O’Hanlon

Co-founder of SDLP for whom the courts were a fitting forum

Irish Times Obituary 11 April 2009

PADDY O’HANLON , who has died aged 64, was a civil rights activist, a founder member of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the party’s chief whip during the ill-fated powersharing administration at Stormont in the 1970s.

In later years, he practised as a barrister in Northern Ireland and the Republic. He had been ill for some months and died in Dublin’s Mater hospital.

Born in Drogheda, Co Louth, in 1944 and educated at UCD, Paddy O’Hanlon was closely associated with south Armagh, an area he represented in the old Stormont parliament in from 1969 until its prorogation in 1972.

As an Independent MP, he was active in the civil rights movement in the heady days of the late 1960s, but he was also a committed sportsman and teacher with an deep love of the arts.

Politically he was committed to the unity of Ireland by consent and he was vociferously opposed to violence, state repression and sectarianism. He used his considerable powers of eloquence to argue for a new democratic model in Northern Irelandand between North and South.

He was among those who opposed the entrenched injustice of the old Stormont regime as much as he confronted the violence of republican paramilitaries and the state’s authoritarian response.

The term conviction politician applied especially well to him. He was among the diverse group of people, including John Hume, Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt, Eddie McGrady and Paddy Devlin, who rejected the old Nationalist party at Stormont and in August 1970, founded the SDLP.

In those early turbulent years, he was an architect of the fledgling party’s new-style political philosophy. His influence behind the scenes was key. He was a delegate to talks with the Irish government in 1973 and was successful in standing for a seat in the new powersharing Assembly for Armagh from 1973 to 1974. He was chief whip of the party.

However, his career as an elected representative was marked by some narrow failures and significant setbacks.

He stood unsuccessfully for his constituency in the first of the two British general elections in 1974 and was narrowly defeated by party colleague Hugh News in the elections to the Constitutional Convention in 1975 and again in 1982 to the Assembly set up by then Northern secretary James Prior in the aftermath of the republican hunger strikes. He lost both times on transfers.

With Séamus Mallon the established SDLP candidate for his constituency and the party deputy leader, O’Hanlon stepped back from full-time politics.

He studied law and was called to the Bar in 1986. Colleagues say his sharp mind and love of debate particularly suited his new-found vocation. Party leader Mark Durkan, who joined John Hume’s staff in 1983 and helped organise Séamus Mallon’s victory in the Newry and Armaghbyelection in 1986, claims that O’Hanlon’s influence was always felt.

“Even when standing well back from the political frontline his compelling political insight, and the integrity of his commitment to social justice was apparent in all the activism and advice he offered.”

Durkan believes the courtroom was an apt place for a man with O’Hanlon’s skills.

“In the legal vocation which he found he was able to give . . . expression to his sense of justice, his instinct for challenge and his love of able argument. So much of Paddy O’Hanlon’s contribution epitomises the debt which this society owes to the activists of the civil rights movement who never deviated from non-violence and who sustained the quest for a new agreed democratic order,” said Durkan.“He was sharp in his observation and straight in his counsel. Whether in his private conversation or public speaking he always impressed with the purity of his principle and the clarity of his case and the sincerity of the advice he offered.”

Paddy O’Hanlon was predeceased by his wife, Dr Ann Marley, and he is mourned by many, including his cousin Dr Rory O’Hanlon, the former ceann comhairle and Fianna Fáil TD for Cavan-Monaghan.

Among the many political tributes paid was that from Newry-Armagh Ulster Unionist deputy leader Danny Kennedy. “He was entirely dedicated to achieving his political goals by exclusively peaceful means, and as a public representative he worked hard to achieve better living and social conditions for a great many people,” said Mr Kennedy.

Paddy O’Hanlon: born May 8th 1944; died April 7th 2009

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