Opinion by Austin Currie
Irish News 14/03/06
A tribute to Gerry Fitt, delivered by Austin Currie at a Memorial Service last Friday at Belfast City Hall
Gerry Fitts contribution to public life must, of course, be assessed in the context of the political conditions of his time.
When Gerry was first elected to Belfast Corporation in 1958 and then to Stormont in 1962 there had been one-party rule for 40 years in a state deliberately established to maintain permanent unionist rule and with the power to discriminate and gerrymander in order to consolidate it.
The unionist stranglehold on power seemed unbreakable.
But Gerry recognised at an early stage the Achilles heel of unionism. This weakness was not their opposition to a United Ireland but their professed loyalty and commitment to British standards while refusing those same standards to those they ruled over. Gerrys simple demand, backed by the Civil Rights Movement, which he supported from the beginning, for the same rights for his constituents in Belfast as were enjoyed by British citizens in Birmingham had unanswerable logic.
Gerrys major achievement at Westminster, to which he was elected in 1966, was to break the convention which had built up since partition that any matter under the control of the devolved Stormont parliament could not be brought up in the mother of parliaments.
With the assistance of MPs such as Paul Rose, Stan Orme and Kevin McNamara, in the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, he smashed that convention and made the Westminster Parliament accept its sovereign responsibilities.
Without that victory further progress would not have been possible.
His ability to seize every opportunity to embarrass unionists, his capacity to highlight the intransigence of the unionist government and a personality which enabled him to win friends and influence people in the Labour Party, were the crucial factors. It was an outstanding and crucial achievement which, on its own, was
In 1970, along with five other Stormont MPs he founded the SDLP. As one of those MPs, committed to the formation of the new party, I had to contend with Gerryï¿½s strong initial reservations. By nature he was an individualist. The idea of a party whip and party discipline did not appeal to him.
In 1970 as an MP at Westminster and Stormont and a Belfast city councillor he was at the top of the greasy pole which was the highest a non-unionist politician could aspire to in the one-party state. To his credit Gerry, despite his strong personal inclinations, took up the challenge and the responsibility of providing an alternative to one-party unionist rule.
Within four years of helping to form the SDLP he led the party from being on the periphery of politics with six MPs to the heart of government, with Gerry himself as deputy chief executive. It was an outstanding, almost unbelievable achievement. The Sunningdale experiment unfortunately lasted only five months but it established for the future the necessary architecture for a lasting agreement, the template which even those who had helped to bring down the power-sharing executive of 1974 had eventually to accept 25 years later. How much happier Northern Ireland would be today if the system of partnership government, which he had helped to establish, had survived and prospered, the tragedy of 2,000 additional deaths had been avoided and generations spared the blight of intensified sectarianism.
Gerry was a brave man, displaying his physical courage as a teenager on the convoys on the North Sea and later on an almost daily basis when he and his family came under threat from extreme republicans and loyalists. He displayed moral courage too. He predicted that he would lose his Westminster seat because of his strong denunciation of the violence of the IRA and the Provisional IRA hunger strike but this almost inevitable outcome did not deter him. The particularly savage murder of his close friend and confidant, Senator Paddy Wilson, by the UVF had a lasting effect on him. Nor did he play the sectarian card, so endemic in Belfast politics. When I approached him to approve the draft first constitution of the SDLP he insisted on changing non-sectarian to anti-sectarian.
Gerry was a personality politician who responded to his gut feelings. Policies came second. Not for him the carefully crafted words of a speech writer. If he had any notes they were on the back of an envelope. He was probably the best orator of his generation at a time when the ability to perform on the back of a lorry was an essential attribute.
Gerry has not been, up to now, given the credit he deserves, particularly for fighting injustice and intolerance.
A hatred of injustice was the fire in Gerrys belly. It was not flags or borders or seeking after power. He was a true disciple of James Connolly. Ireland without its people meant nothing to him. Gerrys concern throughout his life was the eradication of injustice whether based on religion or politics or on class. That Northern Ireland is today a fairer place with the potential for greater improvement is at least partly a testimony to the efforts and commitment of Gerry Fitt.
This is an abridged version of the tribute to Lord Fitt delivered by SDLP founding member Austin Currie at last Fridays City Hall memorial service.