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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Obituary: Gerry Fitt
Gerry Fitt
Gerry Fitt: Campaigner for Ulster reconciliation

A lifelong activist for peaceful change in Northern Ireland, Gerry Fitt - who has died aged 79 - was in his heyday the dominant voice of nationalism.

However, his outspoken criticism of republican violence and the IRA hunger strike in the Maze prison sealed his fate and he stood down from the leadership of the SDLP in 1979.

His political career brought him the first leadership of the SDLP and finally a seat in the House of Lords.

From an archetypal Belfast Catholic working-class background, Gerry Fitt joined the Merchant Navy in 1941, serving on Atlantic and Russian convoys.

He said later that on the ships he discovered poverty was not confined to Belfast, and learned a tolerance he had not found in the Catholic ghettos of his childhood.

When his convoy had been surrounded by German submarines, with missiles flying back and forth, he wondered how young men in both vessels could try to kill each other when they had not even met.

"Since then I have been totally against war," he once told the BBC.

Gerry Fitt returned to Northern Ireland a committed socialist, and was soon on Belfast City Council as a member of the Irish Labour Party.

Fitt's political profile grew ever higher. In 1962, he took a Stormont seat from the Unionist Party, and in 1966 took his place at Westminster, by now bearing the standard for the Republican Labour Party.

1960's civil rights march in Northern Ireland
Fitt was an active civil rights campaigner
His presence in London brought Irish nationalists' problems to a wider audience and, in October 1968, Fitt succeeded in attracting UK parliamentarians to a civil rights march in Derry.

Fitt's face, bloodied by clashes with police, became a potent symbol of the Northern Ireland troubles.

It was Fitt, under pressure from local Catholic residents in the Falls Road, who made the call to the Prime Minister to have troops sent in.

In 1970 he became the first leader of the loose coalition of the civil rights and former nationalist leaders who created the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

By 1974 he was deputy chief executive of the short-lived Northern Ireland Executive, an unprecedented position for a Catholic.

Fortress Fitt

Although this meant sharing power with the Unionists, Fitt saw this as Ireland's most realistic opportunity for lasting peace, and he described his "heart breaking when the coalition broke down after five months".

Fitt noted the cracks in his own party too, lamenting those "who would have a united Ireland at any price".

Despite his face being forever associated with the bloody confrontations of Derry, Fitt's total opposition to violence led to his unpopularity among more militant republican sympathisers, and his home was regularly targeted.

Gerry Fitt as SDLP leader
Gerry Fitt became SDLP leader in 1970
In 1976 intruders burst in while his wife was having an asthma attack, and Fitt was forced to draw a gun on the mob.

When his house, which he had termed Fortress Fitt, was set on fire soon afterwards, the Belfast-born politician defied cries of desertion and moved his wife, Anne, and the five daughters he affectionately dubbed "the Miss Fitts" to a new home in London.

After having refused a peerage several times, he changed his mind when he discovered, in the charred remains of his home, his wedding picture ripped in two by republican vandals.

Fitt himself said of his family: "We may have been physically in England but we have stayed in Northern Ireland emotionally every day."

Lone protestor

His loyalty to his country was perhaps supported by his growing disillusion with the British handling of Northern Ireland. His contempt led him to abstain in a crucial Commons vote in 1979, which brought down the then Labour government.

Later that year, though, Fitt also resigned from the SDLP, protesting against its need for an "Irish view" to be part of the political process.

Gerry Fitt after losing his seat to Gerry Adams
Fitt lost his seat to Gerry Adams in 1983
In 1981, Fitt found himself once more on his own after protesting against the Maze Prison hunger strikes.

Sinn Fein targeted his seat in Parliament and, despite support from the Protestant minority in his area, in June 1983 he lost the constituency of West Belfast to Gerry Adams.

The following month Gerry Fitt was made the Baron of Bell's Hill and, from his seat in the House of Lords, he defied nationalist opinion and criticised the way the Anglo-Irish Agreement had been imposed over the heads of Unionists.

HAVE YOUR SAY
A man of the greatest integrity and courage
FJM, Kent

He also spoke on personal issues, making a deeply emotional speech about the impact of the MRSA bug which had claimed his wife's life in 1996.

Above all, he continued to put forward his views, always strong ones, in support of a peaceful reconciliation in his beloved Northern Ireland.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Key moments in Lord Fitt's career



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