SDLP's first leader Gerry Fitt dies

Lord Fitt, one of Northern Ireland’s fiercest critics of the IRA and the first leader of the SDLP, died today.

Lord Fitt, one of Northern Ireland’s fiercest critics of the IRA and the first leader of the SDLP, died today.

The 79-year-old peer, who served as MP for West Belfast for 17 years, had been cared for by his daughters in England after a long illness.

He had been in declining health for several months and had been suffering from heart trouble.

A committed socialist, Gerry Fitt was a leading figure in the Catholic civil rights movement in Northern Ireland during the 1960s.

With other civil rights leaders such as Ivan Cooper and nationalists such as John Hume and Austin Currie, he founded the SDLP in 1970.

After the Sunningdale Agreement was forged by British Prime Minister Edward Heath and Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, he served in 1974 as deputy chief executive in Northern Ireland’s first power sharing government alongside then Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner.

The administration lasted only five months and was brought down by a loyalist strike which crippled Northern Ireland.

Lord Fitt was a fierce critic of the IRA, denouncing the Provisional movement not only for the murders it carried out but also for its involvement in robberies and extortion.

His north Belfast home was attacked by republicans and he was eventually burnt out.

In 1979, he abstained from a crucial House of Commons vote which brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government.

He quit the SDLP in 1979 after the party turned down an offer by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s first Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins to participate in talks.

The SDLP’s objection was that the talks agenda was too narrow and should have contained an all-Irish dimension.

He was succeeded as SDLP leader by John Hume.

For much of his career, Lord Fitt was critical of the SDLP, claiming it had become too green.

His forthright condemnation of republicanism and his reputation as a generous politician around the Palace of Westminster earned him respect on all sides of the House of Commons and also in the Lords.

In 1983, Lord Fitt lost his West Belfast seat in the general election to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

He was appointed a peer later that year.

Despite immersing himself in politics, he was devoted to his wife Ann and five daughters.

In 1996, Ann died after a long illness.

A year later, he also lost a son-in-law, the respected political journalist and broadcaster Vincent Hanna.

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