Rivals united in tributes to Gerry Fitt

Old rivals united across Northern Ireland’s political divide today for the funeral of the co-founder and first leader of the SDLP, Gerry Fitt.

Old rivals united across Northern Ireland’s political divide today for the funeral of the co-founder and first leader of the SDLP, Gerry Fitt.

The North's joint Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ulster Unionist David Trimble and the SDLP’s John Hume, were among those who gathered at London’s Westminster Cathedral to hear the former civil rights champion described as a man of moral courage and wit.

Gerry Fitt, who died last week aged 79, was one of the major political figures in Northern Ireland during the troubled 1970s and early 1980s.

After helping found the Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1970, bringing together civil rights and moderate nationalist leaders, he led it into power with unionists in Northern Ireland’s first, but short-lived, power sharing experiment.

Disillusioned with his own party, which he accused of becoming “green” - moving away from the socialism which was Fitt’s guiding influence to become a more clearly Irish nationalist party – he left the SDLP in 1979.

Today his long-standing political colleague and friend Austin Currie told hundreds of mourners that injustice had been “the fire in Gerry’s belly”.

“It was not flags or borders or power,” he told mourners.

In a moving tribute Mr Currie spoke of his friend’s political achievements both in Westminster and in the Unionist-dominated Stormont parliament.

Lord Fitt’s lighter side was also remembered.

“Human behaviour was Gerry’s speciality,” Mr Currie said. “He was wonderful company, a born raconteur with an endless supply of jokes and funny stories, most of them un-parliamentary and most of them unsuitable for telling in the august surroundings we are in today.”

In a service featuring Irish music, poetry and jokes, his long-standing friend the journalist Chris Ryder told the congregation: “Despite his historic personal and political achievements, he never adopted great airs and graces or lost touch with the culture and values of his humble working-class origins in Belfast.

“No day would have been complete without a string of bets. And there was his epic capacity for gin.”

Prompting laughter from the congregation, Mr Ryder told of one incident on a flight from London to Belfast when Fitt managed to persuade the crew to let him take the last available seat – in the cockpit.

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

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

Music included the ancient Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision and Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace, based on the prayer of St Francis of Assisi as well as a violin rendition of Danny Boy.

Family members delivered readings included passages from the Book of Wisdom and the Acts of the Apostles as well as WB Yeats’s poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

Among those in the congregation were representatives of the British and Irish governments – Northern Ireland Office minister Shaun Woodward and Conor Lenihan, a Minister of State in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

Alongside the current SDLP leader Mark Durkan, other MPs present included Ulster-born Kate Hoey, and celebrities, including comedian Frank Carson.

Mr Hume said: “I express my deepest sympathy to his five daughters and to all of his family and I have no doubt that in so doing I am speaking for a very large section of the population in Northern Ireland as Gerry Fitt gave an outstanding public service to the people of Northern Ireland particularly in his work for justice and reconciliation.”

Comedian Carson, dressed in the green uniform of the Knights of St Gregory, paid his friend his highest compliment: “I am accusing him of stealing my best material, he was a very funny man.”

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