'He lit a torch for civil rights'

Gerry Fitt, a leader of Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland and a fierce critic of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), died on Friday, his family said. He was 79.

He died at an undisclosed location in England, the family said.

The cause of death was not announced, but he had a history of heart disease and had been in declining health for months.

Fitt was a leader of a Catholic civil rights march that confronted police near Londonderry on October 5 1968. Violence broke out, gaining worldwide television coverage, and effectively marked the start of three decades of violent “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Fitt, a member of Britain’s House of Commons, was one of the first to be clubbed by police.
He recalled saying a prayer of thanks as he felt blood flow down his face.

“I knew that at last Northern Ireland as she really was would be seen before the world,” said Fitt.

“He lit a torch for civil rights, and the image of a battered and bloodied MP on October 5 1968 exposed the then cesspit of Northern Ireland politics to a world stage,” said Alasdair McDonnell, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn said of Fitt: “In the ongoing quest for a peaceful settlement and constitutional politics in the North, history will record that he played his part by word, by deed and by example.”

A former merchant seaman, Fitt represented West Belfast in the House of Commons for 17 years and was one of the founders in 1970 of the SDLP, which attracted moderate Catholic votes.

He served as deputy chief executive of a power-sharing government that collapsed within five months in 1974 because of Protestant opposition.

In 1976, armed with a pistol, he faced down a mob of IRA supporters who had invaded his home in Belfast.

“The thoughts that went through my head at the time all in the space of a few seconds were, ‘Gerry, this is how you die’; secondly, ‘I hope to God you don’t get my wife and young daughter’; and thirdly, ‘I hope to God I don’t have to pull this trigger and kill someone myself.’”

His home was later burned down, and he moved his family to London.

Fitt left the SDLP in 1979, criticising its increasing insistence on seeking greater involvement by the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s affairs—the line taken by his successor as party leader, John Hume.

“Nationalism has been a political concept in Ireland over many, many years but I suggest that it has never brought peace to the people of the six counties [Northern Ireland],” Fitt said, “I, for one, have never been a nationalist to the total exclusion of my socialist ideals.”

Fitt, standing as a Socialist candidate, lost his Commons seat to Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, in 1983, and subsequently was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Fitt of Bell’s Hill in the County of Down.

He remained a caustic critic of the IRA, and in a speech in the House of Lords in January he scoffed at those who were willing to accept an imperfect peace in Northern Ireland.

“An awful lot of people in Northern Ireland are not grateful for small mercies. They want to see a total end to the criminality of the IRA,” Fitt said. On July 28, the IRA formally called an end to its guerrilla campaign against British rule.

“He hasn’t received the credit he should have for his role in improving the lot of nationalists in Northern Ireland, and I know that the history books will be kind to him,” said Austin Currie, one of the SDLP co-founders.

Seamus Mallon, former deputy leader of the SDLP, said Fitt “played a very central role at a time of great change”.

“History will show that the way in which he brought the problems of Northern Ireland to the immediate attention of Parliament and a worldwide television audience had a fundamental effect on what has happened since,” Mallon said.

Fitt’s wife died in 1996. He is survived by five daughters.—Sapa-AP

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