Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Former Belfast Lord Mayor Hugh Smyth was a real character and a true man of the people

Hugh Smyth catches up on correspondence at his Shankill home earlier this year
Hugh Smyth catches up on correspondence at his Shankill home earlier this year

Hugh Smyth, the former Progressive Unionist Party leader who died this week, was legendary for his wit and character; a man it was hard to forget once you had met him.

Everyone he knew had favourite stories about him – one of the best was told by John Reid, the former Secretary of State.

At peace talks in 2000 Hugh, also known as 'Shuggie' and 'Q', approached Tony Blair privately to congratulate him on the impending birth of his latest child. Blair warmed to the human touch and told Hugh it would be a boy.

"What will you call the wee fella?" Q pressed on. "Leo, after my father," the PM replied. Hugh went straight out of the room, phoned Belfast and put a bet on it at 25-1.

Reid claimed the bet was £2,000, but Hugh played it down, saying it was only £100. Friends would say that, as an experienced punter, he had the sense to conceal his winnings.

Smyth was also a man of principle, with deep roots in the Shankill working-class and, in spite of his party's links to the UVF, many cross-community contacts – even in the darkest days.

On Belfast City Council he was part of an unofficial working-class caucus. It included, at various times, the SDLP's Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and Owen Allen, as well as unionists like Frank Millar and Harry Fletcher, and Jim Sullivan and Seamus Lynch of the Workers Party.

It was a semi-secret alliance, which came together only on economic issues, like a threat to close the gasworks.

Lynch, one of the few surviving members, was friendly with Smyth. He remembers coming home with him from a council delegation abroad and meeting Van Morrison in the airport.

Van stopped to talk to Lynch. After he walked on, Smyth asked: "Who was that wee fat guy you spoke to? His face looks familiar. Did he ever work in the Housing Executive?"

He could be waspish. On another occasion he broke in on a speech by Dr John Alderdice, an Alliance Party representative and a psychiatrist, on a point of order.

Was it true, he asked, that if you worked long enough with people with mental health problems, you started to develop them yourself?

I knew him, on and off, from the late-1970s.

A strong loyalist, he would undoubtedly have been in the Labour Party in Britain.

While I knew him, I did many interviews with the UVF for various newspapers.

Although some of them took place in The Eagle, a large premises on the Shankill that was also used by the PUP, Smyth neither sat in on them, nor arranged them, though another PUP member did set some up.

The two of us took part in a trip to San Francisco as guests of the late Tom Tracey in 1995 or 1996. Mr Tracey, an Irish- American philanthropist, flew dozens of people to California, put us up in the hotel where he was receiving an award and provided entertainment for several days.

The party included police, journalists, victims and community groups, as well as politicians from across the spectrum.

In those days you wouldn't normally have got them all in one room – the intention was to promote contact and understanding by taking people out of their comfort zone, and Q bought in to it.

He was the life and soul of the free bar in the evening, full of banter, full of jokes, many of them unrepeatable, but all good-humoured.

He will be missed. We need more like him in politics today.

If you want to have a voice, cast your vote

Predictions – even the best of them – can make things look more predictable than they need be.

Bill White, of LucidTalk, is one of the best number-crunchers in the business. This week and last he has given us his best shot at the most likely outcome of the European and council elections.

With polling taking place this day week, Bill is a brave man. His computer model is based mainly on past voting patterns and recent opinion polls, so if things run true to form, he will be close to the mark.

Yet voters need not continue true to form. Whether or not you like the idea of the same three MEPs being returned, that is no reason to stay at home.

Seats, especially the last one, could turn on a couple of thousand votes, so who stays at home will be a big factor.

If you want to guard a candidate against defeat, or topple one, this is the moment to make your voice heard.

Next Thursday also sees the first election to the 11 super councils – which will be in shadow form to begin with – instead of the 26 familiar ones.

Many people haven't got their heads around the boundary changes and haven't got a handle on what new councils, like Mid Ulster District, actually include.

They will affect more than the old councils ever did. Powers due to be transferred are pretty chunky.

They include planning, roads, urban regeneration, community development, housing, local economic development and local tourism.

The transfer will also include some elements of the delivery of the EU Rural Development Programme.

On present patterns, Alliance won't get a drubbing over the flag protests, the DUP will hold most cards in six councils and Sinn Fein in four.

Belfast will be split, with nationalists gradually inching up, but with Alliance and others still holding the balance of power.

It will be too late to complain after the election if you switch off and either don't vote at all, or vote on issues – like the border, or abortion – which the councils will have no say over.

Our online MyVote questionnaire will give you an idea where the parties stand on a range of issues and which is closest to your own views.

Many people are surprised that a party they had never considered voting for actually comes close to their views on practical issues.

www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/ elections/

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