Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Obituary - Patrick Gormley

MP who didn't fear to be unpopular

PATRICK Gormley, former Nationalist MP for mid-Derry in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, who has died, was an individualist in a conformist party and might have been its leader, had not his thinking been so far ahead of that of his colleagues. He was 84.

PATRICK Gormley, former Nationalist MP for mid-Derry in the Northern Ireland House of Commons, who has died, was an individualist in a conformist party and might have been its leader, had not his thinking been so far ahead of that of his colleagues. He was 84.

Gormley welcomed the bridge-building initiatives of Capt Terence O'Neill in the 1960s with an unqualified warmth which was not to the liking of every activist in the leadership of the Nationalist Party. He was also reckoned to be a little over-fulsome in commending the Prime Minister's part in the unprecedented visit to Stormont of Mr Sean Lemass, the Fianna Fail Taoiseach, in 1965.

Patrick Gormley grew up in Claudy, Co Derry in the shadow of the Sperrins. He had ambitions to be a teacher and graduated with a first at Maynooth in an era when such accolades were by no means as freely bestowed as they often seem to be now; but, like many Irish countrymen before him, the family business beckoned and he became immersed in the seed potato business.

He had a fluent turn of phrase and few were surprised when, in 1954, he was invited to stand as the Nationalist candidate for the Stormont constituency of Mid-Derry. He was to be returned unopposed in the three subsequent general elections up to 1965.

In 1966, when O'Neill made a widely-reported conciliatory speech at the Corrymeela Communty's Centre in North Antrim, Gormley embraced it gladly and averred that the Prime Minister was sincere and deserved support. He suggested that "there might be something to be said for interdenominational schools" and dismissed veiled suggestions of a plot to do down Catholic schools.

A matter of months before Lemass's visit to Stormont he said Nationalist should make theirs a left-of-centre radical party and dismissed, as the fatal flaw in de Valera's Irish constitution, the assumption that Irish nationalism was synonymous with Catholicism and that Ireland was "a Catholic country".

But this was much too strong meat for the traditionalists and encouraged a rift with his acting party leader, Eddie McAteer. This became deeper when Gormley told a Dublin reporter that he was "not unduly troubled" about standing for the British national anthem or honouring the toast of the Queen which was merely a matter of manners.

With the recent death of Joe Stewart, the party was seeking a new leader and the incident was widely regarded as settling the issue between the two contenders. McAteer reacted coolly, observing that he trusted Gormley's views were not shared by many nationalists and took the leadership shortly afterwards.

The effective end of Gormley's political career was to come with brutal suddenness. He was driving home from Dublin on a November evening, two days before the 1965 Stormont general election, when his car was in collision with an articulated truck outside Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan. Gormley was trapped in the wreckage, most of his ribs and two vertebrae broken and his tongue almost severed.

Doctors said he would have died from loss of blood, had not an ambulance already been in the area. It was diverted to take him, unconscious, to Drogheda hospital where O'Neill later visited him. Although he was able to go home in January, he suffered endemic pain afterwards, deterioration of sight and hearing and general malaise. His action against the truck driver was later settled in court in Dublin in Gormley's favour.

In the following year, perhaps foolishly, he allowed his name to go forward to the Londonderry seat in the 1966 Westminster general election. No nationalist had fought the seat for 20 years and Gormley was roundly defeated. But he was back in the Stormont Commons five months after the accident. It was 1968, though, before he once again spoke in the House, characteristically urging the parties to concentrate on bread and butter issues and enjoining citizens that "civil rights carried with them civil duties".

In the 1969 Stormont election he came a poor third to Ivan Cooper in Mid-Derry. The political temperature was rising and a new generation of less patient politicians was forcing its way to the front. In Stormont's last months Gormley attacked the denigrators of Northern Ireland, singling out its development of health services - less taxed then than now - as worthy of unstinted praise.

"We in Northern Ireland", he said, "are too self-conscious about our own slip-ups", adding darkly: "Certain people have magnified them for their own ends". It was a typical observation which could serve as an epitaph; for Gormley will be remembered as a man who never shrank from saying that unpopular thing-even if he knew it would lose him votes.

He was given to remarking that he was born in a great year for Irishmen-1916. That was the year they did not forget. But they did forget that time went on and left the year behind.

In the age of spin, there is less room for his kind and, as a result, also less honesty.

Eric Waugh

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