The Real Gerry Fitt ...the man i remember
As family, friends and admirers gather at the city hall in belfast today for a celebration of the life of one of northern ireland's best known political figures, chris ryder pays tribute to the man he calls 'my irreplaceable friend'
Published 10/03/2006 | 00:00
I was with Gerry one day soon after he was elevated to the House of Lords, when a policeman guarding the opulent corridors stopped him to say there was an urgent message at the central lobby.
At the next gateway, another policeman advised that a messenger was roaming the corridors looking for him. "Tell him I'm on my way to the Terrace Bar," said Gerry.
Soon afterwards, as we were savouring the first gin of the day, the courier tracked him down and proffered a large em bossed envelope. "My Lord," he said deferentially as he handed it over.
Gerry was, meanwhile, fumbling in his inside pocket from where he produced a scrap of paper. "Can you look after that for me?" he said, pressing it into the messenger's hand.
"Certainly, My Lord."
After the messenger had left, Gerry opened the envelope. I watched expecting a great missive of state to tumble out but all he extracted was a bundle of grubby banknotes and a handful of coins - his previous day's winnings on the horses, he explained. The scrap of paper was his follow-up bet for that day.
Backing horses was, of course, one of his enduring enjoyments and when he was in residence at his beloved cottage in Murlough Bay he had an equally deft arrangement with the postman and his bookie in Ballycastle to facilitate his daily wagering.
This was the real Gerry Fitt - for 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 then there was his epic capacity for gin. As his beloved Ann commented after one bacchanalian day in several of Parliament's drinking places: "Just because you're a Lord, doesn't mean you have to get as drunk as one."
What singled him out from his contemporaries was his remarkable political ability, addiction to the associated gossip, a huge talent as a side-splitting raconteur and mimic and an ingrained humanity.
With his death, his daughters and family have lost a loving brother, father and grandfather but they can be proud of Gerry because few professional lives can be said to have made as much of a difference as his did.
Despite his famous, what is called these days, political incorrectness, he was at heart an old romantic. The way that he and Ann re-enacted their first date at Hyde Park Corner, complete with chocolates and nylons, for most of the 49 years they were together revealed the deep and lasting bond between them.
After her death he continued the routine. Indeed he mourned her ceaselessly.
When one of her uncancelled premium bonds yielded a £100 prize, he promptly invested the money in red roses and placed them on her grave.
Those of us who were close to him, whose life-paths have been fortunate enough to have crossed with his, have lost an irreplaceable friend. I cannot yet accept that no longer do I hear that familiar "Ah-ha" at the other end of the phone and the preface "I've got a big, big story to tell you about".
Further afield, especially in the deeply troubled working class areas of Belfast, still blighted by debilitating poverty, ill-health, unemployment and sectarianism, as they were in his day, his death is mourned by thousands of people who turned to him for help in times of need or great distress or tragedy.
In his political heyday, 85 Antrim Road was a magnet for people seeking help. Around the clock the rooms and even stairs were often packed with people queuing to see Gerry, confident that he alone would be able to find them some solace or relief for their troubles.
On their behalf he harangued ministers, mandarins and bureaucrats to get things done and he attended tribunals and other events to speak up for people unable to do so for themselves. No cry for help was ever turned away.
Even after one of his collapses at Stormont, the ambulance man taking him to hospital sought his assistance with his own problem. "Put a note in my pocket and I'll call you when I get better," said a semi-conscious but ever-obliging Gerry.
Not for nothing was he known as the 'Perry Mason' of the various tribunals for, like the glamorous television lawyer, he never lost a case.
Above all, those closest to him will miss his humour, mischief and jokes.
There was the memorable night when he persuaded a British Airways crew to squeeze him on the last flight to Belfast in the only available space - the jump seat in the cockpit - and when he emerged through the door in mid-flight to visit the lavatory there, in the front row, was an astonished Rev Ian Paisley. "Don't worry. I've left it on automatic pilot," he told his great political rival as he pushed past.
During a stay in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital after one bout of illness, he quizzed the nurse caring for him about the origin of the blood that was being pumped into him. "What do you want to know that for?" she asked incredulous. "We never record anything like that."
"Oh, it must be Prod blood," he said. "I feel a terrible urge to sing 'The Sash My Father Wore'."
And there was the time when he was staying at Murlough that he persuaded an accomplished young violinist to serenade several of his daughters over the telephone. "I've been practising my own violin since I came over here," he lied before laughing.
Although he mastered the mouth organ during his days at sea, Gerry never did become the ship's captain or virtuoso violinist that he secretly aspired to be. Instead, after his dangerous time at sea, he opted for a life on the slippery glacier of politics.
Throughout he set his compass to the great values of social justice, tolerance and reconciliation and his course never wavered. He worked tirelessly for his constituents and anyone else who asked him, regardless of whether they were Catholic, Protestant or dissenter, unionist or nationalist, Republican or loyalist.
His raw courage in the face of intimidation and violence is already legendary. But the violent backdrop to his life and work dismayed and disappointed him and he felt betrayed by those who did not share his unambiguous and unequivocal opposition to violence and terrorism.
These feelings were burned even more fiercely into his soul after the murder of his election agent, Senator Paddy Wilson, in 1973.
Gerry was no saint but his religious faith was strong despite being tempered with a degree of superstition. For years, we could never get him to make a will lest it would tempt Providence.
Like many old sailors, he always carried, in what he invariably described as "my arse pocket", a little collection of talismans, which included a half-crown given to him as a donation in his first successful election campaign, several mementoes of his beloved Ann and a collection of religious medals.
These were the authentic pointers to his deep, underlying faith although at times it wobbled.
In recent years, despite the hundreds of flights he had made between Belfast and London, he had become increasingly apprehensive about air travel, especially in winter and bad weather. "I'm always a better Catholic at 30,000 feet," he would say.
From time to time, especially in the midnight isolation of the cottage at Murlough, he would suffer doubt and distress that he would never see Ann again but then, as the dawn of the new day came spectacularly up over the Mull of Kintyre, he would brighten up and re-affirm his customary faith and confidence that one day they would indeed be re-united in Heaven.
Of his other great passion, the cause of social justice and peace in Ireland, he would equally frequently despair. "There'll not be peace in Ireland until God sees Fitt," he would say.
Well, God has now seen Fitt and we can only imagine the hullabaloo he's already causing in Heaven.
And when true and lasting peace does come to Ireland, as it will, history must properly credit Gerry Fitt for his great courage in dark days and his unrivalled and visionary contribution to the process.
÷Chris Ryder paid this tribute to Lord Gerry Fitt at his funeral in Westminster Cathedral London on August 31, 2005, and at his memorial service today in the City Hall, Belfast