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SDLP veteran Dr Joe Hendron on Belfast Blitz, surviving loyalist murder bid... and why DUP has got it so wrong on Brexit

Now 86, man who unseated Gerry Adams as MP in his West Belfast stronghold thanks to unionist votes, reflects on fascinating life in politics here

Dr Joe Hendron at home in south Belfast
Dr Joe Hendron at home in south Belfast

Laurence White

Dr Joe Hendron, a former SDLP politician, famously unseated Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams for the West Belfast Westminster seat thanks in part to support from the unionist community. During his life in politics he built up cross-community respect as a Belfast city councillor, MP and Member of the Assembly. One admirer once said: "Some politicians are respected. Fewer are loved. Joe Hendron was both respected and loved." Having celebrated his 86th birthday earlier this month, he looks back over his life.

Q: Where were you born

A: I was born in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast in November 1932 and for about six months lived above what is now McHugh's public house near the Albert Clock. It was then owned by my uncle and my father ran it for him. Our family - I have one brother Jim, who is a year older than me and still going strong - then moved to Willowfield Crescent near the Woodstock Road in east Belfast and I went to school there.

Q: What are your earliest memories?

A: I can remember the air raids on Belfast. My father used to tune into Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), who used to broadcast German propaganda during the Second World War. I can remember his catchphrase "Germany calling, Germany calling", and then the radio band he was broadcasting on. One night he said "our planes are now over Belfast", and bombs were dropped.

Q: What happened then?

A: We had air raid shelters near our home but when the city was bombed in the Blitz it was decided my mother, Jim and I would evacuate to the countryside. We went to the old GNR railway station in Great Victoria Street and there were thousands of people there all wanting to get on a train. They didn't care where for, as long as it was out of the city.

We were taken to family relatives outside Portadown. Jim and I stayed with them and my mother stayed with one of her sisters. She then went to stay with her parents in Co Louth, and my father used to come down one weekend to visit us and the next to visit his wife.

After about nine months Jim and I were sent to a family in Tyrone - two middle-aged brothers and a sister - and they were very good to us. They treated us like their own children.

Q: How long did you stay there?

A: We were there for some time until one day our uncle turned up at our school and took us back to the house we were staying in. He told us to get cleaned up and at first I thought we were maybe going on a holiday, but then I heard him whispering to someone and felt there was something wrong with our mother.

When we got back into the car he told us our mother had died.

She had very bad asthma and that was what killed her. I was about nine at the time.

After that we came back to Belfast and again went to live above the pub. Jim and I went to the Christian Brothers' School in Oxford Street - it is now owned by a firm of solicitors - and the teachers thought we were a bit stupid because our education had been interrupted so often by our moves.

I eventually went to St Malachy's College and Queen's University to study medicine.

It wasn't a great passion of mine, but another uncle who lived in England was a doctor and I thought it would be a good profession to get into.

Q: What was it like growing up in a pub?

A: It was good. Although we were Catholics and many of the customers were Protestants, dockers and shipyard workers, there was never any animosity. I was brought up to respect everyone and there was never any anti-British or anti-Protestant feelings expressed in our home.

I remember one amusing incident in the pub. Two of the customers who were members of the Orange Order were drinking there one night when three soldiers came in.

Hendron with former SDLP leader John Hume and ex-deputy leader Seamus Mallon
Hendron with former SDLP leader John Hume and ex-deputy leader Seamus Mallon

At the end of the night when much drink had been consumed the soldiers decided they would sing the national anthem and all five of them stood up.

One of the soldiers was from Tipperary and they then decided to sing the Irish national anthem. Obviously the two locals did not stand up until the two burly soldiers approached them and said: "Do not disrespect our friend". And they were forced reluctantly to get to their feet.

I often tell friends I was a very young pimp. The pub was near another one which ladies of the night were known to frequent and one evening I was approached by an American sailor who asked me where he might meet some ladies. I pointed out this pub to him and he gave me some chewing gum.

Q: How did you get involved in politics?

A: When I became a doctor I spent a year as a ship's doctor in the Merchant Navy and then entered general practice on the Falls Road in Belfast.

I soon became aware of the massive social problems in the area - the lack of job opportunities and the widespread unemployment. It was probably similar on the Shankill but just not as bad. That got me emotionally involved with the plight of my patients.

I was not attached to any political party but I knew there was quite a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in the city and I could not understand why people would hate us so much.

There were probably many Protestants who wondered why Catholics hated them.

Since then things have changed greatly and the Church leaders have played an important role in coming together and showing that they can have a common purpose in spite of their different outlooks.

My brother Jim was a member of the New Ulster Movement, which later became the Alliance Party, and he was one of the founding members and is still very active in it. I actually joined as well.

Q: So how did you get involved with the SDLP?

A: I met a young John Hume, who was one of the founders of it, around the same time as the Alliance Party was formed. He had been invited to speak to the New Ulster Movement and I later went for a drink with him.

Even at that stage he was talking about the need for accommodation of difference - unionists had a right to be unionists and nationalists had a right to be nationalists.

He differed from Alliance in a subtle way. Alliance had cross-community membership but John simply wanted the two traditions to respect each other and find a way of living together. It was an outworking of his father's comments that no one can eat a flag, and that people should be prepared to shed their sweat, not their blood, for Ireland. That made more sense to me and led to me joining the party.

Q: You were once quoted as saying John Hume was the most important Irish man of the past 200 years. Why?

A: I was always influenced more by John than any other politician I knew. He could see years ahead while others looked only six months ahead.

An example was the New Ireland Forum, which was essentially Irish nationalism coming together, north and south, and its report came to three main conclusions: a united Ireland, although no one expected that any time soon; a federal Ireland, and joint sovereignty. John insisted on a fourth - any arrangement where there was an agreement. You could say that was a vision of the Good Friday Agreement, which was to come into being many years in the future.

Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the influential Irish-Americans who were interested in what was happening in Ireland during the Troubles, had contacted Dublin for their views and it was recommended that he talk to a young Derry teacher, John Hume.

He contacted John and invited him to Germany, where he was on a visit. John borrowed the money from the credit union, which he had helped establish, to pay for the trip and outlined to Kennedy the problems and solutions as he saw them.

That had enormous influence on Kennedy and others who later contacted President Reagan. The President later put pressure on Mrs Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

That showed the influence of John, that he could, albeit by proxy, move an American President to intervene in Irish affairs.

Q: You fought Gerry Adams four times in Westminster elections in West Belfast, winning once. What was that like?

A: I felt that I had made progress in my first two campaigns for the seat and in 1992 I believed I was in with a chance of unseating Adams. I won by about 1%, and while I had a significant vote from unionists on the Shankill, most of my votes came from west Belfast.

I had a constituency office in Northumberland Street that people from the Shankill could visit. I used to go onto the Shankill even during those times and I never had a police bodyguard. I remember police coming to my house on one occasion and showing me a range of personal protection weapons. All I could think was that they were very heavy and bulky. I never accepted one, as anyway the Provos would probably have just taken it off me.

Q: What effect did you think your victory had?

A: It came at a time when Sinn Fein had few seats and, of course, Gerry Adams as president was the most important elected figure the party had. To lose the West Belfast seat was a bitter blow. At that time the loyalist killing of Catholics was gathering pace and Sinn Fein and the IRA were under enormous pressure from within their own community. I believe my victory had a massive impact on Sinn Fein and was a catalyst to move them towards peace through the exercise of politics rather than backing an armed struggle.

Q: Were you ever threatened?

A: I was threatened several times. Most of those came from the UDA, including a bomb being placed under my car at my home in the early 1990s when the Hume-Adams talks became public knowledge. The Provos also hated my guts but could not be seen to do anything.

Many of them or their families - who would not have wished to harm me - were my patients.

I was the first elected representative to go public about ill-treatment of suspects at Castlereagh holding centre in Belfast. I went in to examine patients and also patients of other doctors from around Northern Ireland and wrote up reports of what I found.

Those reports were respected and told the truth of what was going on. I remember getting phoned threats at home about this aspect of my work, but it did not deter me.

Q: Are there particular stand-out moments as an MP?

A: The Shankill bombing was a horrific event. When I heard the news I intended to go to the scene but someone advised me that feelings were running very high. It was the time of the Hume-Adams talks and it was decided it would be better for me to go the next day to the Mater Hospital, where many of the injured had been taken. The relatives greeted me well and I then went over onto the Shankill where I was met by unionist councillors. At one stage a small group began chanting for me to leave and those councillors escorted me to my car. I was invited to the 25th anniversary memorial service earlier this year and was warmly greeted by members of the bereaved families. That made a big impression on me.

Occasionally I go to Mass at Clonard Monastery or St Peter's on the Lower Falls and many people come up to talk to me. They remember me as a GP and as their MP, and that is good.

Q: Do you think John Hume's talks with Sinn Fein was to the detriment of his own party?

A: Perhaps it was, but what he earnestly wanted was an end to the killing and getting the Provos to renounce violence and move to politics was one way of doing that.

The SDLP's present leader Colum Eastwood seems an intelligent young man. Claire Hanna in south Belfast is a very articulate representative and Nicola Mallon, whom I first met when I was on the Parades Commission, made a big impression. Here was a young woman from Ardoyne who could put forward her arguments in a very forceful but respectful way.

I think it is sad also that the UUP has faded so badly. I don't know if they can ever make a comeback.

Q: What do you think of Brexit and how it has influenced politics here?

A: The people of Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU and I think it was a massive mistake for the DUP not to respect that result. They should have put the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland first rather than simply going along with the overall result.

Obviously Theresa May is in trouble at the moment, but I believe the deal she is offered is better than no deal and I hope she succeeds on getting it through Parliament.

However, it has always been said that a week is a long time in politics, and in the current climate it can be a very long time for the Prime Minister.

Q: What do you do now?

A: I play a bit of golf. I have to use a buggy to get around as I have had both knees operated on and that affects my mobility.

Also, at 86, I'm getting on a bit. I don't enter competitions but have a friendly game with a mate for maybe a pound.

He then gives me an impromptu lesson on how to hit the ball properly.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I have to pay tribute to my wife Sally.

We have four great children, a girl and three boys, and I could not have had my political career without her help.

She worked in my advice office, was always diplomatic to everyone who called and was invaluable in advising me also.

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