Belfast Telegraph

Civil rights leader Ivan Cooper a man ahead of his time, funeral is told

Mourners at the funeral of Ivan Cooper
Mourners at the funeral of Ivan Cooper
Brid Rodgers with Denis Bradley
Irish President Michael D Higgins
Ivan Cooper
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Ivan Cooper was remembered as a "towering figure" in politics and history here at his funeral yesterday.

The coffin of the former Stormont MP, one of the founders of the civil rights movement, was brought into his family's church on Londonderry's Culmore Road draped in a black and white civil rights flag.

Irish President Michael D Higgins was among the mourners to pack into St Peter's, a church where Mr Cooper's heart found a home following a life led fighting for equality for all.

Speaking as he left the church, Mr Higgins said it "was a privilege to attend the funeral and pay tribute".

"Until his very last breath, Ivan believed in taking hope and turning it into something positive," he said.

Mr Cooper (75) died in hospital on Wednesday after a long period of ill health. He was one of the leaders at the fateful civil rights march on Bloody Sunday in 1972 when members of the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 protesters on the streets of the Bogside.

A working-class Protestant, he was at the forefront of another landmark civil rights march in Derry in October 1968. Many point to the scenes of violence when police moved to break up the demonstration on Duke Street as the beginning of the Troubles. Mr Cooper was one of the few Protestants in the civil rights movement.

He said his involvement saw him ostracised by other Protestants, and even found people in his church refuse to sit beside him.

A former Young Unionist, he was a founding member of the SDLP, and large numbers of the party were there to pay their final respects. Pat Hume, wife of John, joined party veterans Brid Rodgers and Alasdair McDonnell, and leader Colum Eastwood, in the pews. Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion and MLA Raymond McCartney were also among the mourners, as were family members of those killed and injured on Bloody Sunday.

Inside the church Mr Cooper's granddaughter Cashel and grandson Luca paid a tearful tribute.

"We may not have the same memories as others, but what we do remember is the special warmth between our grandparents," Cashel said.

"Their close relationship of over 50 years began at a time when it wasn't easy for people from two faiths to come together. They were inseparable and 50 years later she continued to devote each day to Ivan.

"Luca and I will never forget the time we had with our grandad. All the giggles and the mischief."

Luca said: "Granda had been ill and immobile for a few years. But it never dampened his spirit. He always had a twinkle in his eye. We love you Granda, so much."

In his funeral address, Archdeacon Robert Millar described Mr Cooper as a "towering figure in politics and Northern Ireland's history". He told mourners that he was "ahead of his time about breaking down barriers and building trust".

He said we must carry on the job that Mr Cooper had started and bring his vision of a better future to reality.

"Ivan was a man who was interested in people. He didn't put them into groups. He didn't see them as categories. He saw them as individuals, and those individuals had names and he knew their names. And he was interested in their particular needs and challenges," he said.

He said Mr Cooper set about "building Northern Ireland from the family up".

"Although his body was becoming increasingly frail, his intellect was undiminished," he said. "And his determination to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict across this island burned as brightly as ever.

"Ivan Cooper was a towering figure in Northern Ireland's recent history. And the breadth of the political and religious opinion gathered here in this church in itself is a powerful testament to the impact that he made in life and an indication of how he touched so many lives.

"Ivan's name and face and views were well known by a whole generation who came of age politically in the turbulence of the late Sixties and Seventies.

"In the middle of this challenge, of his passion and his desire to engage politically with the needs of the people of Northern Ireland, he was also a loving and devoted husband and father.

"Ivan was building a better community from the family up. His every step was informed and sustained by his Christian faith."

Archdeacon Millar said Mr Cooper was a man who "broke down barriers, built trust, challenged attitudes and changed minds". And he asked mourners to carry on that work, and for politicians to work to "make Ivan's vision a reality".

"Ivan Cooper was a man ahead of his time," he said.

"And lest we forget that, he was always adamant that there could be no place and no justification for violence. Surely in this city and on this island we must see how much we need to embrace that message now.

"He challenged all of us, whatever part of the community we came from and whatever our position in society.

"And he did so for the right reasons. He wanted the future to be better than the past.

"When we go from this church this afternoon the best thing we can all do is to finish the job that Ivan Cooper dedicated most of his life to, the task of building a better community.

"To celebrate his life we must echo his voice and be utterly and unequivocally committed to peaceful resolution to the conflict in Northern Ireland."

Mr Eastwood said it was a "very sad day for the city and the SDLP family".

"It's a day to remember Ivan's legacy," he said.

"He was born to break the mould".

Following the service Mr Cooper's coffin was driven into the Bogside, an area and a community that he kept close to his heart.

The cortege stopped for a moment at Free Derry Corner, the backdrop to many of Mr Cooper's civil rights addresses, before he was taken on to be laid to rest in Altnagelvin Cemetery.

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