Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland civil rights leader Ivan Cooper dies

The founding member of the SDLP, who organised the civil rights march on Bloody Sunday, has been hailed as a ‘giant’ of Irish history.

Ivan Cooper (Niall Carson/PA)
Ivan Cooper (Niall Carson/PA)

Ivan Cooper, one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, has died.

Mr Cooper, 75, died in hospital on Wednesday morning after a long period of ill health.

The former Stormont MP, who helped found the SDLP, led the fateful civil rights march in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday when soldiers shot dead 13 protesters in January 1972.

He was also at the forefront of another landmark civil rights march in Derry in October 1968.

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Ivan Cooper, second right, was a founding member of the SDLP (PA)

Many point to the scenes of violence when police moved to break up the demonstration on the city’s Duke Street as the effective beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Irish president Michael D Higgins presented Mr Cooper with a special award to mark his role in civil rights at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Duke Street march last year.

Mr Cooper was one of few Protestants involved with the civil rights movement.

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

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President Michael D Higgins presents an award to Ivan Cooper at Derry’s Guildhall last year to recognise his role in the civil rights movement (Brian Lawless/PA)

Current SDLP leader Colum Eastwood paid tribute, hailing Mr Cooper as a man who “embodied the contrasting traditions of this island”.

“Ivan Cooper was born to break the mould,” he said.

“A working class Protestant man who saw a common injustice and inequality that had taken root in Protestant and Catholic communities, he dedicated his life to fighting it.

“As an early leader in the civil rights movement, few have contributed as much to peace and equality on this island than Ivan.

“Organising marches in Derry for the right to a home, the right to a job and the right to a vote, Ivan often put himself in the path of danger to secure justice for people in every community.

“And on many occasions that meant that he suffered vilification and violence for his convictions. It never stopped him.”

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described Ivan Cooper as a ‘giant’ (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Eastwood added: “Alongside his close friend John Hume, he helped blaze the trail on the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

“Anyone who knew Ivan knows that his selfless passion for justice continued to burn brightly into his later years. His unwavering belief that people on this island should come together to fight for common ideals and in their common interest is a lesson for us all. Especially as we face political division today.

“A man of sharp contrasts, sharp intellect and, it must be said, sharp tongue, he stands as a giant in the story of this island. And he holds a special place in the hearts of SDLP members.”

Sinn Fein MP for Foyle Elisha McCallion expressed her condolences.

“Ivan Cooper, along with others, played an important role in the civil rights campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” she said.

“He stood up with others and challenged an unjust and unfair system of apartheid and discrimination.

“My thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends at this time.”

Mr Cooper is survived by wife Frances and daughters Sinead and Bronagh.

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John Hume (Niall Carson/PA)

Pat Hume, wife of former SDLP leader John, who is also suffering ill-health, said: “Ivan and John walked side by side, hand in hand, in their shared desire for equality, justice and peace in Ireland.

“Ivan was the embodiment of the non-violent and non-sectarian movement for change that was the campaign for civil rights.

“His commitment and courage and his desire and determination to tackle these issues never waned. Nor did his friendship and relationship with John and me. He was a loyal friend and constant visitor to John in recent years even as both battled ill-health.

“Ivan Cooper will forever hold a special place, not only in our hearts, but in the history of this island and in the continuing of the fight for civil rights and social justice.”

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James Nesbitt (Luke MacGregor/PA)

Actor James Nesbitt, who played Mr Cooper in the 2002 film Bloody Sunday, said: “He will be remembered as a politician of startling courage and conviction who passionately believed in equality for all.

“He was a Protestant politician in the 1970s who loved where he came from, but was also brave enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of all faiths and convictions to fight for civil rights in Ireland.

“On a personal note, his impact on my career was inestimable. Playing him in Bloody Sunday was a privilege and also a huge responsibility. Professionally it changed my life. It made me appreciate for the first time what could be achieved through my job, and for that I will always be thankful.”

President Higgins paid tribute to Mr Cooper.

“With his unshakable belief in the universality and indivisibility of human rights, Ivan Cooper was a beacon of hope and the embodiment of the power of non-violent actions in pursuit of justice,” he said.

Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney added: “Ivan’s legacy is one of courage and determination in overcoming injustice, through peaceful, democratic means. His leadership and example in the Civil Rights Movement was so important in showing that equality and mutual respect should be the basis for peace and progress in Northern Ireland.”

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