Belfast Telegraph

Tributes for Ivan Cooper, Protestant in vanguard of civil rights movement

Ivan Cooper
Ivan Cooper
Receiving an honorary degree from Ulster University
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Civil rights activist Ivan Cooper has been described as a "beacon of hope" following his death at the age of 75.

Mr Cooper passed away in hospital yesterday after a long period of ill health. He leaves behind his wife Francis and daughters Sinead and Bronagh.

The former Stormont MP, who helped to found the SDLP, led the fateful civil rights march on Bloody Sunday when members of the Parachute Regiment shot dead 13 protesters in January 1972.

He was also 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 starting point of the Troubles.

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

He said this saw him ostracised by others and he even found people in his church refused to sit beside him.

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As tributes poured in, actor James Nesbitt, who played Mr Cooper in the 2002 film Bloody Sunday, said he would 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," he said.

"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."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood added Mr Cooper was "born to break the mould".

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

"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.

"Alongside his close friend John Hume, he helped blaze the trail on the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement."

UUP leader Robin Swann said Mr Cooper made a "major contribution to political life in Northern Ireland".

"At a time when many were resorting to violence as a means of achieving political aims, his commitment to purely non-violent, peaceful and democratic methods was an example of how politics should be conducted," he said.

"Had voices like his prevailed, we could perhaps have been spared the disaster and misery that was the Troubles."

Eamonn McCann from People Before Profit, who was involved in the early civil rights movement with Mr Cooper, said he was a "moderate man".

"His beliefs were not based on political ideology. Ivan was influenced by those around him and was thoroughly respectable," he said.

"He didn't want to kick over the traces. He wasn't a man for tearing down the walls. He wanted to change things in a moderate and gradual way as opposed to going all out for particular demands."

Mr Hume's wife Pat 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.

"He 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."

Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion said Mr Cooper "challenged an unjust and unfair system of apartheid and discrimination".

Irish President Michael D Higgins described Mr Cooper as a "beacon of hope".

"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.

"His work as a campaigner in the 1960s was rewarded when he won the largest political mandate of any nationalist MP of Northern Ireland and his legacy of personal courage, leadership and the dedication to the cause of justice continues to inspire activists and politicians alike."

Mr Cooper's friend and fellow civil rights activist Dermie McClenaghan said he was "one of the most courageous people" he knew.

He added: "Ivan had a generous heart and he will not be forgotten easily."

A book of condolences has been opened at the Guildhall in Londonderry.

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