Belfast Telegraph

UTV broadcaster Paul Clark on the legacy of Glen Barr who died this week

The poignant journey to Flanders of a man whose one dream was 'proper politics' in Northern Ireland

In a funny way, I have Glen Barr to thank for my start in broadcasting. It was May 1974, and the eve of the Ulster Workers' Council strike, which would bring down the fledgling Sunningdale power-sharing administration.

Glen Barr was one of the leaders of the strike, and when, many years later, I reminded him of his role in my career, he asked loudly, and in jest, "Has Ulster not suffered enough?"

My early view of Glenny, as he was known to most of us, was of a rather two-dimensional character. That was far from being the complete picture.

Glen Barr was the youngest of 10 children, born into a Protestant working-class family in the Waterside in Londonderry.

He knew the effects of poverty. His ambition was to be a full-time trade union official. Then the Troubles broke out and one morning he says he woke up and found himself a politician - something he never wanted to be.

He felt his people had been shafted by their own politicians.

"Nationalist people could complain about their conditions. Ordinary Protestant working-classes couldn't do that. We were locked in to the ruling Unionist class. We couldn't complain."

"If the State was destroyed, we were on our way to a united Ireland, and that was a greater fear. So, we had to suffer our poverty in silence. Catholics, at least, could complain, and get something done about it."

As a result of his own experiences, Glen Barr never lost sight of his roots, and was honoured with an OBE, for services to the community in Derry.

But his legacy will be the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines in Belgium. Messines was chosen because it was the only time, during The Great War, when the 36th (Ulster) Division and the 16th (Irish) Division, fought side by side. He admitted that if they had been fighting in Ireland, they would have been on different sides. But, in Flanders, they faced a common enemy -whose bullets did not differentiate between religions.

Along with a Fine Gael TD from neighbouring Donegal, both Paddy Harte, an unashamed nationalist, and Glenn Barr, an equally uncompromising unionist, could find common ground. And the two men made a journey which would have far-reaching effects.

In order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, they wanted younger generations to experience the battlefields and the cemeteries - to understand the truth of the First World War.

"The concept of the Messines project is not to turn Protestants into Catholics; and nationalists into unionists."

"People go as Catholics, and they come back as Catholics. People go as Protestants and they come back as Protestants. We expect them to come back to Ireland and see people differently - with respect!"

On November 11, 1998, on the 80th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the Great War, the Queen, and then Irish President, Mary McAleese, dedicated the Tower to the memory of all Irish soldiers who had died in that war. I reported on that moment of history for UTV.

But, away from the cameras, in Messines town hall, Glen Barr witnessed Mary McAleese make an emotional speech, in which she talked of the men whose lives were doubly tragic.

She did so, not just as President, but also as Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Defence Forces - the real 'Óglaigh na hÉireann'.

"They fell fighting oppression in Europe, and their memory fell victim to a war for independence at home in Ireland."

It was, he would tell me later, "truly majestic".

Mary McAleese was honoured in 2004 by the International School for Peace Studies, founded by Glen Barr. The Irish President became an Honorary Fellow, along with David Ervine and Alex Maskey.

As a footnote, I also became an Honorary Fellow of Messines - an acknowledgement of my own efforts to remind people of our common history during that time. Thank you, Glenny!

Mindful of his own "personal" history, and the "journey" he had embarked upon to Flanders, Glen Barr did have one dream.

"I would hope that one day we would see the evolution of proper politics in this country!"

It may appear a long way off, at the moment; but, there's the challenge for today's generation of politician!

Belfast Telegraph

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