John Dallat, an SDLP stalwart and unflinching opponent of violence and sectarianism, has died at the age of 73. He was the MLA for East Londonderry.
During more than 40 years of service in politics, beginning with his winning a seat on Coleraine Borough Council in 1977, he was outspoken about divisions in Northern Ireland society — a stance that led to many serious threats against him.
His home was surrounded by high security fences and bulletproof glass was installed in his windows. In an interview with this newspaper in 2018 he told how he had slept with a loaded revolver beside his bed.
Notorious loyalist gunman Torrens Knight, who took part in the ‘trick or treat’ attack on the Rising Sun pub in Greysteel, in which eight people were killed and 19 injured in 1993, had earlier lived only three miles from the home of Mr Dallat, who was critical of the decision to release him from jail on two occasions.
Knight was released initially under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement but later returned to jail following an incident involving two sisters.
On his subsequent release Mr Dallat argued that he should have had to serve his full life term for breaching the terms of his initial release.
Given the number of threats against him, police guarded his home for 14 months and even stayed overnight at the house.
However, it was an incident at a loyalist band parade in 2017 which left him most afraid for his life. His car was surrounded by a large crowd and, trapped inside, he wondered what would happen. He made a 999 call and police were able to free him.
In a tribute to Mr Dallat, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “John entered public life at a time and in a place when it was difficult to be an SDLP representative.
“I know that, despite his tough exterior, he was often hurt when the hand of friendship he extended across the sectarian divide in the late 70s and early 80s on Coleraine council wasn’t always accepted. But it never stopped him trying and only strengthened his lifelong resolve to oppose violence and its supporters.”
Mr Dallat’s stand against violence won him friends across the political divide and in 2001-02 he became the first nationalist mayor of Coleraine council.
He was later to hold the post of Deputy Speaker of the Stormont Assembly and served as an MLA from 1998 until his death, apart from a short period of retirement.
Mr Dallat fought a long campaign to bring the killer of German teenage backpacker Inge Maria Hauser to justice.
She was killed shortly after arriving in Northern Ireland in 1988 while hitchhiking around the UK and in spite of repeated publicity campaigns her killer has never been prosecuted.
Her body was found in Ballypatrick Forest near Ballycastle in Co Antrim.
Her parents both died without receiving justice.
Away from politics he was a devoted family man. He met his wife Ann in a Protestant Hall in Carndonagh in Co Donegal where he was teaching — she was from the area — and the pair were married on August 16, 1975, when he was 28 and she was 21. They had three children.
Mr Dallat was born in Rasharkin, one of six sons, in a house which had neither running water nor electricity, he was educated at Coleraine Technical College, the North West College of Further and Higher Education, the University of Ulster and University College Galway before becoming a business studies teacher.
Once asked what his greatest achievement was he replied it was gaining his gold blood donor’s badge for reaching a target of 50 pints.
Mr Dallat, who had been ill for some time, is survived by his wife Ann, daughter Helena and sons Ronan and Diarmuid and eight grandchildren.
In his tribute, Mr Eastwood added: “As a public representative, John struck fear into the heart of anyone who dared misspend a penny of public money.
“His forensic skill as a member of the Public Accounts Committee may not have won him many friends in the higher levels of the public sector, but it won him respect across political lines.
“It was a respect he maintained with a fair hand as Deputy Speaker of the Assembly.”
DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of John Dallat.
“We came from very different political outlooks, but he was always to the fore in speaking up for his constituents.
“We send our sympathies to his family and colleagues in the SDLP at this very sad time.”
East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said: “John and I fought many elections as rivals. Our two approaches to constitutional politics were different, but today I pay tribute to his work as an advocate for his electorate in East Londonderry.
“At a time when being in the political spotlight placed not only our lives but also our families’ lives in danger, John didn’t step back.”
Pat and John Hume also paid tribute to Mr Dallat, saying: “During a distinguished political career, he was always on the side of the underdog, defending those who were disadvantaged and standing strong against violence, sectarianism and unfairness in society.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “John was held in high regard as a political representative, but he will also be remembered for being a teacher and friend to many.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said: “John Dallat diligently represented the people of East Londonderry both in the Assembly and on the old Coleraine Borough Council — to which he was first elected in 1977.
“This length of public service is itself a remarkable tribute.”