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Charles Kennedy dies: Northern Ireland's politicians pay tribute to 'true liberal' who lead with conviction and courage

By Claire Cromie

Charles Kennedy was a "true liberal" who transcended the political world to make a real connection with the public, Northern Ireland's politicians have said.

Paying tribute to the former Lib Dem leader, who was found dead in his house in Scotland on Monday, the DUP's Nigel Dodds said Mr Kennedy's ability was probably not fully recognised during his lifetime.

"He devoted his entire adult life to public service and it is particularly poignant that his death comes so soon after losing his seat in last month’s General Election," said Mr Dodds.

"His battle against alcoholism undoubtedly impacted upon his career and the further legacy he could have created had he been able to continue leading his party."

The father-of-one had been leader of the Liberal Democrats between 1999 and and January 2006 - when he stood down days after admitting he had a problem with alcohol.

Mr Kennedy had served as an MP for 32 years, but was ousted from his Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency last month as the SNP swept the board in the general election north of the border.

In 2009 he was a guest of honour at Naomi Long's Lord Mayoral installation dinner.

She said his warmth and humility made him approachable and authentic, "at a time when many politicians felt aloof and manufactured".

Mrs Long added: "His politics were those of conviction and courage and his leadership had real influence beyond the Liberal Democrats, not least in his opposition to the Iraq war where he went against the tide of political opinion and showed insight which others lacked.

"With the intellect and ability to land big political punches, he always remained civil and respectful of his opponents. His decency, political integrity, graciousness and humour - often self-deprecating - ensured that he was well liked by both his supporters and opponents.

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said Mr Kennedy often demonstrated the greatest qualities of any MP in recent decades.

“A true liberal, his dedication to reason and progressive politics was epitomised when he led the opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

“Mr Kennedy was a formidable politician and was known in the corridors of Westminster for his amicable nature and his ability to forge constructive relationships even with those whom he did not see eye to eye."

Have I Got News For You

Charles Kennedy's ready wit was never more obviously on display than during several appearances on satire show Have I Got News For You - and he appeared so often he was dubbed "chatshow Charlie".

His 2008 appearance saw stand-in host Jeremy Clarkson introduce him as a man with a "glass half full approach to politics" - a reference to his public struggle with alcohol.

Mr Kennedy took the jibe in good grace, but when Clarkson put his glasses on during the show he quickly quipped of the then Top Gear presenter: "If your eyesight continues to deteriorate does that mean you won't be able to drive cars?"

The long-running show's executive producer has paid tribute to the former Liberal Democrat leader, saying his honesty made him one of the programme's most popular signings.

"Charles Kennedy was one of the few politicians prepared to appear on Have I Got News For You and show himself as he really was," Richard Wilson said.

"His popularity was due, in part, to the fact that he really was a decent person with a sense of humour, especially about himself."

Mr Kennedy became the first serving party leader to join the panel of the TV show.

After having been a guest on the topical news quiz six times, he enjoyed a turn as host in 2002 following the sacking of Angus Deayton.

The 'demon drink'

Tony Blair's ex-spin doctor Alastair Campbell has revealed the close friendship he had with former political opponent Charles Kennedy was built on a "shared enemy" - the fight against "the demon drink".

Despite being on opposite sides of the bitter political divide over the Iraq war, the two men remained firm friends until the former Lib Dem leader's death, and had even light-heartedly discussed the formation of a new political party in Scotland in the wake of the SNP landslide which ousted Mr Kennedy from his Commons seat.

In a highly personal tribute, Mr Campbell revealed how he and his partner Fiona Millar had worried about the impact losing his place at Westminster would have on Mr Kennedy.

He said: "I just wish that we, his friends, had been able to help him more, and that he was still with us today."

In a post on his website, Mr Campbell wrote: "We were all a bit worried about him after the election. Indeed, 'is Charles going to be ok?' was one of the questions Fiona asked me most often during the campaign, and, on the night the exit poll made it clear his safe seat was gone, 'is Charles ok?' became an inquiry of a very different nature.

"Representing the people of Ross, Skye and Lochaber meant so much to him."

Mr Campbell said that after the election defeat, Mr Kennedy had told him his "health" was "fine" - a code used to show he was not drinking.

"Going by the chats and text exchanges before and after his election defeat, he seemed to be taking it all philosophically.

"Before, he took to sending me the William Hill odds on his survival, and a day before the election I got a text saying 'Not good. Wm Hill has me 3-1 against, SNP odds on, they're looking unstoppable'. Then he added: 'There is always hope... health remains fine'.

"Health remains fine - this was a little private code we had, which meant we were not drinking.

"A week later, health still fine, we chatted about the elections, and he did sound pretty accepting of what had happened."

Mr Kennedy said that "in some ways he was glad to be out of it", although Mr Campbell said he was "not totally sure I believed him, but he had plenty of ideas of how he would spend his time, how we would make a living, and most important how he would continue to contribute to political ideas and political life".

"Later he texted me 'fancy starting a new Scottish left-leaning party? I joke not'.

"I suggested - though I confess I was joking - that we hold a 'coalition summit' at the place we go on holiday. 'I am up for that - but who do we invite?'"

Mr Campbell, who has written extensively about his own battle with depression and alcoholism, said his friendship with Mr Kennedy dated back to the early years of their careers more than 30 years ago.

He said Mr Kennedy's struggle with drink was "part of who he was and the life he had".

Mr Campbell and his family frequently holidayed in Mr Kennedy's former constituency and he and his son Donald, now 10, and wife Sarah - before their separation - would come to visit.

In a post on his website Mr Campbell wrote that their "shared friendship was also built on a shared enemy, and that is alcohol".

"Perhaps another day, if his family are happy with this, I will write in more detail about the discussions we had over the past few years, and what it was like for someone in the public eye facing the demon drink. It was a part of who he was, and the life he had; the struggles came and went, and went and came, but the great qualities that made Charles who and what he was were always there."

Mr Campbell added: "He was great company, sober or drinking. He had a fine political mind and a real commitment to public service."

He added: "Despite the occasional blip when the drink interfered, he was a terrific communicator and a fine orator. He spoke fluent human, because he had humanity in every vein and every cell.

"Above all, he was a doting dad of his son, whose loss is going to be greater than for any of us, and who will be reminded of his father every time he looks in the mirror and sees his red hair and cheeky smile coming back.

"And he was a very good friend. I just wish that we, his friends, had been able to help him more, and that he was still with us today, adding a bit of light to an increasingly gloomy political landscape."

Charles Kennedy's most memorable quotes

"Sorry dear, I am blow-drying the cat" - on what a woman told him at the doorstep when he was out canvassing in March 2014.

"I am enjoying the Loch Ness monster exhibition with my nine-year-old son. I told him it's the world's most famous floating voter" - September 2014.

"The election to the chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee was akin to putting King Herod in charge of a maternity ward" - on the elevation of Eurosceptic Tory MP Bill Cash in January 2014.

"I am keeping a monastic silence for now" - in July 2010, expressing his doubts about the coalition government.

"There is not a clear message coming out of either candidate. It looks like a squabble about nothing" - he said referring to the party leadership contest in November 2007.

"I'm a big fan of Puccini. Tosca is great because it has got the lot - murder, politics, sex, intrigue. It is like the whole pastiche of the House of Commons, only with good music" - Mr Kennedy commented in 2006.

"The Government may have spun us into war, but it must not be allowed to spin and smear its way out" - in October 2004, claiming Tony Blair was trying to paint all those against the Iraq war as Saddam Hussein's appeasers or supporters.

"Prime ministerial power was allowed to progress without sufficient checks and balances. Parliament was sidelined, the select committees muted, while collective cabinet government was a joke" - in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.

"In 21 years of election campaigns I have never kissed a baby" - in June 2004 as he resisted the opportunity to break the habit of a lifetime.

"Some of my greatest moments of rhetorical exploration have come on the pier" - Speaking about Brighton before the September 2003 Lib Dem conference.

"All but a dead duck" - in 2003 on the prospects of a referendum on the euro.

"After Prime Minister's questions one of my first thoughts is that it would be nice to have a puff" - Mr Kennedy quipped in January 2003.

"I don't think anyone would accuse me of going around with a hangdog look" - he said in March 2004.

In August 2010 Mr Kennedy dismissed claims that he was defecting to Labour, telling the Sunday Mail: "I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket."

Life and career

Born in Inverness, Mr Kennedy was educated at Lochaber High School in Fort William before going on to Glasgow University - and was later elected by students there to be their Rector.

Following his graduation from university in 1982, he worked as a journalist and broadcaster with BBC Highland in Inverness.

The following year he was working towards a PhD at Indiana when he had the chance to put himself forward as the SDP candidate for the Ross, Cromarty and Skye seat in the general election.

The student made a flying visit home, won the ballot and less than six weeks later was elected to the House of Commons to become the youngest MP of the time.

His sharp Commons performances, coupled with his deft handling of the demise of the SDP, won him the presidency of the Liberal Democrats in 1990, and a prominent post as the party's trade and industry spokesman.

In 1999 he took over as Liberal Democrat leader, with his period in the job marked by his opposition to the war in Iraq.

"Without a second UN resolution, there is no way that the Liberal Democrats could or should support war," he said at the time.

In the 2005 general election he led his party to one of its best results, increasing the number of Lib Dem MPs to 62. It seemed to most people to be the successful culmination to an energetic and skilful campaign.

But within weeks of this, some of his senior colleagues were privately and publicly criticising his leadership, saying the party had failed to win many of its specially targeted seats.

That unpleasant whispering campaign reared up again in the final weeks of 2005 and the early days of 2006, largely, it is thought, because the Liberal Democrats feared they were likely to be overshadowed by new Tory leader David Cameron.

But in January 2006 - following months of rumours about his drinking - Mr Kennedy dramatically admitted he had been receiving treatment for an alcohol problem and said he was calling a leadership contest.

While he declared that he wanted to carry on, he was forced to stand down in the face of the threat of mass resignations by senior colleagues.

After stepping down as leader, he continued to play a high-profile role in the Scottish politics, campaigning against independence in the run-up to last year's referendum.

He was ousted from the House of Commons after 32 years in May, one of many in politicians north of the border to be beaten by the SNP as the nationalists won an unprecedented 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies.

Rather than being a night of the long knives, Mr Kennedy described it as being the "the night of long skean dhus", referring to the ceremonial daggers worn as part of traditional Highland dress

While he said his problem with alcohol had been "resolved", rumours about his drinking continued - most recently with some questioning his condition when he appeared on the BBC's Question Time programme in March this year.

Mr Kennedy is survived by his former wife, Sarah, and their son, Donald.

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