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Alban Maginness

A sad farewell to John Dallat, who spent his career fighting for a brighter, shared future

Alban Maginness

Alban Maginness reflects on an SDLP stalwart and colleague who epitomised the very soul of the party


People of Kilrea pay their respects as the funeral cortege of John Dallat passes

People of Kilrea pay their respects as the funeral cortege of John Dallat passes

John Dallat

John Dallat

People of Kilrea pay their respects as the funeral cortege of John Dallat passes

The weather kindly blessed the funeral of John Dallat, the SDLP MLA for East Derry. In the gentle sunshine the simple family funeral of John took place in Kilrea. Hundreds of local people - properly observing the social distancing guidance - lined the road and respectfully clapped as the cortege proceeded to St Mary's Church at Drumagarner.

Earlier, as his remains were removed by his family from his home in the village an uplifting rendition of We Shall Overcome was appropriately sung. This was a musical tribute to a politician who had in his lifetime sought to overcome sectarianism and destructive political violence.

This anthem reflected his unstinting commitment to creating a new type of partnership politics and building a non-sectarian, non-violent society in this part of Ireland. He was deeply committed to reconciling our divided people and building an Agreed Ireland in which its people were united through democratic persuasion, not by bomb or bullet. This was John's ardent desire.

His commitment to partnership politics was steadfast and at times unrewarding. He was first elected to a unionist-dominated Coleraine Council in 1977 along with another veteran of the SDLP, Sean Farren. Sean recalls John's sheer determination to promote power-sharing and partnership between the two traditions within the council area.

His election and that of his colleagues was a political shockwave at the time for a council dominated by unionism for decades.

Gradually and patiently, with a lot of coaxing and pushing, the council evolved into a partnership model and eventually even saw John being elected mayor of the borough in 2001.

As mayor he stretched out the hand of friendship to all and built new bridges throughout the community. He went where other mayors did not go and created a new political dynamic.

Inspired by the suggestion of a local Presbyterian missionary, he also established a civic link between Coleraine and Zomba in Malawi. This arrangement that he initiated received widespread support, particularly among the local churches. But it was typical of John to raise his sights beyond the local to a deserving international outreach.

By 1998 he was elected for East Derry with his colleague, the late Arthur Doherty, to the new power-sharing Assembly at Stormont.

In fact, at the time of his death, he was the sole surviving SDLP member from the first Assembly.

The Assembly was, of course, a fresh opportunity to develop the new political vision that he and the SDLP shared.

After years of political trench warfare and paramilitary violence there was at last, arising out of the Good Friday Agreement, another fresh start to our politics. It was in the words of SDLP leader John Hume a chance for politicians and people: "To spill our sweat, not our blood."

John took to that task like a fish to water and diligently contributed to the new, exciting challenge of the Assembly. There he worked tirelessly on the floor of the house addressing many issues and in committee, especially the Public Accounts Committee, where he forensically scrutinised the activities of myriad public bodies and civil servants. In 2007 he became a Deputy Speaker of the Assembly and in that role demonstrated great fairness and good humour in chairing the proceedings.

Despite all the disappointments and setbacks for the Assembly and its Executive, John remained committed to the ideal of partnership in overcoming the historic division within our society. He never lost faith in the quest for reconciliation that hardwired the Good Friday Agreement.

He was also dogged in pursuing difficult issues, such as the apprehension of the murderer of Inga Maria Hauser, an 18-year-old German backpacker, who in 1988 had only arrived in Ireland when she was murdered near Ballycastle.

It was a disappointment for John that her killer still had not been brought to justice at the time his serious illness occurred.

John enjoyed life and had many pursuits outside politics. His beloved 'Noa', a 50-year-old Morris Minor Traveller which he carefully rebuilt, was truly a labour of love. Originally a teacher, he was proud of that great vocation and, in fact, throughout his political journey remained in essence a teacher. But politics for him was not a career, rather a public duty.

As Fr John Cargan in his funeral tribute rightly stated, John was "a man of light", who had a passion for rights, fairness and equality, including the defence of the unborn.

People may see the history of the SDLP as that of the big hitters like Hume and Seamus Mallon, but while they have their pre-eminent position, John Dallat, in his own committed and special way, represented the very soul of the SDLP.

Belfast Telegraph