Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: The real legacy of Ivan Cooper is that violence has no role whatever in the destiny of Northern Ireland

Civil rights campaigner came from the unionist tradition to fight against discrimination in Derry, says Alban Maginness

Ivan Cooper was a leading figure in the fight for justice and equality for everyone
Ivan Cooper was a leading figure in the fight for justice and equality for everyone
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

In the unusually radiant sunshine last Friday afternoon, the cortege bearing Ivan Cooper's mortal remains slowly left the churchyard of St Peter's Church in Derry. This simple, white-coloured church was the prayerful setting for the uplifting funeral service.

The hearse bore his coffin, which was draped with a black-and-white-coloured pall, reflecting the enduring symbol of the civil rights campaign in the city.

The cortege slowly made its exit to begin its homeward journey to Altnagelvin cemetery, while the mourners stood silently on either side and respectfully clapped in salute to one of Derry's most distinguished sons and one of the most pivotal figures in recent Irish history.

The large congregation of mourners were a mixture of many people, in particular veteran SDLP members like Austin Currie, Sean Farren and Alasdair McDonnell, but also old campaigners who had served with Ivan Cooper to struggle for civil rights in the late Sixties and early Seventies against a unionist government that exercised a powerful political monopoly over the north for 50 years.

Men like Fionnbarra O'Dochartaigh and Michael Canavan (now 94) came to pay their respects to Ivan Cooper, an extraordinary political leader, who came from the unionist tradition to fight against the rank injustices that he observed being carried out at first-hand in his adopted city of Derry.

As a young man he was shocked by the political injustices imposed upon the majority nationalist people in Derry, especially the chronic housing shortage, which was intimately connected to the gerrymandering of the unionist-controlled Derry Corporation.

His political journey wasn't easy. Born into a unionist family near Claudy, as a young man he was part of the Young Unionists. Later he joined the newly formed Northern Ireland Labour Party branch in Derry, becoming its chairman.

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He was not a conventional politician, being very much an activist and campaigner. When the opportunity came along to stage a civil rights demonstration in Derry, he seized the moment and was one of the main organisers, along with Eamonn McCann, to make it the successful political event that it historically became.

The demonstration, on October 5, 1968 (following on from the first civil rights march between Coalisland and Dungannon in August of that year), utterly changed things and was a crucial step in breaking down the unionist political hegemony over Northern Ireland. Without Ivan Cooper's role, that would never have happened.

Along with John Hume, Gerry Fitt and others, in 1970 he founded the SDLP out of the opposition members in the old Stormont parliament. He had been previously been elected to the Stormont parliament as an Independent MP for Mid-Derry in 1969.

He became a leading force within the party and was without doubt the best orator of all, there being quite a few challengers for that accolade, not least Austin Currie, Seamus Mallon and the late Paddy O'Hanlon.

But Ivan Cooper will be remembered more for his organisation of the civil rights demonstration in Derry against internment on January 30, 1972 than anything else.

His role in that traumatic event has been dramatised by the film Bloody Sunday, in which James Nesbitt portrayed him.

He was the key organiser of that fateful demonstration, which transformed politics here, bringing about an absolute end to the Stormont system of government and the introduction of direct rule from Westminster.

Ironically, the appalling and unjustified loss of life by the Army on Bloody Sunday reignited the-then faltering campaign of violence by the Provisional IRA and emboldened it to intensify and strengthen its futile strategy, with all the tragic consequences that ensued.

He was horrified by the Army killings and expressed his misgivings over the event itself.

Although he went on to become the Minister for Community Relations in the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive in January 1974, it was a short-lived term of office.

By May 1974 this wonderful experiment in cross-community government was subverted and brought down by Rev Ian Paisley in coalition with the UDA-led Ulster Workers' Council.

His active political involvement faded out towards the end of the 1970s. In fact, time-wise, his involvement in elective politics was quite short, though his impact and contribution was lasting.

But what really stands out about him, given his unionist background, was his singular courage to pursue justice and equality for all in our divided society and to challenge the discriminatory establishment.

In his insightful homily, Archdeacon of Derry the Venerable Robert Millar, who conducted the funeral service, described Ivan as "a man ahead of his time" and a "towering figure in Northern Ireland's recent history".

He added that he challenged all of us, from whatever part of the community we came.

And he reminded everyone that Ivan was: "Always, always adamant that there could be no place and no justification for violence."

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