Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Ivan Cooper's courage in turning his back on his own community earns him the right to be remembered

A Protestant from Killaloo in Co Londonderry who went on to co-found the SDLP, Cooper rejected the term 'politician'; 'civil rights leader' was all he wanted on his headstone

Civil rights campaigner Ivan Cooper
Civil rights campaigner Ivan Cooper
James Nesbitt as Cooper in the 2002 film Bloody Sunday

By Malachi O'Doherty

Ivan Cooper, whose death was announced yesterday, did not expect to make it to the age of 75. In an interview he gave to Schism Films three years ago, he said it was a miracle that he was not shot by loyalists in the early years of the Troubles.

In those days, he was regarded as a traitor and a Lundy.

He said his homeplace, Killaloo, was "true blue".

"When I went out in the morning, the first thing I met was the Orange hall. Then, I met the B (Specials') hut."

But he had broken with the tradition around him when he joined the civil rights movement, branded by the government and police of the time as a republican conspiracy.

He told the interviewer from Schism that, though he has a sister and a brother buried in the cemetery in Killaloo, loyalists had warned him that he would be shot if he buried his father there.

He was moving in well-mixed circles before the civil rights movement. Ivan had befriended Catholics in Derry when he went there as a lad and played goalie for football team Northland Villa.

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He described his performance on the field as "useless".

He was one of the founder members of the civil rights movement in Derry.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had staged a march in Coalisland and approached the Northern Ireland Labour Party and others about holding a protest in Derry.

A Citizens' Action Committee was set up at a meeting in the City Hotel. Ivan was elected chairman, because, he said, he was Church of Ireland. John Hume was vice-chairman.

If that suggests to some that he was a token Protestant, he saw it as a much more wholesome decision, a determination that the movement should be conspicuously non-sectarian.

It would hardly be given a chance to develop in that way, however. He says Major Campbell Austin was elected to the committee but he left after a few weeks.

But the civil rights movement insisted on its non-sectarian character, even while the state was branding it as essentially nationalist.

The Cameron report, which assessed how violence erupted at the march the committee planned, identifies Eamonn McCann, of the Young Socialists, a youth movement in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, as the more dynamic leader.

But Cooper was there, too, when skulls were cracked - an awful lot of them.

The unionist government of the time refused to take the protest at face value as a claim for British rights for British citizens and saw a devious plot behind it.

The Minister of Home Affairs, William Craig, banned the march and the police strategy for containing it fell apart, with officers running amok, striking protesters with their batons and a blackthorn stick.

Certainly, members of the IRA army council were supporting the civil rights campaign, though Cathal Goulding, the chief of staff, had failed to get to Derry for the march because his car caught fire when he was leaving Dublin.

About 350 people had lined up in Duke Street on October 5, 1968, with a plan to turn left up a brae and cross the Foyle on the upper tier of the bridge. Police vehicles barred their way, with the men behind them.

That might have worked and kept everyone safe but for the unforeseen prospect of the protesters marching straight ahead of themselves instead. Police, rushing from the cover of their vehicles to stop the marchers, laid into them with batons.

Gerry Fitt was struck on the head. Even at that stage, civil rights leaders tried to keep order, but some on the march insisted on pushing through the police lines and a full-scale riot followed, with hundreds injured and water cannon deployed.

Derry was playing Distillery up at the Brandywell that day and the crowd returning from the match got caught up in this, too.

And, though undoubtedly some of the founders were republicans or revolutionaries of another kind, Cooper represented and symbolised the level-headed citizen, who wanted the state to function fairly for all. And there were far more people like him in the movement at the start.

Ivan Cooper was proud to the end that he had been a leader of the civil rights movement and asked that he be named as such on his headstone.

He said: "Whenever I pass on to the next world, if I do pass on, I want to be known as a civil rights leader. I am not interested in being referred to as a politician at all."

He was proud to feature on a mural in Glenfada Park depicting the early campaigners.

He saw the legacy of the civil rights campaign as the ending of the gerrymander in Derry, the abolition of the B Specials and the granting of one man, one vote, a universal franchise in local government.

He enjoyed the fact that he had been played by James Nesbitt in the 2002 Paul Greengrass film Bloody Sunday. When the film won an award in Berlin, he travelled there and went with Nesbitt to see where Checkpoint Charlie had been.

He dismissed as of lesser significance that he had been an independent MP and a founder member of the SDLP, along with Paddy O'Hanlon and Hume.

He was made Minister of Community Relations - a post that no longer exists - in the power-sharing Executive formed in 1973.

He sat at the Executive table with the unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, with Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt.

Devlin had been interned during the war as an IRA man. Fitt had served in on convoy duty in the Merchant Navy.

That Assembly was brought down by striking loyalists, who had brought Northern Ireland to a standstill, blocked the roads with barricades and threatened to cut off the electricity supply.

The Labour government of the time had not moved to keep services working and supplies flowing.

The Secretary of State of the day, Merlyn Rees, later said that it would have been unthinkable for a Labour government to send troops against striking workers.

We complain about the current Secretary of State, but that one couldn't tell the difference between an industrial dispute and a coup d'etat.

When Ivan Cooper spoke to Schism, he was alert and good-humoured, though unsteady on a zimmer frame.

He retained an anger for unionists who had resisted conceding rights to all and seemed content in having paid the price of being estranged from the community he was born into, a Lundy.

For some things are more important than the respect of bigoted neighbours.

That courage warrants him the right to be remembered.

Fifty Years On: The Troubles And The Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland by Malachi O'Doherty will be published in August by Atlantic Books, priced £18.99

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