Paddy Devlin's vision of forging a non-sectarian future has more relevance today than ever before
Ex-IRA man worked with unionists on Belfast City Council and short-lived power-sharing Executive
Last Saturday the SDLP, in line with its very successful series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of civil rights, held an event in St Mary's University College, Belfast, to commemorate the political life and work of Paddy Devlin. It was an extraordinary event for a number of reasons - not least because Paddy, although a founding member of the party, was expelled from the SDLP after a huge public row in 1977. It was a belated rapprochement by the party with Paddy's large and colourful political persona.
The event was also extraordinary because of the wide range of speakers, who spanned the political spectrum and who spoke candidly about a man with whom they worked in different political circumstances and whom they clearly admired.
John Carson, who was an Ulster Unionist politician, was first elected as an anti-power-sharing MP for North Belfast in the crucial general election of February 1974. He spoke warmly of his time with Paddy on Belfast City Council, where they worked together across party and sectarian lines in the 1970s to bring jobs and economic development to the city.
During the course of the 1970s on Belfast City Council - at a time of great violence and political turmoil - they tried to build greater political understanding and power-sharing of a sort.
But, as Carson admitted, the-then majority Ulster Unionists, despite his encouragement and the cogent arguments of Paddy, rejected power-sharing (or, as Carson liked to term it, "responsibility-sharing") with the SDLP and others. Such short-sightedness did nothing to bring about better politics and peace to the people of Belfast.
Like Paddy, Carson was fiercely independently minded and, although originally elected on an anti-power-sharing ticket, he gradually realised that only power-sharing similar to the Sunningdale Agreement offered the best way forward for the people of Belfast.
Carson worked hard with Paddy and others to heal the wounds of a society in the grips of civil war and on the verge of total breakdown.
Similarly, former councillor Seamus Lynch spoke admiringly and humorously about working with Paddy on the council and also in the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, in which they were both officials. Lynch also had an interesting and circuitous political journey, similar in some ways to Paddy's own remarkable journey.
Seamus, like Paddy, was originally a member of the republican movement and, like Paddy, had been interned without trial; Paddy was interned in 1942 and Seamus in the early-1970s.
Both supported the civil rights movement and both struggled to build non-sectarian politics; Paddy in the SDLP and, later, other political organisations, and Seamus in the Workers Party. Seamus ultimately became a well-known and effective spokesperson and advocate for the elderly.
Paddy's own 'camino', from IRA activist to SDLP Minister for Health in the imaginative but short-lived power-sharing Executive in 1974 stands on its own as an example of how politics should develop after intensive self-inquiry and rigorous intellectual exploration.
How could a rash and impatient republican youth like the young Paddy Devlin radically transform his politics? It was through reading avidly in prison that Paddy learnt much as a young internee. Although he had not had a lot of formal education, he hungrily educated himself and became exceedingly well-informed.
Indeed, he was pleasantly surprised on one occasion during his time as minister when Brian Faulkner, the unionist leader, pointed out that Faulkner himself and Gerry Fitt and Paddy were the only ministers in the power-sharing Executive not to have university degrees.
Paddy's lack of formal education increased his hunger to do better and to be better.
There was a refreshing energy and power generated by this event and the memory of a fascinating and dynamic political figure in Belfast politics.
At the meeting, the veteran labour activist and distinguished lawyer Brian Garrett raised the question as to what Paddy would think of our present situation. It was a most challenging question and, although one could divine a short answer in terms of "not much", it certainly challenged all there to think creatively about how we might move our politics from the dismal paralysis of the present stand-off between the two sectarian juggernauts that dominate Stormont to something more imaginative.
As Connal Parr, a rising academic star and Paddy's grandson, observed: Paddy would not have approved the vetoing of the formation of an Executive for the sake of an Irish Language Act - important though he may have regarded that legislation (he had learnt Irish himself while in Crumlin Road Gaol).
His vision was of a non-sectarian political dialogue, where working people would come together to create lasting peace and to develop political relations that would bind both communities firmly together.
What a good idea.