Belfast Telegraph

William Graham: Child of Troubles Willie Frazer pledged his life to helping people who’d suffered like him

Willie Frazer
Willie Frazer

By William Graham

Willie Frazer was in many ways a child of the Troubles and became a hugely controversial figure in his campaigning for those killed by the Provisional IRA, including his father, a part-time UDR man.

His death from illness comes just a few days after that of Ivan Cooper, the civil rights activist and nationalist politician, last week.

They were, it has to be said, not like-minded in any way in the history of this troubled place called the north, Northern Ireland.

Both very different men but both from a Protestant, unionist and Orange background.

Mr Cooper chose a road less travelled in campaigning for civil rights while Mr Frazer, interestingly a former young GAA player, remained within the fold of the unionist community and campaigned for victims of IRA violence.

As a political journalist I well recall a caravan which was parked at the end of the driveway to the five star Fairmont St Andrews Hotel, Scotland, in the autumn of 2006 and sitting inside was the protester Willie Frazer, from Markethill, Co Armagh.

He cut a lonely figure in the backcloth of the political negotiations. Security was tight as Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern were inside the golfing hotel along with political leaders such as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. They were not playing golf but something similar in hammering out a tough and complex political deal.

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A large poster had already been prepared by the London public relations team entitled 'The St Andrews Agreement' to be later unveiled at the historic press conference.

The agreement was to lead to the restoration of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly and government, this time including the Democratic Unionist Party. It was a vital step towards Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness forming a government.

Yet today, in 2019, Stormont remains closed down as talks continue to try and reach another agreement which may see it restored towards the end of this year.

Looking back to 2006, Frazer had hauled his protest caravan from Northern Ireland to Fife to protest against the DUP making a deal to restore the power-sharing government at Stormont, and he was all about highlighting victims of IRA violence. The Frazer caravan left a day before the St Andrews Agreement was signed and sealed.

Just a few days ago, Willie Frazer died in hospital after a long illness. He was 58 years old. A person of the Troubles. Today his funeral takes place in Bessbrook in Co Armagh.

Mr Frazer was an Ulster loyalist campaigner and the founder of the group, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives. When growing up, Frazer attended a local Catholic school and played Gaelic football up to U14 level. He described his early years as "a truly cross-community lifestyle".

His father, who was a part-time member of the UDR, was killed by the PIRA in 1975. Over a period of the next 10 years, four more of Frazer's family who were members or ex-members of the RUC or Army were killed by the IRA.

As a political correspondent over several decades I tried to take the time to engage with Mr Frazer who I witnessed on the fringe of political events, often protesting. In the same way that, as a journalist, I often engaged in conversation with republicans and loyalists about the prospects for peace.

I always attempted to speak to Willie Frazer about the question of building peace in Northern Ireland and the deeply personal issue of forgiveness. He, I think, listened but did not always express his feelings about these matters in public pronouncements.

On Facebook this past week I posted about Willie Frazer and his controversial contribution to northern politics.

John Patrick Auld responded as a republican, coming from the tradition of Official republicans.

He wrote: "As you know I am a pacifist. I question my republican credentials on a regular basis. Like Willie, I class myself as a victim of circumstance and an accident of birth.

"My republican values stemmed from a very young age growing up in the Lower Falls area of West Belfast. I aligned myself from that time with the official Republican movement.

"I question myself every day about how manipulated we all were by other so-called leaders with personal ambitions of their own.''

Mr Auld described Mr Frazer as "indeed a man of the Troubles'' and at the same time pointed out his failure to condemn loyalist paramilitary violence on the same scale as he did republican violence.

In another Facebook post, Michael H C McDowell, a former foreign affairs writer originally from Belfast, recalled meeting Mr Frazer in Washington DC and commented: "Sad story regarding his father's death. Dogged but troubled man.''

Over the past couple of days tributes have been published from unionist leaders who it has to be pointed out did not always agree with Mr Frazer or with his approach to political developments.

Kenny Donaldson, director of services with victims' group the South East Fermanagh Foundation, said: "Willie was a unique individual with a sharp wit who could be very charming. He did have flaws, but then so do us all.''

  • William Graham has been a political journalist for more than four decades

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