James (Jim) J Fitzpatrick, who has died at the age of 92, was an important figure over many years in the media and politics of Northern Ireland. He was born in Belfast on July 15, 1929, a son of prominent solicitor James F Fitzpatrick and Ann (née Boylan), a schoolteacher from Ballybay, Co Monaghan. Jim was one of eight children .
Jim Fitzpatrick’s father and namesake had studied law in Dublin during the War of Independence. He was among the attendance at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, when 14 people died after Crown forces fired into the crowd as a reprisal for the killing earlier in the day, under the direction of Michael Collins, of 15 British security personnel, mostly suspected intelligence agents. Later in life, James Snr was a leading member of the Anti-Partition League, based in the North, which campaigned for a united Ireland from 1945 to 1958.
The Fitzpatrick family were initially located in Belfast, where their father had established his legal practice, but following the Belfast Blitz of April-May 1941, when 900 people were killed by Luftwaffe bombers, they moved to Loughinisland, Co Down, where the Fitzpatricks had owned the nearby Buck’s Head public house since the 18th century.
In the late 1930s James Sr became a director of The Irish News, traditionally a voice for Home Rule and constitutional nationalism. The paper was under the direction at the time of the McSparran family from the Glens of Antrim.
During World War II, the Fitzpatrick boys were sent to be educated at St Clement’s College, a school in Limerick city run by the Redemptorist Order. Jim went to University College Galway, where he was awarded a BA degree in the early 1950s.
Initially entering a seminary with the intention of becoming a Redemptorist priest, Jim later changed his mind and returned home to the North, in his early 20s, where he qualified as a solicitor and practised in the family law firm at Belfast’s College Square North. He kept in touch with the Redemptorists and in later years his friendship with Fr Gerry Reynolds and others at Clonard Monastery in west Belfast proved to be an important factor in Jim’s discreet but sustained efforts to establish peace in the North, including the game-changing talks between John Hume and Gerry Adams that helped to set the scene for what in due course would become the Good Friday Agreement.
Reflecting at the funeral last Monday on Jim’s decision to opt for a secular way of life, parish priest Fr Edward O’Donnell remarked: “Some might say this was the church’s loss, but they would be mistaken, because it was in fact the church’s gain. The church gained an exemplary lay person who, with conviction and consistency, witnessed to his Christian faith as a husband and father, as a professional man and as somebody who involved himself deeply in the cultural and civic life of our society, acutely aware of the importance of ecumenical outreach.”
After he moved to Belfast, Jim met Alice Murphy, a teacher from Anahorish, Co Derry. Their paths crossed at the Catholic Chaplaincy of Queen’s University, located at the time in Fitzroy Avenue, where Alice was distributing Legion of Mary diaries. They married in 1957 and went on to have a family of eight children.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s appointment as a director of The Irish News took place in 1969, the same year as the outbreak of the Troubles. His political outlook was very similar to the pragmatic nationalism that Hume espoused.
The surge in violence at the time served to heighten his interest and involvement in the newspaper. He took a night-course in journalism and wrote articles as well conducting interviews for the News — following a day’s work as a solicitor.
In 1981, Irish News chairman and managing director Dr Daniel (‘Dinty’) McSparran and his sister Mary, also a director, tragically died following a road accident and Jim Fitzpatrick was appointed as the paper’s managing editor. He later became chairman and one of his first decisions was to set guidelines for the wording of IRA death notices. He played a low-profile but significant role in the peace process, which led to a system of government based on consent and cooperation between the unionist and nationalist communities.
Jim Fitzpatrick died on June 25 after a short illness. Predeceased by his wife Alice in 2013, he is survived by their children Anne, Brid, Bernard, Eileen, Dominic (managing director of The Irish News), Clare, Jim (BBC journalist) and Andrew as well as 26 grandchildren and his sisters Anne and Dympna.
SDLP and Sinn Féin politicians attended his funeral at St Brigid’s Church in south Belfast, as did former Ulster Unionist Party MP John Taylor and former DUP minister Simon Hamilton, now chief executive of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce.
Mourners included Irish News editor Noel Doran, editor-in-chief of the Belfast Telegraph Eoin Brannigan, chairman of the Mediahuis Ireland board Murdoch MacLennan, Mediahuis deputy publisher Ed McCann and PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton.
Micheál Martin was represented by his aide de camp, Commandant Claire Mortimer. In a tribute to Jim Fitzpatrick, the Taoiseach said: “In his decades-long stewardship of The Irish News, he was a profoundly important advocate for an end to violence in the North. His role in the earliest days of the embryonic peace process is not widely known, but it was crucial.”
In an online tribute, former editor of the paper Martin O’Brien said: “He was guided by his conscience and it is no coincidence that his great hero was St Thomas More, also a lawyer, who was martyred for conscience. No cause mattered more to Jim Fitzpatrick than the cause of peace in his native land.”
Former Northern Ireland first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster described him as: “A man who knew the true meaning of civil and civic discourse. He will be sadly missed.”