Wednesday 21 August 2019

Obituary: Ivan Cooper

A co-founder of the SDLP, an organiser of the Bloody Sunday march, and one of the fathers of the peace process

We shall overcome: Ivan Cooper in 1970
We shall overcome: Ivan Cooper in 1970
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Ivan Cooper, who has died aged 75, was a civil rights campaigner in Northern Ireland, a Stormont MP, co-founder of the Social Democratic & Labour Party and a minister under the Heath government's abortive power-sharing executive.

He made his greatest impact organising (usually illegal) marches opposing discrimination against Roman Catholics and, later, internment. Based in Derry, he worked closely with John Hume, the SDLP's future leader. One such protest, in Derry on January 30, 1972 - Bloody Sunday - culminated in British paratroopers shooting dead 14 peaceful demonstrators. Cooper came to regret having organised the march, declaring: "No political cause is worth a life." But he remained adamant that the soldiers responsible should be prosecuted.

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Having cut his political teeth as a Young Unionist, the sharply dressed and articulate Cooper was reviled by Loyalists as a "turncoat". In later life he said: "I never understood why they didn't shoot me."

Cooper's SDLP colleague Austin Currie reckoned it took "substantial physical courage to participate politically to the extent which he did". Despite his having left politics in 1983, Cooper is regarded, with Hume, as one of the fathers of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Ivan Averill Cooper was born in January 1944 into a working-class family at Killaloo, Co Derry. He was brought up in the Church of Ireland, finding that as his political views developed, few co-religionists would share a pew with him. Briefly a member of the Young Unionists in Co Derry, he joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in April 1965 and stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for Stormont later that year.

Moving to Derry and the predominantly Catholic Bogside, Cooper resigned from the Labour Party in 1968 and founded the Derry Citizens' Action Committee or DCAC.

His inspiration in targeting the gerrymandering which ensured the Catholic-majority city a Protestant council was the campaigning of Dr Martin Luther King. That summer, Cooper called for Catholics and Protestants alike to fight for their rights "as the blacks in America were fighting".

Cooper ignored a ban imposed on marches in Derry that November by organising one that attracted up to 15,000 people. But when further protests ended in violence which cost the civil rights movement much of its support, he stopped.

Though he retained his conviction that working-class Protestants and Catholics needed to work together, Cooper had by now become an Irish nationalist. He also felt strongly that civil rights gains made on the streets had to be consolidated by political action in parliament.

However there was no formal nationalist party, so Cooper fought the February 1969 Stormont election as an Independent committed to the creation of such a party - defeating Mid-Derry's Nationalist MP, Paddy Gormley.

At Stormont, advocates of a conventional nationalist party joined forces to act as the unofficial opposition. Kenneth Bloomfield, later permanent secretary at the Northern Ireland Office and then Stormont's assistant Cabinet secretary, wrote that they "ran rings around the Unionist party in the game of making friends and influencing people".

That August - at the start of several days of violence known as the Battle of the Bogside - Cooper tried to restrain Catholics protesting against an Apprentice Boys parade by linking arms with his parliamentary colleagues John Hume and Eddie McAteer. They were swept aside, and Cooper was knocked unconscious by a brick.

That November, he encouraged "all sections of the community" to join the newly formed Ulster Defence Regiment. Soon after, he was suspended for a week for staging a protest in the Chamber at the Unionists' Public Order Bill.

On August 21, 1970 the SDLP was founded, by Cooper, Hume, Currie, Paddy Devlin, Gerry Fitt and Paddy O'Hanlon. They envisaged it as a non-sectarian socialist party committed to the reunifying of Ireland by peaceful means. This proved a non-starter, but the presence of Cooper meant it could legitimately be described as the "mainly Catholic SDLP".

On January 22, 1972, 3,000 people joined a Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) march to Magilligan internment camp, 20 miles from Derry. Cooper and Hume were keen to avoid a confrontation, but some marchers tried to break through a barbed-wire barrier erected by the British army.

Fierce fighting erupted, with troops firing rubber bullets into the crowd, and television coverage of the scenes made an impact across the province. With tension heightening, the Derry branch of NICRA called for an even bigger (and illegal) march in the city the following Sunday.

The Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, believing the IRA would exploit the protest, warned that any violence should be blamed on the organisers. But Cooper went ahead with a peaceful demonstration, only for carnage to erupt.

In the film Bloody Sunday (2002), Cooper was played by the Ballymena-born actor James Nesbitt. Reacting to the shootings, Nesbitt, using Cooper's words on the day, declares: "I want to say this to the British Government: You know what you've just done, don't you? You've destroyed the civil rights movement, and you've given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have."

Bloody Sunday precipitated a political crisis that led Edward Heath's government that March to impose direct rule from Westminster. In that climate, Cooper kept in close touch with both main political parties in the Republic, and held SDLP fund-raisers south of the Border.

In June that year, Cooper, representing Mid-Ulster, was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly set up by Willie Whitelaw. Weeks later, the SDLP was invited to talks with Whitelaw at a UK government-owned country house. When Whitelaw had to break away for a dinner engagement, the SDLP delegation staged an impromptu javelin competition with a length of bamboo, which Cooper won.

Cooper was one of the SDLP's negotiators at Stormont that October on the future government of the North, pressing for an immediate end to internment. At the Sunningdale conference in December which produced agreement on restoring devolved government, he led the negotiations on common law enforcement either side of the Border.

From the last day of 1973 until the Executive under Brian Faulkner was brought down the following May by the Ulster Workers' Council strike, Cooper headed its Department of Community Relations - a minister, but not a member of the executive.

Cooper, controversially, took on the left-wing firebrand Bernadette Devlin at Mid-Ulster in the February 1974 general election. Devlin had won the seat as a "Unity" candidate, but had lost support in the nationalist community. His intervention led to a Unionist, John Dunlop, taking the seat.

Cooper was accused of splitting the Nationalist vote, but pointed out that he had pushed Devlin into third place. That October, he stood again - and with Devlin out of the running he narrowed Dunlop's majority to 4,667.

In 1975, Cooper was elected to the Labour government's Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention. Its disbandment the following year marked the end of his career as a salaried politician.

At the SDLP's 1976 conference he was one the backers of a call for the British government to "declare its intention of withdrawing to give the divided people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to negotiate a final political solution and a lasting peace". Its defeat, by 153 votes to 111, was worryingly close for the leadership.

Cooper left active politics in 1983 and became an insolvency consultant in Derry.

Ivan Cooper, who died on June 26, is survived by his wife, Frances, and their two daughters.

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