Tuesday 20 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'If we are to solve the problems of the North - and beyond - we need more people with integrity, imagination, conviction and courage - just like Ivan Cooper'

Civil rights activist Ivan Cooper, who was buried yesterday in Derry
Civil rights activist Ivan Cooper, who was buried yesterday in Derry
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Is the conviction politician extinct? Vanished from the Earth as conclusively as dodos, woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed cats? To suggest a wipe-out is overstatement, but conviction politicians are uncommon specimens rarely glimpsed today.

First, let's be clear about the genus. Conviction politicians can be categorised as those for whom personal gain is not a consideration - ideals guide them. They don't engage in the scramble for public approval. Instead, they are influenced by their own values and won't alter them to win votes, popularity or office.

The self-interest of human nature means this is a most unusual subdivision, not simply in politics but any walk of life. But once encountered, it is memorable. Those interested in observing a conviction politician need look no further than the career of civil rights activist Ivan Cooper, who was buried yesterday in Derry. Here was a man with a new way of seeing his world.

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Born a unionist, and briefly a unionist politician, he became a constitutional nationalist - one among very few Protestants to join the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland 50 years ago.

A shirt factory manager, he was shaken by the northern state's institutionalised discrimination in employment and housing and by its voter exclusion, and decided to play his part in changing it. Instead of representing an existing mindset, he worked to create a new one.

Mr Cooper believed in inclusion as opposed to exclusion. What's not to like about inclusion? Plenty, when you're afraid of change or if you benefit from the existing model. For the first half-century of its existence, Northern Ireland had a default ruling system with no self-critical culture. That status quo took a long time to topple, but some internal criticism was initiated by people like Mr Cooper.

When I cast disappointed but not despairing eyes on the North - as currently, with the Stormont deficit - it helps to remember how this small pocket of Ireland, despite its divisions, managed to produce people of vision, integrity and courage.

Mr Cooper was one such individual, a man who altered the world for the better because he had the imagination to rethink fixed points on the political landscape.

There are not many of us in life who leave a mark beyond our family. Some are far-sighted enough to view the human race as their family.

Mr Cooper died on Wednesday aged 75 but it's with how he lived that we should concern ourselves. He was a Protestant from Co Derry committed to non-violence who worked, alongside his better-known colleague John Hume and others, for equality and justice, preparing the way for the Good Friday Agreement.

He became a leader of the civil rights movement in 1968, Independent MP for Derry from 1969-72, a co-founder of the SDLP in 1970 and a community relations' minister in the short-lived power-sharing Stormont government of 1974, collapsed by a loyalist workers' strike.

Mr Cooper didn't enter politics because he inherited a family seat or for status or money. He became a politician because he was convinced it was a route to improving outcomes. His principles were not expendable commodities - they did not bend with polls. Rather, they defined him.

Politics, of course, is the art of the possible, balancing competing interests and accepting that sometimes political expediency is necessary. But if it wasn't for idealists and visionaries, nothing would ever change.

Mr Cooper, and those he struggled alongside, offered hope for something better. It suggested possibilities. We need to remember such patterns of hope when we look around the world today - for example, at the death of child migrants by the US border; most recently, an El Salvador father and his 23-month-old daughter, found face-down in shallow water in the Rio Grande after trying to cross from Mexico into Texas. The little girl - her name was Valeria - drowned with an arm around her father Oscar's neck.

Nearer home, the political civil war being waged in Britain conveys a sense of things spinning out of control - polarisation is happening right before our eyes. And not just there but in other countries such as Italy and Australia. As for that two-and-a-half years of silence from Stormont, it remains dispiriting. Nothing now can be expected from that quarter until the autumn. When did writing off the summer become the norm?

Let's return to Mr Cooper, whose funeral was attended by President Michael D Higgins, John Hume's wife Pat and family members of those killed and injured on Bloody Sunday. Speaking in St Peter's Church, Archdeacon of Derry Robert Miller described Mr Cooper as a peace-maker and bridge-builder, a man "ahead of his time". He urged people to finish the job Mr Cooper started. "Let's make politics work," he told the congregation.

Politics can work. But it takes time, commitment and compromise. It requires a capacity to move away from entrenched positions and red lines. Mr Cooper was loathed by some unionists because of the path he walked, but carried on because he believed he was right. And time has proven him to be so.

Does such a species as the conviction politician exist today? The Green Party falls into that category. In recent times, Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were conviction politicians as regards the Good Friday Agreement, if not in every aspect of their careers.

Simply being a conviction politician does not indicate progressive ideas, however. Margaret Thatcher pinned her colours to the mast shortly before her 1979 election with the words: "I am a not a consensus politician, I am a conviction politician." But her legacy is a divisive one.

Nigel Farage, too, is a conviction politician but he is harnessing discontent. Conviction politics has the capacity to galvanise an electorate - the Brexit Party's success points to that. But unless practitioners understand the value of compromise, polarisation can ensue.

Populism can be comforting to politicians, allowing them to shirk tough decisions. But politicians who lead from the front, such as Mr Cooper, are not populists and being liked is irrelevant to them. People refused to share a pew with him in his church, and loyalist threats were made against him, but his vision remained unwavering.

In any case, populist victories can be ephemeral, as Boris Johnson is fated to discover - a politician more concerned with winning power than about how to use it wisely.

Short-term, opportunistic politics does not deliver good government. It stores up problems. We saw it in the North, where using the RUC and later the British Army to attack and kill civil rights marchers was a huge error, one which helped to win support for the IRA. Bad policy there amounted to bad politics and thousands died in the 30-year aftermath.

The spirit of idealism which underpinned the civil rights movement was subsumed by the Troubles. Yet we should bear in mind the people who made principled stands and Ivan Cooper was one of them. May he rest in peace.

Irish Independent

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