Northern Ireland news

Ivan Cooper's politics moved from unionism to civil rights

With Fionnbarra O Dochartaigh (left), Eamonn McCann and Eamon Melaugh, Ivan Cooper was one of the organisers of the original October 5th 1968 civil rights' march in Derry. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Seamus McKinney

BORN in the shadow of Killaloo Orange hall, just outside Claudy in 1944, Ivan Cooper followed the unionist politics of his family in his youth.

A member of Claudy Young Unionists' Association in the early 1960s, his political views changed when he took up a job as a shirt factory line manager in Derry in his late teens. The new job exposed him to the full impact of the unionist gerrymander of the city and he saw at first hand the poverty endured by Derry's nationalist majority.

In 1965, he joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party, unsuccessfully contesting the Stormont elections for the party the following year.

With the emergence of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, he campaigned for an end to discrimination and equality, eventually resigning from the Labour Party and establishing the Citizens' Action Committee in Derry.

As the civil rights voice grew stronger, Mr Cooper took on more and more of a leadership role. With Fionnbarra O Dochartaigh, Eamonn McCann and Eamon Melaugh, he was one of the organisers of the October 5 1968 civil rights march in Derry which many believe marked the start of the Troubles.

Batoned of the streets by the RUC, footage of MPs being attacked by police was flashed around the world, focusing attention on unionist discrimination like never before.

The following year, Mr Cooper was elected as an independent MP to the Stormont government.

On the streets of Derry in August that year, he symbolically linked arms with John Hume and Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer as they tried in vain to separate opposing sides during the Apprentice Boys Relief of Derry parade.

The resulting Battle of the Bogside brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war.

With John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Austin Currie and Paddy Devlin, he was a founding member of the new SDLP in 1970, always espousing the path of non-violent protest.

As an organiser of the Bloody Sunday march in 1972, he was shocked and appalled by the killings, later becoming a champion for the victims and their families.

In 1974, he helped negotiate the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement, introducing a system of politics on which the Good Friday Agreement was eventually based.

He was appointed Minister for Community Relations in the ill-fated administration although his role did not include a cabinet position. When it collapsed in May 1974 in face of huge loyalist opposition Mr Cooper moved further away from front line politics while remaining a key backroom driver in the SDLP from the 1980s onwards.

No longer an elected representative he continue to work behind the scenes to help those caught up in the Troubles.

Mr Cooper remained in Derry with his wife, Frances and daughters, Sinead and Bronagh.

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