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William Graham: Reflecting on Willie Frazer's controversial contribution to northern politics

Former Irish News political correspondent William Graham encountered Willie Frazer many times while reporting on events at Stormont and elsewhere. Here he reflects on his often controversial contribution to northern politics

Willie Frazer at the launch of the short-lived Protestant Coalition political party at La Mon Hotel outside Belfast. Picture by Pacemaker

The small "Ulster'' caravan was parked at the end of the driveway to the five-star Fairmont St Andrews Hotel in 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 northern political leaders such as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.

They were not playing golf but hammering out a tough and complex political deal.

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 to 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 the north of Ireland to Fife to protest against the DUP making a deal. 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 after a short illness in hospital. He was 58 years old. A person of the Troubles, he was an Ulster loyalist campaigner and the founder of the group Families Acting for Innocent Relatives.

It has been reported how 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 members of Frazer's family who were members or ex-members of the RUC or British army were killed by the IRA.

As a political correspondent over several decades I tried to take the time to engage with Mr Frazer, whom I witnessed on the fringe of political events, often protesting.

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

Read more: Willie Frazer - A life of controversy

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

John Patrick Auld responded as a republican.

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 with 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.

He was very much an independent figure and despite fighting several elections failed to get elected.

Mr Frazer's funeral takes place today at Five Mile Hill Pentecostal Church, Bessbrook.

Read more: Willie Frazer - A life of controversy

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