Brid Rodgers on a lifetime in politics

Noel McAdam visits SDLP founder member Brid Rodgers at home in Lurgan to discuss her political career, her involvement in the civil rights movement and the current impasse at Stormont

Brid Rodgers at her Co Armagh home. Picture by Mark Marlow
Brid Rodgers at her Co Armagh home. Picture by Mark Marlow

BRID Rodgers still follows the nuts and bolts of politics on a day and daily basis. Try stopping her.

"If anyone asks my husband (Antoin) if I am still involved he will roll his eyes up towards heaven," she says.

Now 83, the former Northern Ireland Executive Minister and founder member of the SDLP can get "extremely angry", particularly over the on-going impasse preventing the restoration of the devolution that she helped to bring about.

"The lesson from history is that there is no kudos in standing up to your opponent, though it may make you feel good and very macho at the time, the only way forward is by sitting down with them," she tells me.

The ex-MLA, who was the first female chairperson of any political party in Ireland, believes there is a leadership deficit in both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

"The DUP have learned nothing from history in the last 50 years and are still in denial about the fact that they will have to share this place with the nationalist community.

"And I think Sinn Fein are more interested in getting into power in the south of Ireland and think the impact of being part of an administration at a time of austerity would affect their chances.

"But what really makes me extremely angry is that this is a time when there is no longer a unionist majority and nationalists are no longer the underdogs – so they should be in there, fighting, on the strength of their own arguments and, as John Hume always put it, working the common ground."

Yet, as a fluent Irish speaker who won her university place on a Gaeltacht grant, Brid accepts the importance of the Irish Language Act at the core of the current stand-off.

"I think an Irish Language Act is important, and should be there – but is it so important that progress could not be made, for example, for the LGBT community, who were let down by the draft agreement [earlier this year], and by reform of the petition of concern which could lead to progress on other issues?"

Now a full-time carer for Antoin, who is nine years her senior and suffering from a serious heart condition, Brid is in demand at the moment for the many events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement.

She and Antoin were also involved in its precursor, the Campaign for Social Justice, and compiled the then hidden statistics showing the extent of discrimination in the area where they lived which went to the Cameron Commission.

She recalls one meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in or around 1967 when one republican was "giving out on the 'Brits Out' and the usual and I said to Antoin 'this is not what this is about, it's about equality and peace' and he said 'why don't you speak?'.

"I was just a young housewife. My knees were trembling. I had never spoken in public before. But I got up and I said my piece."

Born in Donegal, Brid moved to Bunbeg at just six weeks of age. Her father was a Garda Sergeant, who supported Fianna Fail while her mother was Fine Gael.

"It was what I called a mixed marriage," she said.

She attended St Louis' School in Monaghan and National University in Dublin and moved to Lurgan in 1960 when she met Antoin, who was born in Gweedore.

They have had six children – Mary, Anne, Seamus, Brid, Tom and Antoin – between 1961 and 1973.

"There was a gap before the two boys," she tells me.

"I always said the civil rights campaign was a great contraceptive."

Publicly, Brid first came to prominence as a member of Craigavon Borough Council between 1985 and 1993, when she came under fierce attack from unionists as Hume's talks with Gerry Adams were revealed and she became synonymous with the Drumcree dispute.

"I was hated," she recalls.

"I was called 'the witch of Drumcree'."

She protested to both the London and Dublin governments when the Orange Order in Portadown was offered the alternative route of Garvaghy Road after years of marching through the more narrow Obins Street, which was known as 'the tunnel'.

"Residents in Obins Street were told to park their cars in side streets to allow the march but they only moved the problem from one area to another in choosing Garvaghy Road, which was even more nationalist. In a very few years it had surfaced again."

With the members of Portadown lodge still protesting every Sunday, 20 years after the parade was last allowed down Garvaghy Road, does she think the issue is dead?

"I would be inclined to let sleeping dogs lie," says Brid.

"I really think there is a widespread acceptance that it is over. I would doubt if there are very many Orange Order members or Protestants in Portadown who would really want to resurrect that issue now. Sure it wrecked the economy of Portadown."

But on the prospect of allowing the lodge to complete its parade, with one final demonstration, she is more conciliatory.

"I think I would leave that to this generation."

For three years as agriculture minister, however, Brid – who took up the post at the age of 64 – won over the hearts of many unionists, even the then chair of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, Ian Paisley, and treasures the many letters she began to get, grudgingly, from unionist voters.

The former SDLP deputy leader was even able to get agreement on British Army soldiers going into the staunch republican area of Ardboe to burn carcasses during the 'foot and mouth' debacle – with a little help from Martin McGuinness.

"I do think if Martin had been well, he would not have pulled the Assembly down," she comments.

Brid does not think the long-term decline of the SDLP is inevitable: "What happened to the SDLP is that its clothes were stolen by another party – Sinn Fein – and was then left pretty naked.

"But the party is building up at local level and remains necessary, I believe."

In fact, she believes Sinn Fein has to some extent been successful at re-writing history and claiming credit for the advance of nationalism, particularly among young people.

But the promise of the Good Friday Agreement, which remains the high watermark of her career, was diluted by the "tribalism" re-introduced by the sectarian voting blocs in the St Andrews Agreement.

"I thought the Good Friday Agreement had the potential to change the face of Northern Ireland and to end sectarianism," says Brid.

"But what happened was the failure of the republican movement to deliver on decommissioning which undermined David Trimble and support within unionism began to slip away."

Though she no longer has time for her beloved golf, Brid spends any spare time she has reading, mostly fiction based on history and biographies.

And naturally, at election time, she can still be found helping local Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly.