Northern Ireland news

Firebrand DUP Down councillor Ethel Smyth remembered

Councillors Tommy Poole and Ethel Smyth unveil flags in Down Council chamber in 1985. Picture by Bobbie Hanvey, courtesy of JJ Burns Library, Boston College.

ONE of the first unionist women to hold elected office has been remembered as "strong and fearless".

Ethel Smyth, who was first elected to Down District Council as an Ulster Unionist before defecting to the DUP, died earlier this week. She was in her late eighties.

Originally from Ballymartin, Mrs Smyth and was educated at St Louis' school in Kilkeel, a Catholic grammar.

She later moved to Ballywillwill near Castlewellan and was most active politically during the 1980s.

In 1985, during a council meeting where a ban on flying of Union flags outside council buildings was discussed, the firebrand councillor took a Union flag from her handbag, unfurled it and draped it over the bench in front of her.

She then demanded the arrest for sedition of late Sinn Féin councillor Geraldine Ritchie, who had described the flag as a "symbol of oppression".

When Mrs Smyth refused to sit down, the police escorted her from the council chamber. As she was removed, she raised a clenched fist and shouted: ''We will never surrender to the IRA. Never, never, never.''

She was also played a prominent role in an incident in 1985 when the RUC blockaded the road into Castlwellan to prevent loyalist bandsmen from marching through the predominantly nationalist town.

There were violent clashes between the loyalists and police, with Mrs Smyth reportedly warning the RUC men that one day they might be unable to live in Protestant areas.

She retreated from politics in the subsequent years

South Down MLA Jim Wells, who stood alongside Mrs Smyth as an assembly candidate, said: "Ethel was a strong and fearless representative of the unionist community in an area where they were in a minority.

"For someone who at one time was so visible and vociferous, she latterly chose to live a quiet life."

Downpatrick-based photographer Bobbie Hanvey recalled being tipped off by the councillor that she planned to unfurl the Union flag during the council meeting.

"She told me she was taught by nuns and that's where her rebellious streak came from," he said.

Ethel Smyth is survived by her husband Bertie and children.

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