Northern Ireland news

Jim Fitzpatrick: Lawyer, businessman, newspaper proprietor and dedicated family man

Irish News chairman Jim Fitzpatrick has left an indelible imprint on both this newspaper and the wider community which it serves. Historian and friend Dr Éamon Phoenix looks back on a remarkable life

The passing of Mr Jim Fitzpatrick at the age of 92 marks the end of an era in the history of The Irish News, in which he took an active interest for over half a century. He was by turn a director, a journalist, chairman and managing editor of this newspaper.

James J (Jim) Fitzpatrick was born in Belfast in 1929, the son of James F Fitzpatrick, a prominent Co Down solicitor, and Ann Boylan, a schoolteacher who hailed from Ballybay in Co Monaghan.

The Fitzpatrick family were rooted in the nationalist heartland of east Down where they had owned The Buck’s Head public house near Loughinisland since the eighteenth century. A Fitzpatrick ancestor was the inn-keeper there in the stirring days of the 1798 Rebellion when the ill-fated patriot Thomas Russell (‘The Man From God Knows Where’) had organised the United Irishmen in the district.

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Mr Fitzpatrick grew up in a happy, middle-class home which was at once strictly Catholic and deeply embedded in the northern nationalist tradition. There were eight children in all – Jim, Peter, Frank, Anne, Dympna, Mary, Vincent and James Sexton (a first cousin whose mother had died and who was reared with the family).

Mr Fitzpatrick’s father, James F Fitzpatrick, had studied law in Dublin during the War of Independence and often told his son how he had been present in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in November 1920 when the Black and Tans had fired into the crowd, killing 12 people. He had also attended the Treaty debates in Dáil Éireann which preceded the Irish Civil War in 1922.

Picture by Bobbie Hanvey/John J Burns Library

The late chairman grew up in Belfast where his father had established a legal practice. However, following the Belfast Blitz of 1941, his father relocated the family in Loughinisland.

By the late 1930s James Snr had become a director of The Irish News, then controlled by the McSparran family from the Glens of Antrim.

The Irish News – traditionally the voice of the old Home Rule movement and constitutional nationalism – was then a very successful paper under the modernising influence of its new editor, Sidney Redwood.

It was during the war years that Jim and his brothers were sent to Limerick to be educated at St Clement’s College, a boarding school run by the Redemptorist Order. Jim would spend much of his formative years in the south, first in Limerick where he felt a calling to the Redemptorist priesthood and, later, in Galway where he took his BA degree in the early 1950s.

Jim Fitzpatrick with former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and editor Noel Doran at the Irish News Ulster All Stars in Armagh City Hotel in 2016. Picture by Declan Roughan

By the age of 22 Jim decided that the priesthood was not for him. Returning north, he qualified as a solicitor and began to practise civil law in the family firm in College Square North.

It was at this point that he met Alice Murphy, an attractive young teacher from Anahorish, Co Derry. They married in 1957 and would have eight children.

While a busy solicitor in the 1960s, the late Mr Fitzpatrick was deeply aware of the changes and challenges in Northern Ireland society where the 38 per cent Catholic minority were benefiting from post-war welfare reforms but were still excluded from jobs and housing by the Unionist regime.

His father had played a leading role in the post-war Anti-Partition League. However, Jim’s experience of political change in both parts of Ireland drew him into the febrile debate within northern nationalism in the sixties.

Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick pictured at the Irish News All Star GAA awards with John Hume and GAA President Sean Kelly. Pic: Hugh Russell

He became aware of the refreshing views of a dynamic young Derry schoolteacher called John Hume and shared his outlook that nationalists should abandon sterile abstentionism from Stormont and play a constructive role in seeking political and social reforms.

The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 coincided with Mr Fitzpatrick’s appointment as a director of The Irish News.

The bloodshed of August 1969 shocked him. Walking up the devastated Falls Road from his office on August 14, he witnessed at first hand the burning homes and the plight of local people as a result of the invasion of sectarian mobs, supported by the state’s part-time police force, the B Specials.

Jim immediately contacted a business colleague who despatched a fleet of lorries to help transport the stricken families and their possessions to safety.

Belfast Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl in the Irish News for the handing over of the second World plaque with Jim Fitzpatrick, Irish News and Eoin Brannigan, Belfast Telegraph. Picture by Hugh Russell

In the troubled 1970s, when violence and unemployment blighted the lives of many young men in west Belfast, Mr Fitzpatrick became involved in several pioneering ventures in the area with the aim of providing recreational and employment outlets for local young men.

With a priest in St Peter’s parish, Fr Sean McCartney, and Gerry Nugent, a community activist, he helped set up the Rapid youth club in an abandoned factory.

At the same time Jim started an industrial enterprise at Beechmount producing breeze blocks for the construction trade and offering local lads a start. This was the beginning of his interest in regenerating marginalised communities in the city.

The intensification of violence also focused his attention on the role of the north’s only nationalist newspaper. The Irish News was then selling some 70,000 copies, reflecting a widespread hunger for news.

Irish News Chrirman Jim Fitzpatrick and Wendy Austin launch the Heritage Angel Awards for 2019. Picture by Hugh Russell

Though a minority voice on the board, he was keen to transform the paper to a modern, attractive daily, reflective of the needs and aspirations of the nationalist population at a time when political hope was fading fast.

In particular, informed by his strong Catholic faith and daily contact with persons right across the political spectrum, Mr Fitzpatrick felt that there was no place for violence whether perpetrated by paramilitaries or the state.

As internment was followed by Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, Jim engaged in discussions with the McSparran family (who then controlled the paper) on the need for The Irish News to articulate a clear message on behalf of the so-called Catholic minority.

To this end, he took a night course in journalism, learned shorthand and began to write articles and conduct interviews for the paper.

A former Irish News reporter recalls his first sight of Jim arriving in the newspaper office in the early 1970s, "an extremely elegant man in a double-breasted suit", very courteous and keen to learn the workings of the various departments.

Children In Crossfire Compassion in Action Conference. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is greeted by members of the Children in Crossfire Board including Jim Fitzpatrick together with Richard Moore at the Compassion in Action Conference lunch in Derry on Sunday. Photo by Lorcan Doherty

In 1972, following the fall of Stormont, Jim interviewed the Belfast IRA leader Seamus Twomey on the truce which the IRA had just declared. The IRA leader was visibly shocked when Mr Fitzpatrick asked him how his Catholic faith influenced his involvement in the IRA campaign.

He would later interview Tommy Lyttle of the UDA, taking the loyalist leader to task for the UDA murder of the young schoolboy son of a close friend.

In May 1981, The Irish News was rocked by the tragic deaths in a road accident of its chairman, Dr Daniel ('Dinty') McSparran, and his beloved sister, Mary. This tragedy threw the future of the newspaper into severe doubt.

President Michael D Higgins His wife, Sabina Coyne and chairman of the Irish News Jim Fitzpatrick share a laugh at Saturday nights gala dinner in Belfast during the annual Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language Week) celebrations. PICTURE MATT BOHILL..

A temporary arrangement with the remaining members of the McSparran family allowed Mr Fitzpatrick, now 52, to become managing editor of the paper.

These were uncertain and traumatic days for all concerned, not least the 150 employees. Mr Fitzpatrick outlined his vision of a modern, reinvigorated newspaper in tune with the hopes and aspirations of the nationalist community, then recovering from the trauma of the Hunger Strike.

If any shareholder was unhappy with his plans, he offered to purchase their shares.

This was to usher in an exciting new chapter for The Irish News. Mr Fitzpatrick, who had recently built the Fountain Centre, showed that he was a transformative figure who had a clear vision for the newspaper.

President Michael D Higgins His wife, Sabina Coyne and chairman of the Irish News Jim Fitzpatrick at Saturday nights gala dinner in Belfast during the annual Seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language Week) celebrations. PICTURE MATT BOHILL..

As a confidante of that era put it, "Jim believed that the nationalist population of Northern Ireland deserved the best possible representation in terms of their voices being articulated".

The new chairman often told his friends: "This is not a business. We are the inheritors of an institution."

Over the next few years, Jim Fitzpatrick "invested everything he had" in The Irish News.

It was the first local newspaper to go for the ‘direct input’ process, finally abandoning the old, revered ‘hot metal’ process with its army of compositors. Wages and conditions were improved for staff.

Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick pictured at the Irish News Ulster All-Stars with GAA President Christy Cooney and Martin McAviney Ulster Council Pic Hugh Russell

Mr Fitzpatrick was also keen to attract first-class journalists and managerial staff. The opinion pages featured a host of new columnists who challenged traditional perceptions about politics, economics and social affairs. Under his tutelage The Irish News became a voice and not an echo.

Jim had the diplomatic skills of a born ‘influencer’ and used the paper’s editorial columns in the 1980s and '90s to promote the need for a more radical approach to the Irish question which would respect the rights of both traditions.

In the dark, violent early 1980s, he threw his weight behind John Hume and the Irish government to facilitate the achievement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. This he was convinced – and he was proven right – would in time provide the means for an inclusive, democratic and peaceful future based on consent and respect for both unionist and nationalist aspirations.

One of the late Mr Fitzpatrick’s first decisions on becoming chairman of The Irish News was to set guidelines on the wording of IRA death notices. Yet, in transforming the paper, he was keen to preserve the founders’ values and traditions.

Christie Cooney and Irish News chairman Jim Fitzpatrick

In a rare interview published in the newspaper in 1995, he stressed the importance of a return to the paper’s ‘Christian identity’ and, after some soul-searching, he decided to retain its traditional motto, ‘pro fide et patria’ (for faith and country).

Until the last few weeks, Jim Fitzpatrick was a regular in The Irish News office, or at daily Mass in the neighbouring St Patrick’s Church.

Reflecting on his involvement in the newspaper, he said he had no regrets about his decisions: "Looking back… what has been rewarding is the development of the paper and the general recognition that it is a quality publication."

He also added his wish that "Irish News readers should feel part of the paper – that it is their paper rather than ours".

Irish News Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick presents the Life Time Achievment Award to James Kelly at the Coca Cola CIPR Press and Broadcast Awards 06/07. pic Colm O'Reilly 23-3-07

His death marks the passing of a remarkable individual: a lawyer, businessman, family man, newspaper editor and proprietor with vision, determination and humanity as well as a deep Christian faith.

Jim was predeceased by his beloved wife Alice in 2013. He will be sadly missed by his family, friends and the staff of the newspaper which bears his indelible imprint.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis agus croga.

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