Tom Kelly pays tribute to Joe Hendron on his 90th birthday
I remember well, it was a bright day in May 1987.
Along with my then boss, the late Seamus Mallon I found myself just off the Falls Road. It was my second time in West Belfast.
The first having been during a local government election in 1983.
Back then, the SDLP office was across from the ‘Royal’.
It was there I met a congenial, kind and extraordinarily polite politician called Joe Hendron. I had just turned 20. Joe didn’t strike me as a typical politician. And he wasn’t.
Joe was (and is to this day) incredibly aware of and sensitive to the need of others.
He’s almost devoid of any sense of self regard. Commitment to public service was writ large in Joe. If they cut through to the marrow of his bone - it would have said so, like a stick of rock. In a profession better known as a blood sport- Joe was neither clinical or ruthless.
On arriving back in Beechmount Avenue in 1987, Seamus Mallon was a relatively new MP having dispatched the UUP’s Jim Nicholson from the Westminster seat in Newry and Armagh a year earlier.
The mood music from South Down, seemed to suggest that 1987 was going to be Eddie McGrady’s year. And indeed, that proved true when McGrady finished off the career of former Tory and UUP grandee, Enoch Powell.
West Belfast was a different kettle of electoral fish.
The SDLP fight was against sitting SF MP, Gerry Adams.
Former MP, Gerry Fitt running as an independent had split the constitutional nationalist vote in 1983. Joe was runner up to Adams that year and arguably without the presence of Fitt could have defeated the Sinn Féin leader in 1983.
Nationalist versus nationalist was new territory. There were some around Joe clearly more ambitious. Nevertheless - Dr Joe unlike others the SDLP had to offer - had likability in spades. Mallon used to say “In politics you can have all the brains and political guile in the world but if people don’t like you - it counts for nothing”.
Unfortunately 1987 was not going to be Joe’s year. He was good natured and generous in defeat. Characteristics his opponent, Adams would struggle with in 1992 when Joe emerged as the victorious candidate. It was gratifying to have played a small part in that achievement. In some ways, it was a landmark election not just for Joe Hendron, but for Sinn Féin and the direction of the Hume/Adams talks process. His win proved election results are in the gift of the electorate, not political parties.
Behind Joe’s genial demeanour is a passionate and dedicated man. Someone wholly committed to public service both as a local GP and politician.
Joe was also a genuine cross community MP in a constituency riven by sectarian divisions and physical barriers. A place heavily fortified where locals often found themselves caught in a war of attrition between paramilitaries and the security services. Neither of whom cared much for their welfare. But Joe cared. And he cared a lot.
It’s often forgotten that he was a man of immense courage. His home and offices were often attacked by loyalists and republicans. A short time after his election, loyalists put a device under his car. Like many others, Joe had to balance the openness of being a politician with the safety of his own wife and young children.
In the worst of times, tragedy stalked West Belfast. Grief knows no boundaries or barriers. As the song goes “the tears of the people ran together”. Joe Hendron got that.
And in reaching out across the divide, he sometimes walked where others feared to tread.
Joe and his wife, Sally stood silently outside the pharmacy on the Springfield Road after the young Philomena Hanna was shot dead by loyalist paramilitaries and together they also walked up the Shankill Road in the aftermath of the heartless bomb attack which claimed the lives of ten people.
The remarkable thing about Joe Hendron is that even in the face of adversity or threats, he remained without any sense of anger, rancour or bitterness. His extraordinary spirit of generosity always shone through. Any sense of outrage he felt was always directed towards the perpetrators of violence and the war mongers. Here was a fearless man who brought steeliness in a velvet glove.
Joe is one of those people who instantly brings a smile, a warm handshake and an enthusiastic -even boyish charm to everyone he greets. Not even age has managed to dampen his spirits.
Of course, Joe could not have succeeded in his endeavours without the support of his loyal and stunning wife, Sally. Theirs is a true partnership.
Sally carried the family whilst Joe carried the concerns of his patients and constituents.
Like the late Patricia McGrady, Gertrude Mallon and Pat Hume, Sally was the ultimate protector and defender of her husband through thick and thin.
Only those who work in politics can truly appreciate the full extent of the burden, worry and courage required by spouses of politicians throughout the Troubles.
The American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote “The purpose of life is not to be happy, it is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have lived life to make a difference”. This eminent author was only partly right. Joe Hendron managed to be happy and to make the lives of others happier and brighter too.
At the grand age of 90 as Joe was honoured on Saturday evening in Queen’s University as a former student, former GAA player and medical graduate for his contribution to public life both as a GP and politician - he is living proof that not all nice guys finish last.
*Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist and former vice-chairman of the SDLP