Lives Remembered

David Cook: Belfast's first non-unionist mayor was man ahead of his time

David Cook at Muckish in Co Donegal where he occasionally cut turf

As the first rays of sunlight seeped through the upstairs window on Belfast's Botanic Avenue early on April 21 1970, the symbolism of the new dawn was not lost on David Cook.

He and Jim Hendron had just worked through the night printing publicity material for the launch a few hours later of a brand new political party, to be named the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

David had not been among the group of around 16 people from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds who had spent the last six months preparing for this day.

But as treasurer of the New Ulster Movement, a pressure group whose members would largely transfer to the new party, the 27-year-old shared its moderate, non-sectarian ethos and, more urgently, had access to its hand-operated Gestetner duplicating machine.

As the last of the policy papers were parcelled up at around 6am that morning, the two men smiled and reflected on the journey they were embarking on.

"Jim, I aim some day to get a Westminster seat," David declared, only half in jest.

He would never quite manage that, but by becoming Belfast's first non-unionist mayor, an assembly member and Alliance's deputy leader, he certainly made his mark.

"He was a person who sincerely wanted a better Northern Ireland, who wanted the community to work together. He made a huge contribution," Mr Hendron said.

"David had a great sense of humour and he and I always recalled with amusement the excitement of that night. He was greatly looking forward to the party's 50th anniversary celebrations this year but sadly because of Covid that couldn't happen."

David Cook, Oliver Napier and Dr John Cushnahan at 10 Downing Street

David Cook's upbringing had perhaps given him something of an outside perspective on the divided society of Northern Ireland.

Born in Leicester in January 1944 to an English father and Scottish mother, he had come to Belfast at the impressionable age of 10 when his father was appointed headmaster of Campbell College.

He later studied law at Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was also an enthusiastic rower.

However, he always considered Belfast his home and on his return he joined the solicitor's firm Sheldon & Stewart, where he quickly rose to senior partner and remained for 49 years.

As a bachelor, his home at Cromwell Road in south Belfast doubled up as the Alliance Party headquarters in its early years.

David's own political career began in earnest when he was elected a Belfast city councillor in 1973.

Four years later Alliance secured 13 of the 51 seats at City Hall - they came within just 30 votes of being the largest party - and negotiated to secure the lord mayor's chain.

And over two dramatic nights in June 1978, a unionist split - and a lengthy filibuster by the SDLP's Gerry Fitt while waiting for a colleague to arrive - ensured history was made when David Cook was elected Belfast's first non-Unionist mayor by just a single vote.

John Cushnahan, a fellow councillor and future Alliance leader, said his election to what was the north's most senior political post had a huge impact.

"Here you had someone who was very educated, had a lot of charisma, and had a great vision for Belfast and Northern Ireland in a European context.

"He was a great historian and his speeches were always exceptionally well crafted. He took great pride in being mayor and brought credit to the city wherever he went."

David was ably supported by the first ever Catholic lady mayoress of Belfast, Lurgan woman Fionnuala Deeny, whom he had first met while acting as her solicitor following a minor car accident.

The values of tolerance and understanding they espoused in public were mirrored in the family home where they brought up their five children to always consider other people's viewpoints.

David was elected Alliance's deputy leader in 1980 and won a seat in the 'Prior Assembly' two years later. He was also its candidate in a European election and polled strongly in a series of Westminster counts in South Belfast.

These were years when the middle ground came under intense pressure during the IRA hunger strikes and mass protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

David Cook (right) with John Cushanan and Oliver Napier at an Alliance press conference. Picture by Brendan Murphy

As unionists employed local government and assembly boycotts in an attempt to smash the treaty, Cook successfully brought court proceedings against Belfast City Council to compel it to perform its duties, and assisted Seamus Close and Addie Morrow to do the same on Lisburn and Castlereagh councils.

"He and other Alliance councilors and assembly representatives faced a lot of intimidation and threats. Having been preceded by the Alliance Party’s decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland Assembly and request to the British Government to wind it up, which they ultimately did, their courageous legal action helped break the unionist protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The consequence was that it survived and became seminal to the Good Friday Agreement a decade later," Mr Cushnahan said.

Cook was also ahead of his time on the issue of policing reform, advocating for change along with Chris Ryder as chairman of the Police Authority from 1994 to 1996.

Away from politics, he was founder and long-time chairman of the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, and chairman of Craigavon and Banbridge community health and social care trust.

He enjoyed hunting with the West Down Beagles, and spent many happy holidays in Donegal.

David Cooke died peacefully aged 76 on September 19 after a short illness with coronavirus.

He is survived by his wife, children Barbary, John, Patrick, Julius and Dominic, granddaughters Romy and Imogen and sisters Alison and Nora.

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Lives Remembered