Lives Remembered

Noel Heading: Lifelong advocate for social justice and equality

NOEL Heading, husband, father, grandfather, shop steward, teacher and economist, was born in north Belfast in the 1930s at a time of outdoor relief protests and sectarian violence.

He experienced and contributed to many parts of the city's political and cultural life that do not normally receive the attention they deserve.

On leaving school he started an engineering apprenticeship and became active in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, participating in a Belfast strike of apprentices in the late 1940s.

This experience developed his values of anti-sectarianism as he became a strong advocate for social justice and equality.

Noel joined the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association when it was formed and handed out leaflets in the late 1960s supporting the aims of better housing, jobs and one man, one vote.

He became a target for intimidation, forcing him to leave his employment as a tool fitter at a factory in east Belfast.

But as he would later say to family members, he had the last laugh.

Noel had been attending night school through his trade union and took a turn broadcasting on Radio Free Belfast in August 1969 before moving on to Queen's.

Mature students were rare in the late sixties and it was even rarer to leave from a house in Sultan Street on the Falls and make his way through the barricades to enrol for his degree course.

On graduating, his first job was for the Community Relations Commission, carrying out research into what was described then as the biggest movement of civilian population in Europe since the Second World War.

He followed that by working in the newly-formed NI Housing Executive. This involved studying the state of housing stock taken over from local councils.

The research exposed Northern Ireland's housing as the worst in Europe.

He would describe to his family homes without running water, never mind bathrooms, and rural homes without the means of basic sanitation.

Within the NIHE he argued for the retention of house-building powers, as opposed to housing associations having that sole responsibility.

It was an argument he lost at the time but has recently resurfaced in proposals by the current Minister for Communities.

In the evening the conversation around the dinner table was about how slow social change occurred without education.

The family would talk debate the 1970s miners' strike, the causes of inflation eroding wages and the struggle of the people of Vietnam against the USA.

Noel passed on to his children the importance of social justice.

He once told a Polish TV crew the problem of Northern Ireland was not religious differences leading to sectarian conflict but of one political class holding on to power through sectarianism.

On retirement Noel took up Irish, attending classes and then teaching the language. He looked forward to holidaying in the Gaeltacht in Donegal.

This reminded him of attending the Ard Scoil in Divis Street in the 1950s were he first met his wife of 66 years, Brigid, at a céilí.

In later years he went on holidays to the Soviet Union and Egypt and made time to tutor his grandchildren with their mathematics homework.

Education had opened opportunities for him and would be the same for his family.

Noel Heading died aged 89 on April 8. He is survived by his beloved wife Brigid and children Brian, Sean, Diarmuid, Una, Liam, Nora and Deaglan.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Lives Remembered