Paddy O'Hanlon: Politician and lawyer who became a founder-member of the SDLP

David McKittrick@IndyVoices
Sunday 13 April 2014 06:19

As a young politician from a border area of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, Paddy O'Hanlon was one of a new breed of nationalist figures who helped transform the face of politics.

He was one of the seven founder- members of the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), whose leader John Hume would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as one of the architects of the current peace process.

O'Hanlon was to the fore in the tumultuous early days of the troubles, when political crises shook Northern Ireland and a single year saw almost 500 violent deaths. Politics in those days was not a safe business: one of the other SDLP founder-members met a terrible death at the hands of loyalist assassins who stabbed him 32 times in a frenzied attack.

O'Hanlon enthusiastically took part in the civil rights movement when it took to the streets in the late 1960s, campaigning for voting and housing rights to the tune of "We shall overcome." Those were heady days for a young maths teacher. The movement almost immediately shattered the age-old pattern of rule from Stormont, the devolved assembly in which Protestants, through the Unionist party, wielded power and ignored the complaints of the Catholic minority.

When Unionism split into moderate and extreme tendencies, the old Nationalist party – rural, abstentionist, uncommunicative, sulky, lacking in coherent strategy – was swept away. In came, as northern nationalism's primary representatives, Hume, O'Hanlon and other graduates who emerged from university with huge energy, youthful effervescence and newly-learnt but formidable political skills. The Unionist authorities had coped easily with the old Nationalists, but the articulate new SDLP types ran rings round them in Stormont and in television debates.

First elected to Stormont as independents, they linked up with existing elements such Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin – whose labour background was incorporated into the SDLP's cumbersome name – to push for reform. But tragically violence erupted, first on the streets and later in the form of republican and loyalist terrorism. The civil rights movement, always a shaky coalition of different tendencies, fractured into many pieces.

Two major factions eventually emerged. One was the SDLP, very much in the line of constitutional nationalism; the other, representing the physical-force tradition, was the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein.

O'Hanlon came from the village of Mullaghbawn, a few miles from the south Armagh border and not far from Crossmaglen, in what would later be branded republican "bandit country." "Paddy was certainly republican," a senior SDLP figure said this week. "He came from south Armagh, so he could hardly be anything else." His father, an old-time republican, is said to have carried a bullet in his leg till the day he died.

The wider O'Hanlon family includes political figures in the south's Fianna Fail party. The comedian Ardal O'Hanlon, who played the dumb priest Dougal in the Father Ted television series, was a cousin. But although O'Hanlon came from a republican family in republican territory he was new-wave, opposed to violence and instead promoting participative politics.

Sixties-style protests were very much in vogue. SDLP veterans say that the Rev Ian Paisley's wife Eileen once claimed that during a sit-in on Stormont's benches O'Hanlon had sat on her knee. They chuckle that she complained of being "violated by a republican from south Armagh."

O'Hanlon, who attended University College Dublin, was 24 when he was elected to Stormont, where he established a reputation as a forceful orator. The politics was serious and intense but O'Hanlon, looking back on those turbulent times, said later: "We just laughed our way through it." A contemporary recalled: "He was a jovial, happy fellow, with his big moon-shaped red face."

His colleague Paddy Devlin wrote of him as "a young personality with an irrepressible sense of humour who irreverently impersonated the most dour of the Unionists, and got us singing Irish ballads in the members' bar at Stormont."

O'Hanlon and Devlin deviated, on one specific occasion, from their usual opposition to the use of force. In August 1969, when disturbances were producing bodies in the street, they asked the Irish government to send guns north to protect Catholic ghettos. The Dublin authorities shared their fear of a massacre – seven people were killed in the two days before the meeting, six of them Catholics – but turned down the request.

Devlin later sought to explain, saying he had "uttered words in the heat of an emotional moment." He added: "The sky was red from burning houses, torched while the British military stood by, not raising a finger – we were desperate." In recent years O'Hanlon was privately rueful about the episode but said he had no regrets, since the guns were for defensive purposes only. He believed, he said, that Protestant extremists and partisan security forces were in danger of overrunning districts such as the Falls Road.

In the five years that followed he was one of the negotiators of the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement and a member of the short-lived 1973-74 Belfast Assembly, immersing himself in politics. He was also immersed in alcohol. "We all drank quite a lot in those days," said one SDLP veteran, with some understatement. One party founder, Austin Currie, recalled that at one meeting the famously emotional Devlin "tried to hit me over the head with a chair."

But O'Hanlon drank more than most, leading to public exchanges with his famously feisty wife, Anne, a doctor. Theirs was regarded as one of the great marriages, but also as a highly tempestuous relationship. "They fought like cats and dogs, usually when there was drink consumed," recalled one old friend. "Anne and Paddy used to fall out very frequently, but they were very much in love," another friend remembered. "It was a very volatile marriage but he was very much in love with her. They were soulmates."

And then O'Hanlon, as they would say locally, caught himself on and gave up the drink completely. A Mullaghbawn neighbour said approvingly: "He's one of the few people I know to cut it dead and not go back."

By the mid-1970s O'Hanlon was, in common with many other Northern Ireland politicians, out of a job. He returned to teaching to earn a living, but also studied law and was called to the bar in 1986. He made a few attempts at re-entry into politics but these were unsuccessful. He then made a fortune from the law when he was retained as counsel for the civil rights movement at the Bloody Sunday tribunal into the 1972 deaths in Londonderry. A few years work earned him almost half a million pounds.

He was the author of two plays, The Resurrection Men and Donatists, and a political thriller, The Crossmaglen Dispatch. In a book of short stories, Skysong, he wrote of a right-wing Unionist lawyer destroyed by drink, dwelling on the effect alcohol can have on a marriage.

When Anne died of cancer in the mid-1990s he was crushed – "he was a lost soul," a friend said. In the days after her death O'Hanlon told another friend: "They're all watching me to see if I'll break and go back on the drink. But I'll never let Anne down."

He did not go back on the drink.

Patrick O'Hanlon, teacher, politician, barrister: born Drogheda, Irish Republic, 8 May 1944; MP for South Armagh in Stormont, 1969-72; founder-member of SDLP; called to the Northern Ireland Bar 1986; married Anne Marley (deceased); died Dublin 7 April 2009.

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