Fitt had fallen out acrimoniously with his former colleagues in the SDLP, but they were generous in their praise. Sinn Fein, in a short statement, said it chose not to dwell on their differences with him.
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said: “He was a man who practiced the message of moderation and tolerance that he courageously preached. He was often in the front line of the Troubles and he experienced violence at first-hand from both sides.”
The Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, described him as “a courageous politician” and “a true democrat, grounded in his working-class roots, [who] always championed the rights of the most vulnerable in society and often at great personal cost to himself and family.”
John Hume, his successor as SDLP leader, said: “When the break between himself and ourselves took place it came to our surprise. We regretted that very much.”
The current SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, said Fitt had been a “key figure in the civil rights movement. He broke down the wall of indifference that British ministers and Westminster had previously shown towards Northern Ireland.
“He was instrumental in founding the SDLP on the principles of non-violence, partnership and equality and in bringing about the Sunningdale Agreement,” Durkan added.
Lord Maginnis, the former Ulster Unionist MP, said: “Gerry was somebody who, like most of us over the past 30 years, traveled the whole gamut of political emotions in Northern Ireland. Gerry was a genuine socialist — a man who believed and grew to believe even more strongly in his latter years in fair play for everybody.”
The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, who was born within three days of Fitt’s own birth, said, “I am very sorry to hear of the passing of Gerry Fitt today. I extend to his family circle and friends my sincere sympathy at this sad time.”
Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, who defeated Fitt when he became MP for West Belfast, extended sympathy to the dead man’s family, saying, “The differences between Gerry Fitt and republicans were many and profound. But this is not a time to revisit these.”
Fitt had spoken out in 1981 against the 10 IRA hunger-strikers, calling them murderers and saying he knew he was speaking his own political obituary. On losing his seat in West Belfast in 1983, he took a seat in the House of Lords.
He used this platform to continue castigating republicans and his former colleagues in the SDLP, criticizing the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and, later, the re-naming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
When nationalists attacked his home in north Belfast in 1976, Fitt famously defended himself and his family using his own personal-issue weapon. Although republicans were publicly blamed, leading figures in the area had repeatedly appealed to supporters not to attack the Fitt home.
Fitt was born on April 9, 1926 into a Catholic family of six in north Belfast. He joined the Merchant Navy at the age of 15, and on his demobilization in 1947, he met his wife Anne.
Fitt entered politics in 1951. A leading figure in the civil rights movement, he was wounded as members of the RUC beat marchers in Derry on October 1968.
As leader of the SDLP, Fitt served in 1974 as the deputy chief executive in the first ever power-sharing executive, led by Ulster Unionist leader Brian Faulkner, following the Sunningdale Agreement.
He regarded Sunningdale, which collapsed after five months, as the zenith of his political career, describing it as “the realization of all my dreams.”
During the 1970s, Fitt became increasingly disillusioned with the party he had founded, accusing it of becoming too “green” and less socialist as John Hume’s influence grew. The split came in 1979 when the SDLP rejected talks planned by Margaret Thatcher because it believed their agenda was too narrow.
Fitt is survived by his five daughters. He was devastated by the death of his wife, Anne, in January 1996. She had contracted the “super-bug,” MRSA, in a south London hospital after 49 years of marriage.