By Patrick Markey
Paddy Devlin, the committed socialist who was a founding member of the SDLP in Northern Ireland in 1970 and who fought for civil rights equality, died last week. He was 74.
Renowned for his relentless campaigns against sectarianism, Devlin had once been a member of the IRA but later renounced violence to work at transcending religious differences.
"I’ve fought sectarianism all my life. That doesn’t mean I’m one-sided. I just hated it," he told the Irish Times in a recent interview.
Born in Belfast on March 8, 1925, Patrick Joseph Devlin was interned for three years for membership of the IRA in 1942. But he rejected republicanism in jail, instead working through the trade union movement and the fledgling Northern Ireland Labor Party toward his dream of a cross-community socialist party.
Devlin later said that he felt guilty that information he helped gather as a youth had been passed onto the Nazis and used with devastating effect in the bombing of Belfast during the war.
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During the late 1960s he entered local politics in the Belfast City Council and went on to help found the Social Democratic and Labor Party in 1970 with John Hume, Gerry Fitt, Austin Curry and others.
Part of the failed cross-community executive of 1973, Devlin took the position of minister of health until the new government collapsed in the face of violence and the loyalist strike of 1974.
A physically imposing man, Devlin was well-known for his blunt approach. When minister of health he was handed a list of candidates for private secretary, he responded tellingly: "Give me a proper list of efficient people which includes Prods as well as Papes and females as well as males."
A principled man who saw a non-sectarian labor party as Northern Ireland’s future, Devlin’s life was not without conflict. During the 1980s, supporters of the Provisional IRA forced him and his family from their home in the Falls Road area because of his caustic criticism of the group.
Ever loyal to his political beliefs, in 1977 Devlin was eventually expelled from the party he helped form. He clashed with party officials over what he saw as the SDLP’s greater emphasis on nationalism over its original social democratic ideals.
Party leader Gerry Fitt also left at a time when the SDLP consolidated its position as the main nationalist party.
Left outside the mainstream political arena, Devlin devoted himself to writing from the 1980s, publishing books on the failure of the power-sharing government, Belfast in the inter-war years and his autobiography, "Straight Left," in 1993.