Founder member of SDLP and dedicated servant of South Down

Eddie McGrady: June 3rd, 1935- Nov 11th, 2013

Sat, Nov 16, 2013, 00:01

SDLP founder member and South Down MP EK McGrady, who has died aged 78, was known to all simply as Eddie – and the use of his shortened Christian name is testimony to the universal affection in which he was held.

At his requiem Mass his nephew Fr Feargal McGrady said he was “a unifier by nature”.

McGrady’s political life spanned local, Northern and all-Ireland politics. He was a minister in the first power-sharing Assembly in 1974, and a member of the New Ireland Forum of 1983-4. The final report of that body assisted the process which led to Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

The pinnacle of his political career came on Good Friday 1997 with the conclusion of the Belfast Agreement, which he helped negotiate. It embodied his constant and outright opposition to paramilitary and state violence and his personal commitment to inclusive politics.

Born on Downpatrick’s Market Street, where his father, Mickey, was a tailor, he was the youngest of 11 children. He was educated at the local St Patrick’s High School before training as an accountant in Belfast. He later joined the practice founded by his uncle. Former senator Maurice Hayes, then a young teacher at St Patrick’s, noticed the young McGrady’s talents. Later, as a senior civil servant, he watched him mature politically.

SDLP established
Elected onto Downpatrick Urban District Council aged only 25 as an independent nationalist, he later joined the National Democratic Party, which advocated a more progressive approach to the constitutional question than Eddie McAteer’s Nationalist Party. In 1970 he helped found the SDLP, alongside political heavyweights Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Paddy Devlin, Austin Currie and became the new party’s first chairman.

He did not have their media presence, but he quickly established himself as indispensable for his chairmanship skills and political energy. In contrast to his perhaps more flamboyant leadership colleagues, he was a non-smoking Pioneer. Like them though, he was highly principled, combative and fearless in debate. For all that, he was unfailingly courteous.

Rivalry with Powell
He contested the South Down Westminster seat unsuccessfully three times, losing each time to former Conservative Enoch Powell, who had quit that party over Europe and joined the Ulster Unionists.

McGrady finally defeated his old foe in 1987, winning by a tiny margin of just over 700 votes in what then was a huge constituency. To do so he needed to convince at least some unionists they would be better represented by him, a committed “new-Irelander” and dedicated constituency man than by a somewhat detached outsider.

It was a sign of his dry wit and self-deprecating humour that he noted the reporting of Powell’s electoral defeat in all the British daily papers, but no mention of the name of the man who had beaten him.

He was quietly proud of taking Powell’s political scalp, but more appreciative still of his unionist support. He soon built on his wafer-thin majority, expanding it to some 10,000, making him the most popular of all SDLP candidates in 1997 with a 53 per cent share of the vote.

Throughout the Troubles and since, McGrady remained a trenchant critic of paramilitary violence and he quietly and stoically endured threats against his own life and his family. Unionists of all hues appreciated his unyielding stance against the IRA and others and praised his vast constituency work.

Decency and faith
Their tributes paid to him on his death underscore his personal decency and deep Christian faith as well as his lifelong commitment to democratic politics and power-sharing. They cited his tireless promotion of the Downe Hospital campaign, his opposition to nuclear reprocessing at Sellafield, his membership of the first Policing Board following the establishment of the PSNI, and his often understated work on behalf of local organisations.He retired from public life in 2010.

Eddie McGrady married Patricia (née Swail), whom he had known since his teenage years. She died in 2003, leaving a void which he painfully endured during the final decade of his life.

He was laid to rest on Thursday in Saul parish cemetery, where she is buried. He is survived by his daughter, Paula, and sons, Jerome (Jerry) and Conaill.