Loyalist leader who led secret talks with Haughey

Glen Barr obituary: Born: March, 1942; Died: October 24th, 2017


Glenn Barr who had died aged 75, was in 1974 chairman of the co-ordinating committee that presided over the loyalist strike, which precipitated the collapse of the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland. One of the few loyalists with paramilitary connections to win significant electoral support, he was in the 1970s elected as a Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party member of both the Assembly and Constitutional Convention.

Other strike committee members included the Rev Ian Paisley, William Craig and Harry West, as well as loyalist paramilitary leaders. During the strike, which effectively paralysed Northern Ireland, Barr said that it would have been perfectly possible to establish a provisional government.

A leading member of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, he once joked that he held the rank of “lance-general”. He was a close friend of the UDA leader Andy Tyrie, but was critical of some of the organisation’s activities, including the Dublin Airport bombings in 1975. “Our fight is with the Provisional IRA and the forces of republicanism, not innocent people,” he said at the time.

Two years previously he made what is considered to be the first “Ulster nationalist” speech at Stormont. Opposing the Constitution Act, he said: “The Ulsterman’s first allegiance must be to the state of Ulster. True Ulstermen must reject anything which in any way indicates that Ulster is going to be put into a united Ireland.”

Born in the Waterside, Derry, in 1942, he was educated at the Municipal Technical College. As a young man he was a member of the Territorial Army, and played the drums with the Tullintrain Pipe Band. Having served in the merchant navy he worked as a fitter as Coolkeeragh Power Station and later at British Oxygen, Maydown. A district committee member of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, he was president of his branch for four years.

He was County Derry branch chairman of the Loyalist Association of Workers, and occupied a similar position in the Ulster Workers’ Council.

In November 1974 he travelled to Tripoli as political adviser to a UDA deputation for talks with the Libyan government. A Sinn Féin delegation was there at the same time, but while there was some contact between the two groups both organisations were adamant that there had been no negotiations.

On his return Barr said that discussions had focused on the possibility of Libyan aid to an independent NI, and the prospect of Libyan orders for Northern firms. He was subsequently involved in negotiations for the sale of NI beef to Libya. There was widespread criticism of the visit, and Barr was expelled from Vanguard although the expulsion was later overturned.

In 1975 he stood by William Craig when the Vanguard leader’s idea of a voluntary coalition with the SDLP was rejected by a majority of Convention members, including party colleagues. His trade union background did not endear him to many mainstream unionists, some of whom labelled him a communist, while nationalists were wary of his links with the UDA.

When Vanguard ceased to be a political party and became a pressure group, he adopted an independent stance. In 1977 he and Paddy Devlin, recently expelled from the SDLP, launched an ambitious plan for job creation, but it attracted little support. That year he was also awarded a US government scholarship to study federal and state politics.

Resuming his involvement with the UDA in 1978, he was active in the New Ulster Political Research Group. He was the principal architect of the group’s 1979 document, Beyond the Religious Divide, which advocated negotiated independence for NI together with a new constitution and a Bill of Rights. Among those who helped to draft the proposals was a young law lecturer and Vanguard activist, David Trimble.

Barr visited the US with UDA leaders and put the case for independence to senior politicians in Washington. In April 1980 he led a loyalist delegation in secret talks with the then taoiseach, Charles Haughey.

In May 1981, at the peak of the H-Blocks hunger strikes, an RTÉ spokesman refused to confirm or deny newspaper reports that interviews with Barr had been banned under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act.

Withdrawing from politics he became head of a Derry training centre for unemployed youths from both communities. In 1988 he was associated with an initiative to attract US investment to, and develop leisure facilities in, Derry as part of a link-up between the city and Boston.

In 1993 he expressed concern at the extent of Protestant alienation, as a result of which young people were “queuing up to join the UFF”. Also that year the Ulster Community Action Network, which he chaired, asked Amnesty International to investigate allegations of “ethnic cleansing” against Protestants.

From the mid-1990s onwards he supported the peace talks process and was one of the few prominent loyalists or unionists to address the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin. Appointed to the Parades Commission, he resigned in April 1998, citing the “intolerable impact of local pressure”. This was after a proposed Apprentice Boys’ march through the Lower Ormeau Road was banned.

With the former Fine Gael TD, Paddy Harte, he led the project to build a memorial to the Irish soldiers who died in the first World War. The Peace Park and Round Tower at Messines in Flanders were officially opened in November 1998 by the president, Mrs McAleese, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth and King Albert of Belgium. The two men were jointly presented with the 1998 European of the Year award, but subsequently had a falling out.

His wife, Isa, three sons and a daughter, and grandchildren survive him.