Northern Ireland civil rights leader Ivan Cooper dies

Ivan Cooper, one of the founders of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, has died.

Mr Cooper, 75, died in hospital on Wednesday morning after a long period of ill health.

The former Stormont MP, who helped found the SDLP, led the fateful civil rights march in Londonderry on Bloody Sunday when soldiers shot dead 13 protesters in January 1972.

He was also at the forefront of another landmark civil rights march in Derry in October 1968.

Politics – SDLP Press Conference – Smithfield, London
Ivan Cooper, second right, was a founding member of the SDLP (PA)

Many point to the scenes of violence when police moved to break up the demonstration on the city’s Duke Street as the effective beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Irish president Michael D Higgins presented Mr Cooper with a special award to mark his role in civil rights at an event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Duke Street march last year.

Mr Cooper was one of few Protestants involved with the civil rights movement.

He said his involvement saw him ostracised by other Protestants, and even found people in his church refused to sit beside him on the pews.

Ivan Cooper death
President Michael D Higgins presents an award to Ivan Cooper at Derry’s Guildhall last year to recognise his role in the civil rights movement (Brian Lawless/PA)

Current SDLP leader Colum Eastwood paid tribute, hailing Mr Cooper as a man who “embodied the contrasting traditions of this island”.

“Ivan Cooper was born to break the mould,” he said.

“A working class Protestant man who saw a common injustice and inequality that had taken root in Protestant and Catholic communities, he dedicated his life to fighting it.

“As an early leader in the civil rights movement, few have contributed as much to peace and equality on this island than Ivan.

“Organising marches in Derry for the right to a home, the right to a job and the right to a vote, Ivan often put himself in the path of danger to secure justice for people in every community.

“And on many occasions that meant that he suffered vilification and violence for his convictions. It never stopped him.”

Ivan Cooper Death
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described Ivan Cooper as a ‘giant’ (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Eastwood added: “Alongside his close friend John Hume, he helped blaze the trail on the path that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

“Anyone who knew Ivan knows that his selfless passion for justice continued to burn brightly into his later years. His unwavering belief that people on this island should come together to fight for common ideals and in their common interest is a lesson for us all. Especially as we face political division today.

“A man of sharp contrasts, sharp intellect and, it must be said, sharp tongue, he stands as a giant in the story of this island. And he holds a special place in the hearts of SDLP members.”

Sinn Fein MP for Foyle Elisha McCallion expressed her condolences.

“Ivan Cooper, along with others, played an important role in the civil rights campaign in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” she said.

“He stood up with others and challenged an unjust and unfair system of apartheid and discrimination.

“My thoughts and sympathies are with his family and friends at this time.”

Mr Cooper is survived by wife Frances and daughters Sinead and Bronagh.

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