I first met Eddie McGrady in April 1979. It was a blustery Saturday morning outside an amusement arcade in Newcastle and he was handing out election leaflets.
It was his first general election as a candidate and he was up against Enoch Powell.
I was introduced and we ‘bantered’ for a few minutes: that sort of light-hearted stuff that rival campaigns do when they bump into each other. As Eddie moved on with his team, a senior member of the UUP from the South Down constituency said to me: “If all nationalists were like Eddie we’d be able to get this place sorted out pretty quickly.”
And that’s the impression of Eddie McGrady that has remained with me. I saw him fairly regularly when I was working for Powell between 1979 and 1981 and I never remember him being anything other than courteous and relaxed. He and Powell had enormous respect for each other and Eddie went out of his way to be helpful to me when I was dealing with constituency issues – even when there was no political or electoral benefit for him. With Eddie McGrady, what you saw was what you got. If there was ‘another side’ to him then I never saw it, even during those moments down the years when we were on opposite sides of a panel or a debate.
McGrady was an unashamed, unembarrassed Irish nationalist. He wanted a united Ireland and never made any secret of it. But he didn’t want it from the barrel of a gun: indeed, I once heard him say that “trying to bomb unionists out of the Union and into a united Ireland will just make everything much worse for everyone”.
That’s why he was so opposed to the IRA, because he knew that they were doing the greatest possible damage to a cause that meant so much to him.
He was also the sort of ‘new era’ nationalist who realised that the lazy, opt-out nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was delivering nothing. He got involved in the National Democrats – a mostly fringe party which wanted to reform the old Nationalist Party – and stood, unsuccessfully, against Brian Faulkner in the last election to the Stormont Parliament in February 1969. Eighteen months later, in August 1970, he was one of the founding members of the SDLP and, along with Gerry Fitt, John Hume, Paddy Devlin and Austin Currie, became one of their key figures.
He was elected to the new Assembly in June 1973 – the Sunningdale Assembly – and played an important role as a member of the SDLP’s negotiating team, which, along with Alliance and the Ulster Unionists, negotiated the make-up of the new power-sharing executive between October and November.
In his autobiography, Memoirs of a Statesman (published shortly after his death in 1977), Faulkner refers to him as ‘my old friend and political opponent’. And in 1975 Faulkner also said that McGrady, ‘less green and less dogmatic than some of his colleagues’, had helped to ease many of the tensions between the UUP and SDLP teams.
While it’s fair to say that McGrady was ‘less green’ than many in the SDLP hierarchy, it would be inaccurate to suggest that he was ‘soft’ when it came to Irish nationalism or unity. So it is worth remembering that he was one of the first of the modern nationalists to argue that an ‘agreed’ or ‘new’ Ireland would be a long time in the making and would only happen when unionists were ‘genuinely prepared for it’. He had difficulties with some aspects of British policy, though, and on more than one occasion accused them of not being ‘honest brokers’.
His detestation of the IRA never wavered. He was uncomfortable with John Hume’s ‘dialogue’ with Gerry Adams in 1988 and 1993: believing, I suspect, that it would harm relationships between the SDLP and mainstream unionism (John Taylor was already talking about ‘the dangers of this new pan-nationalist front’), as well as blurring the differences – in unionist minds – between the SDLP and ‘armed republicanism.’
Mark Twain advised living your life in such a way that people don’t have to lie about you when they hear of your passing. The mixture of genuine sadness and warm memories that have accompanied the news of his death represents the hard, clear evidence that McGrady followed Twain’s advice. My experience of him was that he was a gentle man and a gentleman: a politician who, long before it became fashionable or electorally necessary to do so, believed in and promoted compromise. Unionists in South Down were never afraid to admit that they liked him.
Eddie McGrady never had the profile of a Hume, Fitt or Devlin. Maybe he never wanted it, or maybe the ‘greener’ elements of the SDLP didn’t want him to have it. That strikes me as a pity. Liking and respecting your political opponent makes it so much easier to reach a real, mutually satisfactory accommodation with him. Eddie McGrady earned and deserved the respect of his unionist opponents.
And he was very easy to like.