The sincere outpouring of regret and respect from across the political divide at the death of David McClarty yesterday was unusual — but it came as no surprise.
Last July, in what was to be his final appearance in the Assembly chamber, Mr McClarty’s mere presence on the back benches was enough to prompt an impromptu round of applause from MLAs who on that day, with the Assembly recalled to debate a BBC Spotlight probe into the DUP’s links to Red Sky, were in combative mood.
The TUV leader Jim Allister, whose aggressively traditional brand of unionism was far removed from that of the moderate Mr McClarty, was that day one of the DUP’s chief inquisitors.
Yet as he prepared to savage his former party, Mr Allister paused, turned to Mr McClarty beside him and said: “I begin on a totally non-controversial note by saying that it is great to see back in the chamber the Member for East Londonderry Mr David McClarty.”
MLAs from around the chamber broke into applause and cries of ‘hear, hear’.
Despite having, as Mr Allister and others yesterday said, firm political convictions, Mr McClarty managed to convey them in terms which were rarely confrontational.
Last February, in one of his last political comments before his illness was diagnosed, Mr McClarty told this newspaper that some unionists “do everything in their power”, whether intentionally or not, to drive Roman Catholics away from supporting the Union. That clearly dismayed him.
His brand of non-sectarian pro-Union politics saw him linked with Basil McCrea and John McCallister’s new NI21 party last year but he decided that he had been given a mandate at an independent and would remain as such.
Such a principled stand had already been seen when he turned down the advances of the UUP when the party tried to woo him back immediately after he retained his seat as an independent. If he had re-joined, the UUP would have qualified for a second Stormont ministry. That being the case, and given how shabbily the party had treated him, he could have named his price, probably right up to being a minister himself, a position which he could easily have fulfilled. Yet he chose to remain on the back benches.
He did not rule out standing for NI21 at a future poll. Yesterday NI21 MLA John McCallister said that the possibility had been kept open and that he had joined him and Mr McCrea at weekly meetings to discuss how they would vote on Assembly business.
“We would have had no bother working with David and hoped at some time, had he lived to see the next election, that he might have considered standing for the party,” Mr McCallister said.