Much-missed MLA was a Christian gentleman who had flair for acting

David McClarty
David McClarty

Rich tribute has been paid in the last week to a politician dubbed “the most popular MLA in Stormont” .

But as well as his public life, David McClarty, who died on April 18 aged 63, was also a family man, a Christian, a fine choir singer and a comedy actor.

Famed for his love of his native Coleraine, many of the key milestones in his life happened within the confines of his native neighbourhood of Killowen in the town.

As his widow Norma put it, he was Christened, confirmed, married and finally mourned in his lifelong place of worship – Killowen Parish Church.

Born in a semi-detached council house in The Heights on February 23, 1951, he was the seventh of Helen and Douglas McClarty’s 11 children.

While Helen was occupied with her large brood, Douglas – a Dunkirk veteran – worked as a fitter for firms such as Monsanto.

David enrolled in Killowen Primary School and later Coleraine Boys’ Secondary before transferring to Coleraine Inst, where he cultivated an interest in sports, going on to run for the Inst Harriers.

His choice of studies was an intriguing one – he left school with A-levels in English, Latin, and ancient Greek.

He then went to the Magee campus of the University of Ulster to study the classics, but left after around one year.

“He didn’t like to be away,” said widow Norma. “That’s how much of a homebird he was!”

The pair had met in church and in Sunday School, and began going out when he was 16 and she was 14.

It was the start of an unbroken lifetime romance. By 1972 they were engaged, and they wed the following year.

He had also developed an interest in acting, and continued to perform in am-dram productions until virtually the end of his life.

His repertoire ranged from pantomimes to playing Alfie Doolittle in My Fair Lady and Captain von Trapp in the Sound of Music.

In 2003 he was nominated for the Best Comedian award by the Association of Irish Musical Societies, for his role as Sir John in Me & My Girl.

His final performance was in 2011 at the Riverside theatre, Coleraine, playing Beauty’s father in Beauty and the Beast, and acting alongside his two sons Colin and Alan (now aged 34 and 37).

Meanwhile, a resume of his working life shows that he was never a career politician from the outset.

He had initially been employed by Northern Ireland Electricity before becoming an insurance underwriter.

It was only in 1988, aged in his mid-30s, that John White, past UUP mayor of the town, phoned him to suggest that that he stand for the council.

From this phone call, a political career grew which ultimately saw him become one of the most respected politicians in the country.

He won and held his council seat comfortably, and made the decision to up his political profile after the Good Friday Agreement was signed – a career move which came as a surprise to his wife.

He was in Florida with her at the time, and she recalled: “We were standing waiting to get into one of the Disney attractions. He said to me: ‘By the way, I’m just going to put my name forward to be selected to run for an MLA’.”

Always a moderate, his son Alan said despite his firm unionism “there was never any flag-waving”.

His party, the UUP, deselected him in 2010. But it is testament to the high regard in which he was held that he won his East Londonderry seat regardless, as an independent.

In 2013 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a blood cancer, but remained relentlessly positive in the face of it,

He had told the News Letter in August 2013 he had finished his chemotherapy and his condition was “improving hugely”.

When death finally came, it was out of the blue.

On Sunday, April 13, he was taken to the Causeway Hospital and a few days later his son Colin travelled to Canada for a holiday, believing that there were no serious problems.

Even on Thursday, David was confident he would get better. By 5.10am on Friday he was dead.

Among the tributes which followed was one from UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, calling him “probably the most popular MLA in Stormont”, while many others – from the TUV to Sinn Fein – used the word “gentleman” to describe him.

His funeral was held at Killowen Parish Church, where his “amazing voice” had made him a stand-out member of the choir, according to the Rev Donard Collins.

The service drew more than 1,000 mourners.

He is survived by his 10 brothers and sisters, two sons, widow and two daughters-in-law, Louise and Niamh.

He is buried in Portstewart Cemetery.