Seamus Close: ‘My father was a softie at heart and was at peace in his final days’

Seamus Close with his wife Deirdre
Seamus Close with his wife Deirdre

Former Alliance Party heavyweight Seamus Close was “at peace” in his final days after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which claimed his life in just weeks, one of his sons said.

Brian Close was speaking following the death of his father, the party’s former chairman and deputy leader, in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

Seamus Close with his daughter Natasha and grandson Rory in 2017

Seamus Close with his daughter Natasha and grandson Rory in 2017

Seamus Close OBE, a 71-year-old grandfather, died at home following a diagnosis of neuroendorcine cancer, which was detected in his liver.

He had been “very fit” Brian said, but went to the doctor after feeling sick following a five-mile walk. He succumbed to the disease only several weeks after it was diagnosed.

He had a long political career as both a councillor and MLA, and is estimated to have fought perhaps 20-or-so different elections.

Brian said he will be remembered by those closest to him “100% as a family man”.

Seamus Close (left) with newly elected Alliance leader John Alderdice in October 1987

Seamus Close (left) with newly elected Alliance leader John Alderdice in October 1987

His biography on the Northern Ireland Assembly website states he was born in Lisburn on August 12, 1947.

He went to St Malachy’s College, Belfast, then the city’s College of Business Studies.

Active with the Alliance Party since the early ‘70s, he was its chairman in 1981/82, and its deputy from 1991 to 2001 – including acting as a negotiator during the Good Friday Agreement.

The party itself was founded in 1970. In the university-run election archive, the earliest results for Mr Close show him taking a council seat in Lisburn in 1973 with 603 votes.

His vote grew markedly over the subsequent eight council elections he fought, winning his the last council seat in 2005 (with 1,002 votes).

He was also the town’s first non-unionist mayor in 1993.

He was MLA for Lagan Valley from 1998 to his retirement from politics nine years later (and in that 1998 Assembly election he topped the poll in Lagan Valley, drawing just under 6,800 votes – comfortably clear of competitors).

Though he stood as an MP for the constituency, he never won a seat.

He was given an OBE in 1997 for services to Lisburn council.

Mr Close announced he was standing down from politics in November 2006, saying he wanted “to live the rest of my life freed from the daily pressures and demands of elected politics”.

He had quit as Alliance deputy in 2001 over the party’s decision to stand aside in some constituencies to give other pro-Agreement candidates a better chance. He was also publicly critical of Alliance’s support for gay unions.

On the day he announced his retirement (around the time the St Andrew’s Agreement was signed), he predicted a government led by the DUP and Sinn Fein would be “unsustainable”.

“Trimble and Mallon were decent guys but they couldn’t agree, and that will be even worse with Sinn Fein and the DUP,” he said.

He also worked as financial director at coffee firm SD Bell.

His son Brian, 37, said treatment for his illness was attempted, but did not succeed.

“He was 71, but was genuinely like a 51-year-old – he enjoyed himself and he looked after himself,” he said.

“It was so, so quick. He took it with his usual strength. It was unbelieveable how he took the news.

“He asked the doctor to give him no sugar coating – tell him it as it is.

“He was very much ‘I’m a facts-and-figures man, and once I know what I’m dealing with I can process it in my head’.

“He took the news and he just accepted it, and was very much at peace. It was unreal.”

He added: “He came across quite forthright in his debating style maybe at times. But behind closed doors, he was quite a softie.

“His family was everything – number one to him.

“There was nothing he loved more than going for dinner with all of u... that was just his dream night out. He lived for it.

“He was just such a loving family man, and that’s how we’ll remember him.”

Mark Devenport, BBC NI’s political editor (who had Mr Close as a regular contributor on the show Inside Politics), visited him the day before his death.

He was still “alert and articulate” to the end, said Mr Davenport, and “had no regrets”.

He described Mr Close as “an extremely independent-minded individual” who “never took any prisoners”, and who was once mooted as a potential Stormont speaker.

“I can remember more than one occasion in which it was his own party colleagues who were ringing me up and complaining to me about what Seamus had been saying on the airwaves,” he said.

Lagan Valley MLA Trevor Lunn said: “Not only was Seamus a close friend in politics but he remained my best friend after his retirement...

“Alliance achieved a great result in the recent local government election and it is thanks to the dedicated work of Seamus and others, who carried the load locally in some difficult years, that we were able to do that.”

Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Pat Catney said: “Seamus could be an argumentative contrarian when the mood took him but I’ll fondly remember his sharp wit, good humour and infectious energy.

“ was delighted a few years ago when he agreed to sign my nomination papers to contest the Assembly election in Lagan Valley.

“The whole community here has lost a great advocate.”