VIDEO: Harold McCusker remembered, 25 years on

He saw many of his constituents buried, and was on the receiving end of death threats himself.

But Harold McCusker remained a powerful voice speaking up for the union throughout some of the Province’s bleakest and bloodiest decades.

The 25th anniversary of Harold McCusker's death is on Thursday

The 25th anniversary of Harold McCusker's death is on Thursday

The UUP man never lived to see the ceasefires of the mid-90s, having lost a fight against cancer aged just 50.

Ahead of the anniversary of his death on Thursday, February 12, his widow Jennifer spoke publicly and in detail about the life and legacy of a man who some had tipped as a potential party leader.

She recalled that they had first met at a Friday night dance in Armagh Orange Hall.

She had been approached by a man dressed in then-fashionable ‘Hank Marvin’ glasses who asked her to dance.

Jennifer McCusker pictured at home with her grandchildren, Sam, 7, Jayne, 8, Lily, 14 and James, 13

Jennifer McCusker pictured at home with her grandchildren, Sam, 7, Jayne, 8, Lily, 14 and James, 13

“Little did I know that I had met my husband-to-be,” she said.

They married in 1965, when he was 25 and she 18.

Originally a teacher, he entered the House of Commons in 1974.

Asked about the effect this had on family life, she said: “Harold could never leave politics to one side. At that time, the 70s and 80s, his constituents were being murdered every week – sometimes into double figures.

“As their MP he felt responsible for their well-being and above all their security. He was constantly lobbying the British Government for better security along the border, in particular south Armagh.”

Asked how great his own fears were, she said: “I never really heard him talk about his own personal security.

“However, he did worry when both of us were at a function in the constituency and the children were at home, and he thought that perhaps terrorists would get into the house and hold them hostage just to get at him.

“The republican terrorists hated Harold McCusker.

“Harold would visit his mother Lily in Wellington Street, Lurgan, most Sunday mornings before he went to church and that was when he was most vulnerable.

“The police constantly advised him to vary the times of his visits.

“He also got an anonymous phone call telling him not to go to Wellington Street – it may have been someone ‘in the know’ tipping him off – who knows?”

Their home was bullet-proofed, the door had to be answered via an intercom, and Jennifer said: “I had the job of calling the local police station each night on a two-way radio to ensure they knew we were safe. This was the same for many families right across Northern Ireland.”

She added: “His health did suffer due to the amount of work he had to do.

“The constant travelling back and forth to London, not taking any time to relax and not being able to switch off...

“The emotional stress of attending the funerals of constituents every week, watching grieving families burying their loved ones, many of whom he knew personally, all took its toll, both physically and mentally.”

She described the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement as “a real body blow” to him.

It had been suggested by some that he could take the reins of the party; one recently declassified 1982 government file (recording a meeting between a UUP press officer and NIO official) states he was seen as “the only alternative leader [to Jim Molyneaux] with ‘fire in his belly’”.

However, Jennifer said: “Becoming the UUP leader never really came into the equation.

“Harold had the potential to become very ill for 16 years – the full story of his illness is not that well known. It is only when you have cancer yourself (as I have) that you understand that getting well again is down to what you do yourself.”

He had suffered from melanoma since around the mid-1970s, but son Colin said that despite numerous operations the cancer spread.

Asked what he would have made of Northern Ireland today, Colin (currently the UUP mayor of Craigavon) said: “While he was opposed to London and Dublin jointly governing Northern Ireland, he realised that there was a role to be played and deal to be done with Dublin.”

Asked if he would have regarded the present power-sharing arrangements as a betrayal akin to the Anglo-Irish deal, Colin said the deal has received a mandate from the public, and his father was at heart always a democrat.

“We’re now on ceasefire – things are slightly different,” he said.

“The leopard hasn’t changed its spots, but I don’t think he would have seen it as a betrayal. I think he would have seen it as a necessary evil that had to be dealt with.”

He added that, had he never become sick, he would indeed have made a likely leadership contender for the UUP; albeit a slightly unorthodox one because of his staunchly working-class background.

If, however, he had beaten his disease, “I think [he] would have retired after about another five years or so and gone to live in the south of France”.

Asked how he is remembered by her today, Jennifer responded: “He was a very intelligent man, a perfectionist in virtually everything he did and a man who did not suffer fools gladly including his nearest and dearest.

“He achieved so much for the people he represented during his 16 years as an MP, and is still revered a quarter of a century later, which says it all really.”