IT WAS at a christening party in Belfast that I first met Gerry Fitt. I can date it, because the following day was so dreadful. On Saturday March 4, 1972, a no-warning IRA bomb killed two young women and mutilated over 130 in the Abercorn Restaurant. This was a grim and tense time, not five weeks after Bloody Sunday. Gerry was facing hostility from police, soldiers, republicans and some of his own colleagues. Things were so dangerous that his social life was non-existent, but my friend Liam Hourican of RTE had managed to entice him out. The Hourican house was rather isolated, and Liam's mother-in-law, a Palestinian with a tenuous grasp of Northern Ireland politics, gave the entire gathering a near corporate heart attack by staging a practical joke involving a slouch hat and a rifle-shaped stick with which - after dark - she tapped threateningly at the window.
It was no wonder Gerry got drunk.
As ever, he was great company, but he was unsteady by the time he had to leave and fell into the nappy bucket and couldn't get out. Henry Kelly and I extracted him with difficulty and loaded him into my car. Foolishly, Henry said, "Gerry, if you've got your gun, remember there's an army base at the end of the drive so don't do anything silly." So of course Gerry pulled out his legally-held protection weapon and began waving it about shouting that if they called him a Fenian bastard he'd fuckin' shoot them.
Somehow we got him home.
I came to like and admire Gerry a lot, not least because of his extraordinary moral and physical courage in standing up to terrorists. He thought like a humanitarian socialist, not like a nationalist and mourned the greening and sectarianisation of the SDLP. Exiled to London by violent republicans who were destroying his wife's health, he made the best of it. His warmth, generosity, decency and humour made him hugely popular at Westminster with staff and politicians of all persuasions, but his heart was in Northern Ireland and he particularly loved seeing people from home.
At a time when the RUC were being widely demonised by republican propagandists, they put on an exhibition at Westminster. Sir Ronnie Flanagan and a dozen or so officers were taken afterwards for drinks on the terrace of the House of Lords; most were then going on to the theatre. When I left them, Flanagan was quoting Yeats and Gerry had turned up and was buying drinks. The next day I ran into one of the policewomen and asked if she had enjoyed the show. "Two of us didn't go after all," she said. "We stayed the whole evening with Gerry. He's such a lovely man and we wanted to keep him company."
Gary Kent - a key player in educating the Labour Party about Northern Ireland - met Gerry regularly for chats and drinks: "He was a wonderful raconteur, with innumerable anecdotes about his life, party and people in power", he said. "But what was amazing was that I never heard the same story twice." What an epitaph!