Gerry Fitt

Founding members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. One of the founding members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Fitt acted as party leader until 1979. One of the founding members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Fitt acted as party leader until 1979.

Gerry Fitt was born in Belfast on April 9,1926. He worked briefly in a barber’s shop and in the merchant navy between 1941 and 1953.

After returning to Belfast, Fitt quickly became active in politics, elected to Belfast City Council for the Irish Labour Party in 1958. He continued to hold a seat on the council for various parties until 1981. After moving to the Republican Labour Party, he was elected to the Stormont parliament in 1962, then won the Belfast West seat for Westminster in 1966.

In the House of Commons, Fitt was responsible getting a number of Labour MPs interested in Northern Irish affairs, and was a frequent speaker at the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster, a pressure group centred on the Labour party. These actions were allied to his campaign to end the Westminster embargo on the discussion of events in Northern Ireland.

Fitt’s credentials as a leading opponent of unionism were dramatically boosted when television showed an assault on him by a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer at the October 5, 1968 civil rights march in Derry.

With the explosion of the Troubles, Fitt was one of the founding members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, an amalgam of nationalist, socialist and socialist republicans, along with some activists from the civil rights movement, created to offer a viable alternative to the moribund Nationalist Party. Fitt acted as party leader until 1979.{PAGE BREAK}

A staunch opponent of the armed struggle of republicans, Fitt led the SDLP into the 1973-74 power-sharing Executive and, after its collapse, into the discussion over the 1975-76 Constitutional Convention.

In the closing months of 1979, Fitt earned another footnote in history when he abstained in the no confidence motion leading to the fall of James Callaghan’s Labour government.

Following disputes with John Hume, Fitt’s growing marginalisation within the SDLP saw him standing down as party leader, quickly followed by his resignation from the party he had founded. He felt the SDLP was becoming a purely nationalist party, and that the socialist ideas represented by him and Paddy Devlin on the party’s formation had disappeared.

In the 1981 council elections, Fitt lost his seat after 23 years. His strong opposition to the ‘H Block’ jail protests, alongside his departure from the SDLP, saw Fitt’s voting figures collapse from 3006 in 1977 to 541 in 1981. In 1983 he defended the Westminster seat and was beaten into third place by Gerry Adams. The SDLP also stood against its founder.

After losing his electoral positions, Fitt was appointed to the House of Lords and took the title of Baron Fitt of Bell’s Hill.

Baron Fitt currently lives in London and still attends the Lords where he occasionally speaks on Irish issues.

© Ciaran Crossey 2004

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