SDLP founder The late Ivan Cooper
THE decision by the late Padraig Hughes to appoint the late Ivan Cooper to the role of a manager of the Westport Shirt Factory in the 1960s helped shape the Derry native into a civil rights leader.
Last week, the death of Cooper (75) was met with sadness right across Ireland, especially in Westport where he lived for two-and-a-half years.
A native of Killaloo in Co Derry, Cooper came from a Protestant Unionist tradition. He came to work in Westport around 1966 when he was in his early 20s. He settled well into life in the west Mayo town, becoming one of the founding members of the Westport Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1964. He was also a member of their debating team, alongside the likes of Liam Walsh, Robert Kilkelly, Seán Staunton and Myles Staunton.
Harry Hughes of Portwest, which owned the Westport Shirt Factory at the time, told The Mayo News that Ivan Cooper often told him that his time in Westport changed his life.
“He was only 22 or 23 at the time, and my father interviewed him in the Mont Clare Hotel in Dublin and offered him the job – the factory was only small at the time. Ivan said to my father that he was a Protestant, and my father replied, ‘I don’t care what religion you are as long as you are good at your job’.
“When he came to Westport he found a world that he never knew existed. He found no sectarianism or tensions between Catholics and Protestants here; so different from what he knew as a young man. He realised that the sectarianism in the north was wrong. He often said to me that coming to Westport changed his life,” Mr Hughes recalled.
Letter to Westport
Mr Cooper returned to the North in 1968, where he became one of the only Protestant leaders of the civil rights movement and later helped form the SDLP. Against the advice of John Hume, he led the civil-rights and anti-internment march in Derry in January 1972, which resulted in 13 civilians being shot dead by members of the Parachute Regiment. A 14th later died from his injuries. The incident went down in history as Bloody Sunday.
Following his election to the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1969, Cooper wrote to The Mayo News thanking the people of Westport for their support.
“To my mind, the two-and-a-half years that I spent in Westport influenced my thinking more than any other period in my life. As a Protestant living among an overwhelming Roman Catholic majority, I was accepted in every possible way, and I very soon realised that it is more than possible for people of differing religious viewpoints to work together to live together and above all to progress together,” he wrote on March 3, 1969.
Ivan Cooper was in ill-health for a number of years, and was confined to a wheelchair. However, he returned to Westport five years ago for the 110th anniversary celebrations of Portwest. Mr Hughes said that he was like the guest of honour at the function and that he always spoke fondly of his time in Westport.
“He had a great fondness for Westport, and any time I met him he always wanted to speak about Westport and the people of Westport.”
President Michael D Higgins was among the mourners who attended Mr Cooper’s funeral in Derry on Friday. He described him as a person who believed ‘in taking pieces of hope and turning them into something positive for everybody in a very inclusive way’.
Ivan Cooper is survived by his wife, Francis, and daughters, Sinéad and Bronagh.