As I mentioned in my About section, I felt quite intrepid moving from London to Ashford. When I got here, I realised everyone was doing it! Not only that, but I met people at my kids’ school whom I would’ve walked past nearly everyday in London. Janette, mentioned in the post on Henry VI and Ashford’s Rebel: Jack Cade, lived in a parallel road in North London and we both took our children to the same park and were daily visitors to the same bakery opposite Gospel Oak station. Pam, who took the photos for the post on King’s Wood and her husband, Jonathan, who requested the post on ‘Mad Major’ Sawbridge’s Statue, lived in a parallel road to me in Dulwich and we would’ve used the same bus stop at the same time in the morning; my bus taking me to Westminster where I worked.
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that someone I worked with at Westminster for eight years, twenty-cough-cough-something years ago, lived on the same road that I now live on in Ashford.
Gerard Martin was born in the Union workhouse in Belfast on 9th April, 1926, baptised a Catholic the following day, and handed over for adoption to George and Mary Fitt. His adoptive father lost a leg in a work accident, aged 36, and subsequently died. Gerry delivered newspapers and groceries before and after school to help the family make ends meet. His mother was a cleaner and he said that it was seeing her come home exhausted, having scrubbed floors all day, that made him a socialist.
In 1942, he lied about his age in order to join the Merchant Navy and fight in the Second World War. His childhood, his wartime experience and the subsequent destruction and poverty that he witnessed when he returned to Northern Ireland, were pivotal influences for him.
When he was elected as the Republican Labour MP for West Belfast in 1966 (the sole Irish Labour member), his priority was to improve social and economic conditions for all in Northern Ireland. He worked hard to break the convention that Westminster MPs should not discuss matters that fell within the competence of the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, which was dominated by the Protestant/ unionist government. He advocated an end to all religious discrimination and demanded electoral boundaries that would provide fair representation for all sectors of the community.
Whilst the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was favourably disposed to Gerry Fitt’s aims, it was only when television cameras filmed him being beaten up by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at the start of ‘The Troubles’ in October 1968, that he finally gained international attention. He had been at the head of a peaceful, though illegal, civil rights march in Londonderry, but images of his head, streaming with blood, were seen around the world and made him a sought-after proponent of equal rights for Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Shortly after this march, a letter was delivered to his Belfast home. “We will kill you some night in the dark”, it read. “It will not be like Derry – it will not be stitches next time.”
In 1973 his election agent, Paddy Wilson, was stabbed to death. Three years later a mob forced its way into Gerry Fitt’s house in the Antrim Road. Fitt, clad only in his underclothes, saw them off with his Browning automatic.
By 1976, Fitt was infuriated that the Northern Ireland secretary, Roy Mason, refused to act on the Bennett Report, which had exposed brutal treatment of terrorist suspects by the RUC. He had been asked to support the Labour Government on their Scottish Devolution bill. He flew to Westminster but registered a “positive abstention” by staying in the Commons’ Strangers’ Bar. The Goverment lost by one vote and resigned.
At the 1983 general election he stood for West Belfast as an Independent and polled more than 10,000 votes, but was still beaten by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein.
He had angered the ruling Protestants in his defence of a better, safer life for the ordinary Northern Irish citizen; but he had also antagonised his fellow Catholics. He was deeply critical of the hunger strikers and the new Republican Sinn Fein MP Gerry Adams’ links to the IRA. Shortly after the election, a Republican mob managed to penetrate the fortress-like defences (which included steel doors, bullet-proof windows, floodlights and closed-circuit television) of the Fitts’ house in Belfast by getting in through a skylight. The building was burnt and the Fitts’ possessions destroyed.
That same year, Gerry Fitt was created a life peer and moved to London, where he continued to make political noise in the House of Lords.
When I worked with him, he was always very warm, sincere, down-to-earth and friendly, giving no hint of the terrifying incidents he had endured nor the raw courage he had displayed. One of my lifetime highlights was when he introduced me to the comedian, Frank Carson (‘It’s the way I tell ’em!’). He had a terrific sense of humour himself. I love the story of how, one night, he persuaded a British Airways crew to squeeze him onto the last flight to Belfast in the only available space: the jump seat in the cockpit. When he emerged through the cockpit door, mid-flight, to go to the loo, there, sitting in the front row was an astonished Reverend Ian Paisley: a Protestant Unionist MP and Gerry Fitt’s political nemesis. “Don’t look so worried, Ian!” Gerry gently scolded, as he strolled past, genially patting Paisley on the shoulder, “I’ve left it on automatic pilot…”
Gerry Fitt died at his daughter’s home in Ashford, on 26th August, 2005, eleven years’ ago today. He and his wife, Ann, are buried in St Lawrence’s Church, Godmersham, Ashford.