‘Ivan Cooper was a man ahead of his time’

A young Ivan Cooper pictured at Stormont in 1970,
A young Ivan Cooper pictured at Stormont in 1970,

Mourners at the funeral of Ivan Cooper celebrated a political iconoclast who defied stereotypes and was a steadfast advocate for reconciliation from his days in the civil rights vanguard to his death this week.

The working-class Protestant from Killaloo will be forever remembered as a champion of equality and natural justice during the tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This afteroon he was described by the Venerable Robert Miller, Archdeacon of Derry, at his funeral in St. Peter’s, as, above all, a peace-maker and bridge-builder.

“Ivan Cooper was a towering figure in NI’s recent history. The breadth of political and religious opinion gathered in this church today is in itself a powerful testament to the impact he made in life and an indication of how he touched people’s lives,” remarked Archdeacon Miller.

“Ivan’s name and face and views would’ve been well-known to a whole generation who came of age – politically – in the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s.

“And yet, in the middle of this challenging time, he was also a loving and devoted husband and father. He found the time to play pranks on his family and others. All I can say is that when hearing some stories from the family it was clear they were only the tip of a very large iceberg,” he added.

Archdeacon Miller, who ministered to the late SDLP co-founder as a faithful congregant at St. Peter’s in his latter years, recalled a true Christian who lived the credo “to love one another as God has first loved us”.

He said this was “a truth that shaped Ivan’s whole life”.

“People were equal in God’s sight and were to be treated as such in any society that was to honour God. Ivan sought to build that society by meeting people, talking to them, breaking down barriers, developing relationships, building trust, fostering friendships, challenging attitudes, changing minds, working with others. This was the shape of his politics,” he said.

The rector didn’t ignore the fact that Mr. Cooper was “a controversial figure, even divisive in some people’s eyes” among many Unionists, for his SDLP membership and for his participation in the abortive proto-powersharing Sunningdale Assembly.

“Equality for all? Power-sharing? One could argue that Ivan Cooper was a man way ahead of his time. And, lest we forget, he was always – always – adamant that there could be no place and no justification for violence,” he commented.

And there was laughter when Archdeacon Miller quoted from another great iconoclast of an earlier era in Irish history and compared him to Mr. Cooper.

Edward Carson, noted Archdeacon Miller, had declared: “‘From the start be tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us’.”

He said: “Those sentiments can’t have been very different from the young Ivan Cooper’s. But these were not his words; these were the words of Lord Carson, spoken to the Ulster Unionist Council, when he stepped down in February 1921. I think Ivan might secretly have enjoyed being compared to Lord Carson at his funeral!”

The interim leader of the Anglican faithful in Derry ended with an exhortation to the politicians present.

“When we go from this church this afternoon, the best thing we can do – the best thing all of us can do – is finish the job that Ivan Cooper dedicated most of his life to: the task of building a better community.

“To celebrate his life, we must echo his voice, and be utterly, unequivocally committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

“So, let’s make Ivan’s vision a reality. Let’s make politics work.”