The late Ivan Averill Cooper - Profile of a Civil Rights’ giant
Profile mainly based on discussions with Ivan some years ago. Researched, compiled and written by Fionnbarra O’Dochartaigh B.A. [Hons.], Co-founder, N. Ireland Civil Rights Association, 1967. Exclusive to the “Journal” via [email protected]
Ivan Averill Cooper was born on January 5, 1944. His parents were Robert Henry Cooper, from Ralagh, Co. Derry and Jeanie, née Moore, who hailed from nearby Limavady. His late parents were postmaster and postmistress of Killaloo Post Office.
Their off-spring were Letitia Maude, died March 2019, aged 97; William (deceased); Violet (deceased); Ralph (deceased); Ivy May (deceased); the late Ivan Averill (75) and Robert Lynn (residing in Co. Cavan).
Ivan’s primary education was at Killaloo Cumber School, when aged 5-12. At secondary level he studied at Londonderry Technical College, Strand Road, where he obtained his Senior Certificate. At Magee University College he obtained a BSc. in Economics.
Asst. Manager, John Hawkins, Shirt Manufacturers, Society Street, Derry City. Three years with Westport Shirts, Co. Mayo. Was elected Secretary to Westport Chamber of Commerce. He also had business interests in Strabane, Co. Tyrone.
On returning from Co. Mayo, in early 1968, he became manager of Ben Sherman Shirt Manufacturers, based on Abercorn Road and Foyle Street, in Derry City. As the factory was on the edge of a loyalist enclave known as “The Fountain”, occasionally police were called to provide protection to Mr. Cooper, other key staff and its mainly nationalist female workforce.
Ivan, until his death remained a practicing Protestant, originally attending the Cumber Church of Ireland Church, Killaloo where he was christened and confirmed. He was appointed to teach Sunday School because of his knowledge of the Bible, church history and ritual etc.
Always a keen bookworm, he read many titles on topics such as history, international and current affairs, business practices, politics, sport and biographies etc.
He played GAA games with his local club in Claudy. He also became a keen player of soccer, but because of earlier GAA rules, he travelled into the nationalist Bogside, and was shocked at social conditions he witnessed there. This was his initial contact with young Catholic sportsmen, several of whom became fellow community activists and life long friends.
In 1962 he was enrolled into the Apprentice Boys of Derry, remained generally inactive and resigned three years later. He joined the Young Unionist Association also in the early 1960s, playing a more active role. In spite of his openly admitted background and verbal support for “the Union”, he was a welcome visitor in the Bogside, where he became more deeply involved with working-class activists on the city’s ‘West Bank’.
His Bogside-football experiences Ivan considered pivotal. He became extremely disillusioned with Loyalist/Unionist politics and was welcomed into the anti-sectarian Londonderry Labour Party, wherein he had several friends. Some of these were already active within the Housing and Unemployed Action committees, which eventually merged and became incorporated into the broad-front activism for basic civil rights. Ivan had an internationalist perspective. In previous years was an active supporter of lobby groups such as the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
Four days after police attacked civil rights’ marchers using baton and water-cannon, on Duke Street on October 5th 1968, which marked the city’s first historic demo for a democratic electoral system and other social reforms, the all-male Derry Citizens’ Action Committee [DCAC] was established. At this initial meeting, held at the City Hotel, then next to the Guildhall, Ivan became its first chairperson. Other DCAC figures included John Hume, and numbered among Protestant members were Major Campbell Austin, well-known solicitor Claude Wilton, who later became a ‘northern’ Senator and Billy Kelso, appointed to represent the city’s, mostly male, unemployed. In retrospect, conceding the key demand, one-person, one vote, heralded the unwrapping of a 50-day incremental programme of further basic reforms.
The abolition of the old Londonderry Corporation, replaced by a commission, came amid intense Unionist fury. Such essentially was a velvet-revolution. It meant that after almost 50 years of systematic Gerrymandering, nationalists could once again be considered ‘worthy enough’ to hold administrative posts, not least, the position of Mayor of Derry. The first DCAC figure to win that position was the late Dr. Raymond McClean. His late widow, Sheila, then an art-teacher at Thornhill, designed the ‘68 circular black and white “Oak-leaf” civil rights badge. In spite of, or because of the decades of sectarian one-party domination of Derry City Council, nationalists magnanimously agreed that the mayoral chair, and deputy position, in future, would be shared on a cross-community basis.
Later bombed by PIRA, the City Hotel, before and after Oct. 5th 1968, was the unofficial central hub for civic rights leaders and diverse media, many from abroad. It was also often used as an indoor venue for public meetings. Ivan developed a close friendship with Frances Campbell, its main receptionist. They later married and have two children, Sinead and Brona. In his subsequent contact with Unionist/loyalist circles, it was bluntly made quite clear that marrying a Roman Catholic, was the ‘greatest betrayal’ of all. Throughout his life he endured being branded “a Lundy”, which requires no explanation to “Journal” readers.
In February 1969, with only a small team of activists and scarce resources, Ivan reluctantly agreed to stand as an Independent in the Mid Londonderry Constituency. Against considerable odds, not least his religious background and previous pro-Union pedigree, to the surprise of many observers, and Ivan personally, he was successful in his bid to win that seat in the regional government at Stormont.
His main opponents were James O’Kane, a bar owner, who was backed on public platforms by Gerry Fitt MP, the then high-profile leader of the Republican Labour Party. Also in the field was the Nationalist Party veteran, Paddy Gormley. Ivan, Paddy O’Hanlon and John Hume soon after that election became the founders of the Social Democratic & Labour party [SDLP}. Ivan became the Minister of Community Relations in the ill-fated 1974 power-sharing Stormont executive, led by Brian Faulkner of the UUP and Gerry Fitt, SDLP.
After Oct. 5th 1968, and as a result of his high media profile on that momentous day, the family home became a target for stones, petrol bomb and firearm attacks. Almost immediately a boycott commenced whereby the transactions at the post office, which his parents had managed for 37 years, fell by upwards of 75%. Stress and alienation became unbearable. His immediate family fully backed Ivan’s stand for social justice. In addition, individuals close to the family were high-ranking RUC police officers, at local and provincial levels.
As a result of such factors the entire family abandoned their home and business in Killaloo and moved into Crawford Square, on the edge of the Bogside. Even there intimidation continued for a period, the most serious incident being the bombing of the family car, by loyalist paramilitaries, under the cover of darkness. Their apparent message was, “We know where you are!”
Ivan was a key organiser of a mass civil rights demonstration against internment without charge or trial, August 9th 1971. On January 30th, amid a carnival-like atmosphere, the demo set out. It aimed to alert the public, the Irish and British governments and our Diaspora of what is now globally accepted as the systematic torture of 12 ‘Hooded Men’ and general psychological and physical abuse of countless detainees.
Twelve peaceful civil rights’ demonstrators were killed by the 1st Parachute Regiment of the British Army, around 17 wounded, and another, Johnny Johnson, later died as a result of his wounds. That day became known as “Bloody Sunday”, which became also the title of a film wherein the Irish actor, James Nesbitt, took on the role of Ivan Cooper. The film focused on the reasons and planning of the demo, the unwarranted shootings and the aftermath of those tragic and unforgettable events which have been aptly described as “the day we lost our innocence”. Put more simply, it regrettably heralded the terminal decline of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement. Ushered in was its exact opposite, decades of violent deaths and injuries, frequent sectarian street conflicts and what many consider be the largest mass-exodus of families and communities since WWII.
Footnote: After Archdeacon of Derry Robert Miller delivered the eulogy at St. Peter’s Church in Culmore the cortege drove to Free Derry Corner as part of Ivan’s final trip around the Bogside. Since leaving the family home the coffin remained draped in the “Oak-Leaf” civil rights flag. Observing Ivan’s signed request Mr. Ó Dochartaigh delivered the graveside oration at Altnagelvin Cemetery. On display was a banner depicting a Bogside Artists’ mural. The well-attended ceremonies concluded with an impromptu singing of “We Shall Overcome.”