Friday, 18 April 2014

David McClarty: Mr Coleraine

It was with immense sadness that, this morning, I learnt of the death of my friend David McClarty.

David had been fighting lymphoma for some time but, as recently as February when I last saw him and his family at a coffee morning for Wee Oliver, the outlook looked relatively positive.  That was what made today's news all the more more distressing.

David was a true man of Coleraine.  He was first elected to the local council 25 years ago and, following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, became an Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.    

I was working for the Ulster Unionist Party in Westminster at the time and, as a result, he and I got to work together on several occasions.  One of a number of particular highlights was when he, his wonderful wife Norma and I had tea together in the House of Lords.  Another was during the 2001 General Election campaign when I travelled up to Coleraine in a police car with the then Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble for a walkabout in the town centre.  As I climbed out, David was there to greet me with an outstretched hand, a wink and a knowing grin.  We Coleraine folk never get above ourselves.

But David had very good reason to feel proud of his achievements.  He rose to become Ulster Unionist Chief Whip in the Assembly before, in 2007, being elected Deputy Speaker - a position he held for four years. But then, for reasons I'll not go into and through no fault of his, he was not reselected by his local Ulster Unionist Association to defend his seat at the 2011 Assembly elections.  After several weeks of soul searching, he bravely chose to stand as an independent candidate and romped home with support from all shades of political opinion.  And through it all, he kept his dignity; not just because he was a thoroughly good and decent man, but also out of respect for the people who backed him in a time of genuine adversity.

Outside elected politics, David's interests were wide and varied and almost always community-related.  A governor at DH Christie Memorial Primary School and Coleraine Inst, he was an active member of Killowen Parish Church - singing in the choir since the age of 10 - and also a regular (and talented) performer in local amateur dramatic productions.

And he loved his football.  For many years he was the announcer at Coleraine FC  matches and remained a committed follower of the club.  In fact, I vividly remember he and I slipping away from a particularly boring Ulster Unionist annual conference in Londonderry in the early 2000s to watch the mighty Bannsiders play at nearby Institute. We then caught the ferry across for a quick celebratory pint in Donegal before heading home. (More negatively, he was a hardcore Manchester United supporter but we won't talk about that).  

When he came over to shake my hand before leaving the coffee morning a few weeks ago, David patted me on the back and said that I never forget my Coleraine roots.  This was a particularly humbling comment coming from him of all people and, given today's news, it is a compliment I shall forever hold dear.

My deepest condolences go to Norma, and to David's sons Alan and Colin, who remain as proud of him as he was of them.