Connolly Association mourns the death of a friend and comrade

by David Granville

FRIENDS AND former comrades of Bobbie Heatley in Britain and Ireland today paid tribute to the prominent Irish civil rights activist and socialist republican who died in Belfast on Monday afternoon, aged 69, following a short illness. For the past seven years Heatley had been the Northern Ireland correspondent of the Connolly Association's newspaper the Irish Democrat. He also wrote extensively on the northern Ireland peace process for publications in Sweden, Australia and America.

Bobbie Heatley

Born in staunchly loyalist east Belfast of Protestant background, Bobbie recalled being taken as a young boy by an uncle to have his photograph taken wearing an Orange Order sash. However, he was to take a very different political path to unionism and loyalism.

Introduced to politics as a member of the Young Workers' League in Belfast, he was responsible for organising youth contingents from Ireland to Warsaw and Moscow under the auspices of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. Originally working as a carpenter, he emigrated to London in the early 1960 where he joined the Hampstead Young Communist League, the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Connolly Association.

On returning to Belfast some years later he became involved in the northern Ireland civil rights struggle, joined NICRA's Belfast executive and served as the organisation's public relations office - a position he held at the time of the 1972 Bloody Sunday civil rights march and massacre in 1972.

Having already provided oral testimony, surviving members of NICRA's executive had been meeting regularly over the last few years and had only recently completed their written submission to the Saville enquiry into the Bloody Sunday events.

As a republican and a socialist from a working-class Protestant area of Belfast, where hostility to the 'fur-coat' unionism runs deep, Heatley made an important contribution to debates about the civil rights strategy by bringing his insights and experience into the discussions of those from a very different background, not least of all, nationalists and republicans in west Belfast.

Along with Belfast solicitor Kevin McCorry and others he was also a founder member in the late 1980s of the Campaign for Democracy, a small but influential civil rights group based in Belfast.

Although he contributed many articles to the Irish Democrat over the years, it wasn't until 1996 that he agreed to become the paper's 'official' six-county correspondent of the Irish Democrat after the then editor, David Granville, suggested that the paper would benefit from having regular contributions from a Belfast-based source possessing his acute political and analytical qualities.

Desmond Greaves summer school committee member Tony Coughlan, who originally met him during his years in the Connolly Association, described the Belfastman as "a profound and insightful political thinker".

"He stood out as a fine example of the progressive republican tradition that was born among Ireland's radical Protestant population," said Connolly Association general secretary Jim Redmond. "His death is an enormous loss to his friends and comrades who will sorely miss his warm friendship, his sharp political analysis and his equally acerbic wit."

Friend and fellow NICRA and Campaign for Democracy activist Kevin McCorry said that personal and political memories merged into one other when recalling Bobbie's life.

"He had a sharp and incisive political brain that was grounded in clear class and democratic politics. But he was no mere armchair guru. I remember him facing down British army and RUC harassment on many occasions during the height of the campaign against internment.

"I also remember the dry and quirky wit that burst the pomposity of many an army officer and could hold company in thrall as he recounted stories of his east Belfast youth and especially of his prowess on the soccer pitch."

We extend our deepest sympathies to Bobbie's partner Hilja and to all his family.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-08-06 05:44:38.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
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