A lot will be written over the coming days and weeks about Eddie McGrady whose death yesterday has brought to an end a definitive chapter in the history of Downpatrick from where he plied his trade as a politician for almost half a century.
No man is more deserving of the tributes and accolades that will rightly pay homage to the work, the dedication, and the impact EK made. Although he never aspired to be one, he nonetheless became a community champion at a time when one was badly needed. No beacon shone brighter nor attracted more following than the one lit by the life and works of Eddie McGrady.
For a time I was privileged to be part of the McGrady energy bubble. As the Editor of the local newspaper I was with him on a crazy journey he embarked on the Eighties, beginning with his invitation to help form an Enterprise Agency for the district. Now known as Down Business Centre, it was just one of Eddie’s many accomplishments.
We had no sooner got that off the ground- with help from people like Jim Curran, Dermot MacNabb and Eddie Rea – than he switched his attention to the other side of the Atlantic! He wanted to attract jobs into Down and believed the best chance lay in convincing our American cousins to invest in our future, even as the “Troubles” rumbled around us.
He and I went on a trip to Boston to take a look at the Derry-Boston Venture that had been set up some years earlier by John Hume. We learned what we could before returning home to create the Down-Chicago Link. That was when Eddie came into his own. He badgered politicians, on both sides of the border, to provide funds for the initiative, and within a year we were back in the States, this time in Chicago, and this time with a large group of influencers who were cajoled by Eddie into making the trip to help “sell” Down to the movers and shakers of the business world.
I was amazed by Eddie’s stamina. He toured radio and TV stations and hosted journalists from Chicago’s top dailies in an effort to get his message across. They threw all sorts of awkward questions at him, but he fended them off with consummate ease. No amount of big-budget PR and marketing could have achieved what Eddie McGrady did in just 7 days.
I remember one interviewer asking Eddie why Chicago-based companies would consider setting up in a country with an horrendous death toll from the conflict that raged around us. Eddie looked the man in the eye and asked if he was aware that more violent deaths were recorded in one month in Chicago than in the whole of the worst year of the Northern Ireland strife! It was not a trivialisation, for no no-one hated the violence nor worked more tirelessly to end it than did Eddie McGrady.
Back home he launched into a campaign to regenerate Downpatrick. Having convinced the powers-that-be to sink money into refreshing the area, Eddie once again asked me to help put forward the case for a flagship community project at the Flying Horse/Model Farm area of the town. We worked on it for many months, persuaded a number of people to join a fledgling Board of Directors, and from that the Ballymote Centre was born.
At the same time he also twisted my arm to join another Board, this time to buy up and refurbish unsightly property in the town centre. Once again it succeeded, and from it grew the Downpatrick Property Trust.
In both cases, Eddie stepped back into the shadows once the work was completed. I’m pretty sure that to this day few people are aware of just who was the leading man in those particular projects.
His biggest success was becoming an MP for South Down in 1987, and once again he took me along for the ride. When the result finally came in at a small schoolroom in Dromore, he sought me out among the press gathering and offered me a grandstand position on his open-top lorry celebration through the streets of Downpatrick. Because of the press clamour for spaces he could offer only one spot!
Two days later he granted his first interview as an MP to me and colleague Chris Hagan. I remember we spent several hours chatting in his back garden on a beautiful Sunday morning while his greatest supporter, his late wife Patricia, carried tea and biscuits and fended off dozens of phone calls from other members of an exasperated media corps.
It will always be a fond memory that Eddie subsequently asked me to help write his maiden speech for Parliament. I produced a first draft of about six A4 typed pages, only for Eddie to tell me he needed another dozen or so pages! It was the convention that new MPs were afforded significant leeway in presenting their maiden speech, all of which would be written into the official Hansard parliamentary records. Eddie was determined not to miss the opportunity. He drew up a list of all the things he had stored up over many years, determined to draw attention to the lack of investment in Downpatrick and its surrounding areas. His demands were many:
- A new hospital for Downpatrick;
- A new town bypass road;
- More Civil Servant jobs for the area;
- New footpaths and street lighting;
- More investment in local schools;
- New leisure facilities throughout the constituency;
- The closure of Sellafield nuclear plant in Northumbria…..
The list went on and on. It was one he constantly returned to for the rest of his political career.
It was one of the biggest assignments I had ever undertaken. It’s little wonder that I turned to the less stressful job of novel-writing in later years!
During all those times in the company of Eddie McGrady one thing was unchangeable. Eddie was a thoroughly honest, down-to-earth individual who always respected the other person’s views. He craved peace and stability in the lives of his fellow citizens and, despite great personal danger at times, he was always willing to stand with those who believed as he did. You could not come across a more thoroughly decent individual than Eddie McGrady.
It was a privilege to share part of his journey.