Seamus Close: ‘His greatest attribute was his ability to bring people together’ says Alex Kane

News Letter columnist and political commentator Alex Kane gave the eulogy at the funeral of former Alliance deputy leader Seamus Close in Lisburn on Thursday. Here is his farewell to his friend...

Saturday, 11th May 2019, 8:41 am
Former deputy leader of the Alliance Party, Seamus Close, passed away earlier this week after a short illness. Mr Close, 71, served as a Lagan Valley MLA from 1998 until 2007. He held several positions in Alliance, including serving as chair between 1981 and 1982 and as deputy leader from 1991 until 2001. He was often a key member of Alliance delegations in talks processes. Archive pic: Pacemaker

Seamus and I came late to friendship. Like all of the best friendships it came about accidentally. And like all of the best friendships we didn’t need to see each other all that often; or call, text, tweet or Facebook every day. We just picked up from the exact point we left off the last time we had talked.

We had bumped into each other over the years. Seen each other at press conferences and events. Passed each other in corridors at Stormont. Always civil. Always a smile of recognition or nod of the head. But never more than that. I used to think he didn’t like me!

Then early one morning - around late autumn in 1999 - I was sitting in the Assembly tearoom having a scone and reading the newspapers. It was one of my favourite times of the day. Too early for most people to be in, so perfect for gathering my thoughts. Then, on that particular morning, Seamus walked in.

Seamus Close became the first non-unionist Mayor of Lisburn in 1993. Archive pic: Pacemaker

He came through the far door, clearly expecting to see someone. He walked past me - the usual nod of the head as he went - and went out through the door closest to me. About five seconds later, his head and shoulders appeared again at the doorway. He was still looking all round him.

Then he walked over to me. His hand was in his inside pocket and he fished out a piece of newspaper. “Look, while there’s nobody here, I just wanted to tell you that this article - he threw the piece of newspaper down on top of my top-heavy-with-jam scone - is complete rubbish. Utter tripe.”

I lifted it and had a look. “How can you write rubbish like that?” How can you believe stuff like that?” I continued looking at the article: then looked up at him. I passed it back to him, my forefinger over the by-line. “I didn’t write it. And I don’t believe it.”

He looked at it for a few seconds. “Ok, it’s not you, but it’s still rubbish. Hold on, I’ll find the rubbish you wrote.” He then went through a perfect Marcel Marceau mime act: patting himself down, opening his case, lifting out a file, riffling through the documents. Stopping briefly, then patting himself down again. Then he stopped. Looked at me. Grinned in a wonderfully sheepish way: “Actually it’s not you I was thinking of at all. It was rubbish. But it wasn’t your rubbish.”

Alex Kane

He stood rather awkwardly for a moment. I did nothing to ease his obvious embarrassment. Examining the jam on the newspaper cutting he half-muttered: “I suppose I ought to buy you another scone.”

And that was the beginning of our friendship. He got me the scone and tea for himself and sat down with me. And we just talked for the next 45 minutes. And, as some of you will know, the best conversations are the unexpected ones. I soon discovered how feisty and funny he could be. He took no prisoners and spared no blushes.

He told me how he had got involved with Alliance shortly after it was formed. A friend had taken him to a meeting in a hotel in Lisburn, in 1971, I think he said, and, liking what he had heard about a new way of doing politics, he joined. He went back and told his parents. They were, he said, ‘very surprised.’ “As all right thinking parents should be when told that their children have joined Alliance,” I replied.

I then told him about how I had joined the Ulster Unionist Party a year or so later. I joined because I supported Brian Faulkner and power-sharing; believing that there would be no stability and certainty until everybody accepted that the state was for them rather than others.

Seamus sat back in his chair and looked at me: “And here we are Alex, all these years later: two guys about the same age (a gross slur, by the way, I’m eight years younger), from different backgrounds and different perspectives, in the same place at the same time and agreed that Northern Ireland can be better than it was. It’s up to us mate.”

At that point he had to go to a meeting. As he was leaving, he said: “You’re not as bad as some of my colleagues think you are. But obviously, I’m not going to tell them that.” I finished my tea and new scone and got up to leave. At that point the lady behind the counter told me: “Mr Close didn’t pay for the scone or his tea.” I knew at that moment that this was a friendship which was going to last.

Within two years of joining Alliance, Seamus was a candidate for the party in the 1973 elections - the first for the new council structure in NI. He won: as he went on to win every other council election between then and 2005: nine in a row. I think I’m right in saying he had the longest and most successful track record in Alliance’s history.

Indeed, one of the most successful track records in any party here. One of his proudest moments, he said, was when he became the first non-unionist mayor of Lisburn - and used the position to not only build bridges, but to get friends and colleagues to cross them with him. So no real surprise that he was made a Freeman of Lisburn in 2010.

It’s worth remembering that having a political public life for most of the 1970s and 80s was a decision that required enormous physical and psychological courage. The ‘70s in particular saw some of the darkest, bloodiest days of the Troubles and many councillors homes had to be protected by bullet-proofed doors and windows. They also had to look under their cars, avoid regular routines and routes and recognise that a threat could come from anywhere at any time. As one council veteran told me a few years ago: “Back in those days, Alex, you couldn’t always be sure you’d be alive at the end of the day.”

Seamus took all of that in his stride. He didn’t have to do it. He chose to do it. And chose to do it because he believed that offering choice to the electorate in a divided society was the only way in which chasms would be bridged and divisions would be healed. I remember him telling me that he always knew it would be a long haul: “I could have had an easier life, I suppose, but how would that have made life better for everyone else and for my children?”

And his children, Natasha, Christopher, Brian and Stephen, and Deirdre, his wife were always his bedrock and priority. In our final conversation - a couple of weeks ago - he told me how he had met Deirdre. He was bored after a council meeting and decided to go to a nearby hotel - the Deerpark, I think - for a wind-down drink. There was a dance on and, as he so eloquently put it: “I was just standing there, eyeing up the talent.” Deirdre was there with her sisters and the rest is history.

He also gave me a tip - albeit 40 years too late to be of any practical use. “Always make sure when you’re dancing that you’re still in the middle of a conversation when the music ends. That means if you’re interested in each other you have an excuse to either sit down together or keep on dancing.” That, I think, also summed up his approach to power-sharing politics: always keep talking when the music is finished.

In 1981 he accepted the hugely difficult challenge of being the Alliance candidate in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election following the death of Bobby Sands, who had won the seat in April 1981. He believed that it was right to offer a choice beyond unionism and republicanism at that particularly troubled time: a decision that caused anger, albeit for different reasons, within both camps.

But for a man with Seamus’s conviction and integrity there was no other decision he could take. I remember thinking at the time that he and Alliance shouldn’t be interfering in the election - because it was maybe robbing the unionist candidate of some crucially important votes. But looking back it was the right decision. Sometimes progress requires plumping yourself between two electoral blocs and saying: “Look, there is an alternative.” That sort of decision requires un-measurable depths of courage. His courage ran very deep indeed.

He was elected to the new NI Assembly in 1982 for the South Antrim constituency. The count, involving 26 candidates, established a record - which may still stand - for taking more than 30 hours to complete. But while the Assembly didn’t really do very much - it was boycotted by both the SDLP and Sinn Fein - it did provide Seamus with a broader platform. And he used it well, building a profile as a media performer and winning over admirers across the political spectrum.

But he really came into his own when the mid-1990s peace process found its legs and began to run rather than crawl. He was one of Alliance’s negotiating team for the Good Friday Agreement and went on to win a seat in the Assembly in 1998 and again in 2003.

One thing Seamus and I returned to time after time in our talks was our joint fear that the hopes and opportunities of 1998 were being undermined by what looked like a return to old divisions and new polarisation. He wasn’t a man for subtlety - as most of you will know. Naomi Long put it well yesterday: “He was a straight talker. People didn’t always like the message he brought but he gave it to them with both barrels.”

I think it was those qualities - which I share - which encouraged the BBC to put us on together so often when he stepped away from politics and became a commentator. After one pre-record the producer told us: “It’s just like eavesdropping on two old friends chatting over a pint in a pub.” And that’s exactly what it felt like. Although, like the tea and scone, he probably still wouldn’t have paid for my drink when it was over!

The last time we talked he was weak and tired. He was propped up in bed. He took my hand in both of his: “Well, it’s come to this mate.” We were silent for a few minutes: just looking at each other and with tears in our eyes. It was at that moment that I fully realised just how much he meant to me: how much I valued his insight. How often we had laughed down the years.

We talked for about an hour, mostly about Deirdre and his children: “They knew what I had to do and why I had to do it. She was always there for me. When I shut the door after a long day I knew I was at home with the person who had stood by me during the good and the bad. I couldn’t have asked for more. I wouldn’t have wanted more. I’ve been blessed.”

He then surprised me by asking if I’d say a few words when the time came. Of course, I said yes. In all our times on panels and commentary he’d made it a matter of principle to never allow me to have the last word. But then came the caveat: “With the place full of politicians, particularly Alliance ones, I know you’ll be tempted to be rude and swear. Try and resist.” That was so typical of Seamus. Even on his deathbed he was throwing down a challenge he knew I’d struggle to resist.

In the last few minutes he asked me if I’d known Lyra McKee. When I said yes and that I’d worked with her a couple of times he said: “Why did I have to wait until she was killed before I learned about her talent and how much good she could have done for this place in the future. We can’t go back to those days, Alex. We can’t allow anyone or any group to stop us finishing the journey to a better place for everyone.”

Political careers are best judged by comparing the start with the finish. Seamus never required a blinding revelation, a Rubicon to cross, a redemption, or a road to Damascus conversion. He was still on the same road he had been on in 1971 when he joined Alliance.

It was often a lonely road. A less travelled road for far too long. But for Seamus it was always the right road and the only road. He got involved in politics because he wanted to make Northern Ireland a better place for everyone. He never veered from that goal or lost direction.

The road to the peace we have now was paved by people like Seamus. They were there through the darkest days. There when there was little personal gain to be had from a political career. There when, in his case, the Alliance Party was struggling along at just a few percent in the polls. There when others didn’t want to put their head above the parapet or take a stand. There when Northern Ireland needed voices of reason and commonsense. There to say that there were alternatives to the madness all around us.

He was never the only one. But he was a template we can still learn from today.

As I say, our friendship came late in the day, but it was worth waiting for. It was always a pleasure to be in his company. It was a privilege to be his friend: and a great, unexpected and particular honour to be invited to speak about my friend today.

His greatest attribute, somebody told me yesterday, was his ability to bring different people together, often outside their comfort zone.

He did it to me today.

He got an atheist into a church to take part in a service.

He got a lifelong unionist to pay tribute, in public, to a pillar of the Alliance Party.

I like to think he’s looking down right now, laughing, nudging someone in the ribs and saying, “Look at him down there. I did get the final word!”

And do you know something? I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.