By Joe Leary
Special to the BIR
Beneath all the tragic headlines emanating from Northern Ireland over these past 50 years lies a largely untold story of people on both sides that did their best to bring people together.
Though many resisted change, there were those who knew it was necessary and did what they could to make it a fair, just, and inclusive process, frequently at peril to their own lives and careers.
Foremost among them was Sir George Quigley, who, sadly, died last month at 83 to the great regret of all who knew him.
Sir George, a Presbyterian Unionist, was an active member of the Irish American Partnership Board of Directors. He was a unique and kindly man, a true gentleman in every respect, a magnificent example of the best of Northern Ireland.
An outpouring of condolences from all sides of the political spectrum acknowledged the huge contributions that Sir George made to the well being of Northern Ireland and its people. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, SDLP’s Mark Durkan, DUP leader Peter Robinson, and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt all expressed regret at Sir George’s passing while also noting the trust they had in his opinions and judgments. Very few in leadership have gained such respect from all political viewpoints.
In 1991, Sir George and business leader Liam Connellan of the Republic advanced the idea of a Belfast-Dublin Economic Corridor that would benefit both cities and the millions of people who lived along the way. A formal study was published detailing routes and advantages and showing what could be accomplished. It took significant courage to suggest such a linking that early in the peace process.
Today, that corridor exists in what may be the most impactful development in Ireland over these past 20 years. New businesses and new roads are now in effect, and there are no outposts, all of which seemed impossible at the time. Automobile travel time was reduced from four-and-a-half hours to two hours. A rural countryside has been transformed by the high-performance highways.
Sir George was an unwavering supporter of an all-Ireland economy as a true benefit to all of the people on the island. He had been chairman of the board of the Ulster Bank when it was independent and had 50 percent of its business in the North and 50 percent in the South. He knew what he was talking about.
He was a steadfast supporter of a competitive corporate tax system that would even the tax rates in both the North and South. So far, that has not happened, but Sir George was way ahead of most public figures in advocating such a change.
He was the go-to guy for some of Northern Ireland’s toughest problems. The government asked him to study and come up with recommendations for new ideas for the vexing Parades Commission that authorizes and manages Northern Ireland’s multiple parades that cause much violence. It was a thankless job that few would have accepted. His recommendations were shelved, but his discussions with all sides shed light on the problems.
Another indication of his courage and love of his Northern Ireland: When one of the Protestant para-military groups, the UDA, decided to decommission its store of weapons, Sir George was called upon to verify that the move was real. That was only three years ago. That he was given access to the process was a tribute to his standing in all communities. Sir George’s word would be trusted by everyone.
I could go on and on about his value to the improving society in the North, but I must say the my friendship with Sir George was one of the most treasured aspects of my job at the Partnership. He was always available for advice on difficult problems. Last year he hosted a presentation for several schools in Belfast and awarded Partnership grants to those attending.
This past August Sir George joined our Leadership Mission in Belfast for an evening. He was his usuyal jovial self, enjoying everyone. We will miss him greatly. And so will Northern Ireland.