Glen Barr: Man who led Ulster to a standstill but later devoted himself to peace

The man who led Northern Ireland to a standstill to block power-sharing but later devoted his life to reconciliation has died at the age of 75.

Tuesday, 24th October 2017, 7:56 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 11:06 am
Sinn Feins Elisha McCallion shakes hands with Glen Barr before the annual commemoration service of the Battle of Messines at Londonderry Cenotaph in 2015. Also pictured is Sinn Feins former Assembly speaker Mitchel McLaughlin

Leading UDA figure Glen Barr was chairman of the committee which led the 14-day Ulster Workers Strike in 1974 which saw loyalist politicians, the UDA and UVF and general workers paralyse Northern Ireland to bring down the Sunningdale power-sharing executive at Stormont.

During the strike Mr Barr said that it would have been perfectly possible to set up a provisional government.

Later that year he took a UDA deputation to Libya for talks with Col Muammar Gaddafi, which he said was focussed on financial aid for a potential independent Northern Ireland.

From left Tommy Lyttle, Glen Barr and John McMichael at a UDA press conference at Park Avenue hotel in Belfast in March 1979

He was also a senior member of the Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party in the mid-to-late 1970s, which included David Trimble.

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However, he left politics in 1981 and went on to set up a job creation scheme, was a driving force behind the Waterside Theatre in Londonderry and was CEO of the International School for Peace Studies in the city.

He was also a founder of the cross-community Messines Peace project, which took young people to visit war graves around Europe to demonstrate the futility of war.

From left Tommy Lyttle, Glen Barr and John McMichael at a UDA press conference at Park Avenue hotel in Belfast in March 1979

Mr Barr died about 9am on Monday at Altnagelvin Hospital in his native Londonderry after a short illness. He is survived by his wife Isa, children Jacqueline, Iain, Warren and Craig and grandchildren Ellie, Lily and Luke.

His active period in politics, up to 1981, saw the paramilitary group he was a leader of, the UDA, claim 269 lives.

However, there was unanimous praise for him from across the political spectrum yesterday.

East Londonderry DUP MP Gregory Campbell said: “Glen Barr, or ‘Glenny’ as he was affectionately known, was moving on from his political involvement as I moved into mine in the late 1970s.

“He worked hard at cross-community work helping to build capacity in working-class unionist areas. Glenn was a tireless campaigner and vigorous in defence of his own views.

“Less than three weeks ago, we shared many reminiscences at a family wedding, he will be very sadly missed by us all.”

Foyle MP Elisha McCallion of Sinn Fein also expressed condolences.

“While we may have disagreed politically, no one can doubt Glen Barr’s commitment to his community,” she said. “In recent years he had embarked on a journey toward reconciliation and his work around exploring the legacy of the First World War was particularly significant. There is role for all of us in the task of building a reconciled community in a reconciled Ireland.”

Londonderry MLA and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also expressed his sympathy.

“Obviously Glen’s early life began with a belief in violence which my party stood so strongly against, but it is right to acknowledge that he came to embrace and work for reconciliation and peace,” he said.

Mr Barr had friendships across party lines and across the island, he said, and his legacy was in renewing the modern memory of nationalists and unionists who died side by side in WWI.

“Glenn was one of those behind the events which brought together Irish presidents and the British monarchy in Messines to remember in dignity all of our dead,” he added.

Former UUP leader Lord Empey said that Mr Barr was “one of those who really made the transition from the past to the present”.

He added: “It was known that he had connections to loyalist paramilitaries, but he left that all behind and really embraced community grass roots politics.

“He was a stalwart advocate of better conditions for underachieving loyalist working-class communities and dedicated much of his life to seeking improvements for them.”

Lord John Taylor was an assembly member in 1974 who moved a UUP council motion opposing the Sunningdale power-sharing deal.

He described Mr Barr as “a great unionist and loyalist” who had “served Northern Ireland well at a fairly difficult time” and was latterly a great community worker in Londonderry.

His actions in leading the strike were “appropriate at the time” during a period when the two would have met “quite often” he said.

“If there had been no strike Northern Ireland would be in a very different place today,” the peer said. “I think we could have been sold out by London.”

The Londonderry Bands Forum said he “put himself at the forefront of the resistance that was required at that time” but that in later years he led “a different, more pragmatic and conciliatory approach”.

:: Mr Barr’s funeral leaves 55 Limavady Road Londonderry at 1.30 for Ebrington Presbyterian Church at 2pm on Friday followed by burial in Altnagelvin Cemetery.