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RIP: David Bleakley

Northern Ireland has said farewell to David Bleakley, a former parliamentary minister and leading Anglican layman. He was 92.

David Bleakley was a longstanding campaigner against extremism. His status as a community leader and respected Anglican lay preacher gave him an aura of moral authority, and he was involved in negotiations leading to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Born into a socialist, working-class family, he left school at 15, training to be an electrician at the Harland and Wolf shipyard in Belfast. He studied at night and in 1946 he began attending Ruskin College, Oxford, where he studied economics and political science.

At Oxford he struck up a friendship with C.S. Lewis, a fellow son of Strandtown in East Belfast. Lewis asked him once in a seminar, “Davy, what would heaven look like?” He smiled at the flummoxed Blakeley and added: “Why, it would look like the countryside of County Down, of course.”

Next Bleakley won a scholarship to Queen’s University, Belfast. He taught in university posts in Bradford and Tanzania and was head of economics and political studies at Methodist College, Belfast. For 12 years he was chief executive of the Irish Council of Churches.

In 1958 he was elected as a Labour member of Northern Ireland’s Parliament. The Ulster Unionist majority was huge, and he clashed with Premier Terence O’Neill, but he served with distinction on the Public Accounts Committee. His hold on power was slim, and he lost his seat by a handful of votes in 1965.

Bleakley nevertheless continued to do important work in Belfast and London. Labour ministers Merlyn Rees and James Callaghan often sought his counsel. In Belfast, Premier Brian Faulkner used a loophole to appoint Bleakley as the only non-Unionist member of his cabinet and as a Northern Ireland privy council member. But Bleakley failed to secure a seat in the Senate, the arrangement was short-lived, and he resigned.

After Northern Ireland’s Parliament was abolished, Bleakley was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its successor, the Northern Ireland Constitutional Convention. He forged an important center-ground link with Gerry Fitt, leader of the [Catholic] Social Democratic and Labour Party. He led the Northern Ireland Standing Committee on Human Rights, and when he stood down in 1984 he was awarded a CBE.

Bleakley’s involvement with worldwide Anglicanism began in 1971, when he represented Ireland at the inaugural Anglican Consultative Council in Nairobi. During a groundbreaking debate about the ordination of women, Bleakley declared: “Instead of bouncing around on the head of a pin, the Anglican Church must move into the 20th century and accept women as equals.”

For 14 years he was president of the Church Missionary Society. His books include Peace in Ulster (1972); Faulkner: A Biography (1974); Europe: A Christian Vision (1992); Peace in Ireland: Two States, One People (1995); and C.S. Lewis: At Home in Ireland (1998).

John Martin


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