Jim Fitzpatrick: lawyer, businessman, newspaper owner and devoted family man
The death of Mr Jim Fitzpatrick at the age of 92 marks the end of an era in the history of The Irish News in which he has been actively involved for more than half a century. He was in turn director, journalist, president and editor of this newspaper.
James J (Jim) Fitzpatrick was born in Belfast in 1929, the son of James F Fitzpatrick, a prominent lawyer from Co Down, and Ann Boylan, a schoolteacher from Ballybay in County Monaghan.
The Fitzpatrick family had roots in the nationalist heartland of East Down where they had owned The Buck’s Head public house near Loughinisland since the 18th century. A Fitzpatrick ancestor was the innkeeper there during the turbulent days of the 1798 rebellion when the unfortunate patriot Thomas Russell (“The Man of God Knows Where”) organized the United Irishmen in the district.
Mr. Fitzpatrick grew up in a happy middle-class home, both strictly Catholic and deeply rooted in the nationalist tradition of the North. There were eight children in all – Jim, Peter, Frank, Anne, Dympna, Mary, Vincent and James Sexton (a first cousin whose mother had died and who was brought up with the family).
Mr Fitzpatrick’s father, James F Fitzpatrick, had studied law in Dublin during the Revolutionary War and often told his son how he had been present at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday in November 1920 when the Black and Tans fired into the crowd, killing 12 people. He had also attended the treaty debates at Dáil Éireann which preceded the Irish Civil War in 1922.
The late president grew up in Belfast where his father had established a law firm. However, following the Belfast Blitz of 1941, her father moved the family to Loughinisland.
By the late 1930s, James Snr had become director of The Irish News, then controlled by the McSparran family of the Glens of Antrim.
The Irish News – traditionally the voice of the old Home Rule movement and constitutional nationalism – was then a highly successful newspaper under the modernizing influence of its new editor, Sidney Redwood.
It was during the war years that Jim and his brothers were sent to Limerick to be educated at St Clement’s College, a boarding school run by the Order of Redemptorists. Jim would spend much of his formative years in the south, first in Limerick where he felt called to the Redemptorist priesthood and later in Galway where he obtained his baccalaureate in the early 1950s.
At age 22, Jim decided the priesthood was not for him. Back up north, he qualified as a barrister and began practicing civil law in the family business in College Square North.
It was then that he met Alice Murphy, a pretty young teacher from Anahorish, Co Derry. They married in 1957 and had eight children.
While a busy barrister in the 1960s, the late Mr Fitzpatrick was keenly aware of the changes and challenges in Northern Irish society where the 38% Catholic minority benefited from the welfare reforms of post-war period, but was still excluded from jobs and housing by the Unionists. regime.
His father had played a leading role in the post-war Anti-Partition League. However, Jim’s experience of political change in both parts of Ireland drew him into the feverish debate within Nordic nationalism in the sixties.
He became aware of the refreshing views of a dynamic young teacher from Derry called John Hume and shared his vision that nationalists should abandon the sterile abstentionism of Stormont and play a constructive role in seeking political and social reform.
The outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 coincided with the appointment of Mr Fitzpatrick as director of The Irish News.
The bloodshed of August 1969 shocked him. Walking up the devastated Falls Road from his office on August 14, he witnessed firsthand the burning homes and the plight of the local population following the invasion of sectarian mobs, backed by the police force state part-time, the B Specials. .
Jim immediately contacted a business colleague who sent a fleet of trucks to help transport the stricken families and their belongings to safety.
In the troubled 1970s, when violence and unemployment blighted the lives of many young men in West Belfast, Mr Fitzpatrick became involved in several pioneering businesses in the area with the aim of providing leisure opportunities and employment for local young men.
Together with a priest from St Peter’s parish, Father Sean McCartney, and Gerry Nugent, a community activist, he helped set up the Rapid Youth Club in a disused factory.
At the same time, Jim started an industrial business in Beechmount, producing cinder blocks for the construction industry and providing a start for local youth. This was the beginning of his interest in the regeneration of marginalized communities in the city.
The escalating violence also drew his attention to the role of the only nationalist newspaper in the north. The Irish News was then selling some 70,000 copies, reflecting a widespread thirst for information.
Although a minority on the board, he was keen to transform the paper into a modern and attractive daily, reflecting the needs and aspirations of the nationalist population at a time when political hope was rapidly fading.
In particular, informed by his strong Catholic faith and his daily contact with people from all political backgrounds, Mr. Fitzpatrick believed that there was no place for violence, whether perpetrated by paramilitaries or by the state.
As confinement was followed by Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday, Jim engaged in discussions with the McSparran family (who then controlled the newspaper) about the need for The Irish News to articulate a clear message on behalf of the so-called Catholic minority.
To that end, he took an evening course in journalism, learned shorthand, and began writing articles and conducting interviews for the newspaper.
A former Irish News journalist recalls his first sight of Jim arriving at the newspaper’s office in the early 1970s, “an extremely smart looking man in a double-breasted suit”, very courteous and eager to learn how the various departments operated.
In 1972, after the fall of Stormont, Jim interviewed Belfast IRA leader Seamus Twomey about the truce the IRA had just declared. The IRA leader was visibly shocked when Mr Fitzpatrick asked him how his Catholic faith influenced his involvement in the IRA campaign.
He would later interview Tommy Lyttle of the UDA, berating the loyalist leader for the UDA’s murder of the young schoolboy son of a close friend.
In May 1981, The Irish News was rocked by the tragic deaths in a road accident of its chairman, Dr Daniel (‘Dinty’) McSparran, and his beloved sister, Mary. This tragedy cast doubt on the future of the newspaper.
A temporary arrangement with the other members of the McSparran family allowed Mr Fitzpatrick, now 52, to become the newspaper’s editor.
These were uncertain and traumatic days for everyone involved, including the 150 employees. Mr. Fitzpatrick outlined his vision for a modern, reinvigorated newspaper in tune with the hopes and aspirations of the nationalist community, then recovering from the trauma of the hunger strike.
If a shareholder was not satisfied with his plans, he offered to buy his shares.
It was to usher in an exciting new chapter for The Irish News. Mr Fitzpatrick, who had recently built the Fountain Centre, showed himself to be a transformative figure who had a clear vision for the newspaper.
As one confidant of that time put it, “Jim believed that the nationalist population of Northern Ireland deserved the best possible representation in terms of the articulation of their voices”.
The new president often said to his friends: “This is not a business. We are the heirs of an institution.”
Over the next few years Jim Fitzpatrick “invested everything he had” in The Irish News.
It was the first local paper to opt for the “straight-in” process, finally abandoning the revered old “hot metal” process with its army of songwriters. Wages and conditions have been improved for staff.
Mr. Fitzpatrick was also keen to attract top-notch journalists and executives. The opinion pages featured a host of new columnists who challenged traditional perceptions of politics, economics, and social affairs. Under his tutelage, The Irish News became a voice, not an echo.
Jim had the diplomatic skills of a born “influencer” and used the newspaper’s editorial columns in the 1980s and 1990s to promote the need for a more radical approach to the Irish question that would respect the rights of both traditions.
In the dark and violent early 1980s, he supported John Hume and the Irish government to facilitate the achievement of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. He was convinced – and he was right – that would eventually provide the means for a inclusive, democratic and peaceful future based on consent and respect for both trade unionist and nationalist aspirations.
One of the late Mr Fitzpatrick’s first decisions on becoming chairman of The Irish News was to set guidelines for the wording of IRA obituaries. However, by transforming the paper, he wanted to preserve the values and traditions of the founders.
In a rare interview published in the newspaper in 1995, he insisted on the importance of a return to the newspaper’s “Christian identity” and, after some soul-searching, he decided to keep his traditional motto, “pro fide et patria” (for faith and country).
Until recent weeks, Jim Fitzpatrick was a regular at The Irish News desk or daily mass in nearby St Patrick’s Church.
Reflecting on his involvement with the paper, he said he has no regrets about his decisions: “Looking back… what has been gratifying is the development of the paper and the general recognition that it is a a quality publication.
He also added his wish that “Irish News readers would feel part of the newspaper – that it was their newspaper rather than ours”.
His death marks the passing of a remarkable person: a lawyer, businessman, family man, editor and owner with vision, determination and humanity as well as a deep Christian faith.
Jim was predeceased by his beloved wife Alice in 2013. He will be sadly missed by his family, friends and the newspaper staff who bear his indelible mark.
Ar dheis De go raibh a anam dilis agus croga.