Growing up in Lisburn, I was aware from an early age that Jim Molyneaux was a certainty to top the General Election poll. Pouring over the constituency results published in the then black and white Belfast Telegraph, the interesting number to find was the race to be runner up: how well had Alliance candidate Seamus Close polled this time.
He was first elected to Lisburn Borough Council back in 1973, becoming the first non-unionist mayor in 1993. For many years, the DUP didn’t run a candidate in the UUP stronghold and Close would get 12-13% of the Westminster votes. When Edwin Poots entered the Lagan Valley race for the House of Commons in 1997 and 2001, Close’s number of votes and share of the vote rose further, hitting 7,635 (17.2%) at its peak.
He contested the party leadership in 1986, and served as deputy leader of Alliance from 1991-2001, quitting when leader Seán Neeson supported Alliance standing aside in favour of other pro-Agreement candidates in some Westminster constituencies.
Well known and well respected around the town, Close developed a strong personal vote and topped the poll in the 1998 Assembly election – the party’s only candidate – elected on the first count and stayed in the Assembly until March 2007 when Trevor Lunn replaced him on the ballot.
At times, Close’s personal views diverged from the direction of travel of his liberal party. His 2005 proposal that Lisburn Council deny gay couples access to the council’s designated wedding room for registration ceremonies – saying that civil partnerships should not be afforded “the same recognition” – was adopted by the unionist-dominated council and criticised by some party colleagues.
This kind of straight talking continued when he retired from politics and Close became a regular commentator on programmes like Talkback and Inside Politics, with an acerbic analysis of the week’s progress (or regress), never one to turn a blind eye to the actions and policies of his former party.
Last week’s election results in the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council, with Alliance topping the poll in all seven DEAs, very much stand on three decades of Seamus Close’s work in the area.
Party leader Naomi Long commented this afternoon on her former colleague’s death:
“He was Deputy Leader when I joined the party and was one of the most encouraging voices in helping me do so. People didn’t always like the message Seamus was giving but respected the fact he was a straight talker and a fierce debater. He was an astute politician who was an advocate for ordinary people. He put in the hard yards in negotiations, including leading to the Good Friday Agreement, but never lost the energy he had for helping people and creating a shared future for Northern Ireland.
“Seamus was someone I had huge affection for and I am genuinely really sad to hear this news today. While his politics was important to him, his family were always the priority for Seamus, and my thoughts are with them today.”
Trevor Lunn added:
“Not only was Seamus a close friend in politics but he remained my best friend after his retirement. It is a sad day for everyone in the party but particularly the Lagan Valley Association, who knew him well.
“Alliance achieved a great result in the recent local government election and it is thanks to the dedicated work of Seamus and others, who carried the load locally in some difficult years, that we were able to do that. My thoughts and prayers go to Deirdre and the rest of his family circle.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.