Mr Francie Brolly

Assembly Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 pm on 10th February 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:00 pm, 10th February 2020

Members will have been saddened to learn of the passing of Francie Brolly, a former Assembly Member for the constituency of East Londonderry. I commence our business today by recording the passing of our former colleague Francie Brolly.

Is mór an onóir domh inniu ómós a thabhairt dár gcara Francie Brolly. Gabhaim comhbhrón ó chroí le clann Francie ar a bhás an tseachtain seo caite. It is my honour to pay tribute to Francie, who passed away just last week. Francie was a Member of the Assembly for over six years, being first elected in 2003. Like others, he came to the Chamber after another career in public service, as a teacher in Dungiven. While I pay tribute to him today from the Chair, I had the pleasure of serving on the Benches alongside Francie as a friend and a colleague. I am, therefore, I believe, well placed to say that Francie may have been too much of a free spirit for the formality of the Chamber.

I first met Francie in the confines of Long Kesh in 1972. He was a passionate advocate of rights and a great advocate of his language, which he loved. He loved his Irish traditional music, and he was a poet and songwriter. He loved his sport, particularly the GAA, so it is no surprise that, when he was a Member of the Assembly, he was an ardent member of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure. It is for those interests that many knew him best, and they are reflected through his entire family circle. On behalf of the Assembly, I express our sympathy to his wife, a bhean chéile, Anne, his children Joe, Proinnsias, Conal, Áine, Nodlaig and his 13 grandchildren. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal.

Members, as we have done in the past on these occasions, I will call a representative of each of the parties to speak for up to three minutes to pay tribute to our late friend and colleague. I will allow around 30 minutes for tributes, and, if there is enough time remaining after all the parties have spoken, I may be able to call other Members who rise in their places to say a few words. The Assembly will now pay its own respects.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Francie Brolly was a huge figure in the political life of East Derry for many years, and he will be sorely missed by many people. He was a tireless campaigner for civil and human rights and a committed Irish republican. Francie's republicanism was innate — it was in his very being, in his DNA — and it came out in everything that he did.

Aware of the injustices in life in the North, Francie, like many others, sought to challenge the status quo.

When the civil rights campaign began, Francie got fully behind it as a republican and stood up to fight for rights, equality and democracy. His leadership, determination and commitment shone through, and he was a stalwart at marches and demonstrations at that time.

His republican activism and challenging of the injustices that he saw around him led to his internment in Long Kesh for a period in the early 1970s. In the dark days of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes, Francie was to the fore in supporting the campaigns of the prisoners, raising awareness of their demands.

As a teacher for many years, he is fondly remembered by the many hundreds of former pupils who recall his enthusiasm and passion. In recent days, many have paid tribute to him, showing that he will never, ever be forgotten.

A committed republican activist all his life, Francie stepped forward and entered the political fray as an elected representative for Sinn Féin. Elected to the Assembly in 2003, he served on the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, reflecting another great passion in his life. A fluent Gaeilgeoir, he was steadfast in his promotion of the Irish language, using it in the Chamber on many occasions.

He established a reputation in the Assembly for his commitment and dedication to his constituents and his native Dungiven, and for the respectful way in which he engaged with Members from other parties. Across the Assembly, Francie was admired and respected for his beliefs.

Aside from politics, Francie also made a huge contribution to the music and cultural world with the songs he recorded and performed alongside his beloved wife, Anne. He was well known across Ireland for his songs, in particular 'The H-block Song', which has become a classic the world over and will live on as a testament to his campaigning, activism and republicanism.

I send my condolences to his widow, Anne, his children Joe, Proinnsias, Conal, Áine and Nodlaig, the entire Brolly family, and everyone who knew Francie. My thoughts are with them at this very sad time. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP

I did not have the opportunity to be in the Assembly when Francie Brolly was an MLA. He left at the start of 2010 and I joined later that year, but I did get to know Francie in a different sphere. Francie Brolly, yes, was a committed republican, but he was a committed republican who held, most importantly to him, the words of the 1916 proclamation of independence:

"cherishing all the children of the nation equally".

I got to know Francie and his wife, Anne, through the pro-life movement. Certainly, his passing is a loss to the voice in the republican community advocating the rights of the unborn child. When I spoke to his wife since Francie's passing, Anne reassured me that she intends to continue his work on the issue, which was very important to them.

Francie was an unconventional MLA. In a different capacity, I worked with the then Culture Minister when Francie was on the Committee, and I can recall his saying to the Minister, "I have been handed a list of questions that the folks up in the office want me to ask, which is quite awkward. I do not really want to do that. What can I do to be helpful?" As you said, Mr Speaker, he was a free spirit. He was unconventional, and that certainly marked him out at that time when I was engaged with the then Culture Minister, Edwin Poots.

I offer my condolences to Anne Brolly — 51 years of marriage to Francie — to their five children and their 13 grandchildren.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

On behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, I extend our condolences to the Brolly family, to Anne, the children and the grandchildren. It is interesting to hear about the unconventional nature of Francie, whom I did not have the pleasure of getting to know and working with. On that note, we extend our condolences to the family.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have been here long enough to remember Francie during his years here. Let me begin by offering the sympathy of the SDLP, and my personal sympathy, to the Brolly family, and especially to his wife, their children and grandchildren. They were inseparable in life. Francie's death is difficult for many people. How much more difficult must it be for the Brolly family?

In the Assembly, I remember Francie as being a gentleman to everyone. I think that I am correct in saying that he did not enjoy the adversarial nature of this place. I know he was glad to return to his native Dungiven to continue the work that he loved: as already mentioned, the Irish language, music and local history, which the Sperrins are rich in. I also acknowledge his strong views on abortion.

While he may not have been the most enthusiastic patron of this place, he did make an important contribution to it. Perhaps that was to show respect for others with quite different political views. Francie also made good speeches. I encourage younger Members to look them up, because they were entertaining and informative and helped us better understand where Francie stood in relation to party politics as we understand it. He was well above the cut and thrust and point-scoring that, in the past, went on far too often. One speech, if I may mention it, Mr Speaker, was on the future of the Post Office. The Speaker of the day interrupted Francie a few times to point out that he had yet to mention the Post Office. On each occasion, Francie reassured the Speaker that he was coming to the Post Office and continued to deliver one of the finest speeches ever made in the Assembly. The last two words spoken were indeed "post office", and everyone was happy. The speech was first class, thought-provoking and entertaining, and Francie was not ruled out of order because it did not focus on the Post Office but on life.

Francie Brolly was indeed a Gael, but his style of Gaelige was all-embracing and about bringing people together to agree or disagree but remain friends and share experiences. He was not a bitter man. He did not harbour grudges and, if he could not do you a good turn, he most certainty would not have done you a bad turn. His contribution to life in his native Dungiven was huge and will live on for many years to come. As the new Assembly beds down, it would be useful to emulate Francie Brolly for his modesty, inside and outside the Chamber. Let us remember him as a Gael whose example threatened no one. He was on an important path and road that I hope we are all now on, respecting and sharing each other's culture and all the things that were important to him and the community that he served for many years as a community representative, councillor and, of course, Member of the Assembly. Mr Speaker, may he rest in peace.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I overlapped with Francie Brolly in this place for about three years, I came here in 2007 and he left in 2010, but I got to know him. He was certainly a very committed republican but also a lover of Irish culture and language. He was a teacher of Irish, I believe, and an active member of his church in Dungiven, where I think he lived most of his life. He was also a composer and singer, as others have referenced. Whether or not we agree with the songs that he wrote, you still have to admire the skills involved. Not everybody can write a song; believe me, I have tried, and it does not always work. He was a very humorous man. He was good company and good-natured, but the main thing that I remember about him was his consistent and passionate promotion of the Irish language and Irish-medium education. We had a debate here in 2008 about an Irish-medium school proposal in Derry. I looked it up the other day and will read you a few lines of what he said:

"The name of the Irish-medium school in question, Gaelscoil na Daróige, charms me greatly. Indeed, it is so fitting that, if I were the Minister of Education, I would approve the school even if it had no pupils at all." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 32, p92, col 1].

He went on to explain the meaning and derivation of "Daróige", which apparently has to do with the Irish term for a young oak tree. That is fitting for young pupils growing up; little acorns and all the rest of it. That was Francie. As far as I can remember, he was never rude or abrupt with anybody. He had a gentle approach to what he believed in.

I will leave you with one other entry in Hansard that I noticed the other day. He was called to ask a supplementary question, and he got up and said:

"I am going to ask a question now. I am just trying to think of one." — [Official Report (Hansard), Bound Volume 26, p16, col 2].

[Laughter.]

Along with others, I join the House in expressing our sympathy to Anne and the wider family circle. He will be greatly missed.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 10th February 2020

I wish to add a few words, from a constituency perspective, to what Michelle said and to add the condolences of our party locally. Francie was an MLA for East Derry from 2003 to 2010. He played an important political role in our local area as a rights campaigner and in many other campaigns locally, and he made an important contribution on behalf of the constituency to the Assembly. He was also a personal friend to many of us and will be greatly missed. He was known for his love of Irish language, culture and music, and his legacy there will be long-lasting, not just in Dungiven or County Derry but across Ireland and much further afield. He was a key figure in helping to establish Irish-medium schools in Dungiven and the surrounding area, and we are all very proud of the growth and strength of the Irish language.

On behalf of our activists across East Derry, I send deepest sympathies to Francie's wife, Anne, and to his children, grandchildren and wider family circle.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

In August of last year, at the Belfast Féile, Gerry Kelly and I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Francie, and, whatever one thinks of the songs that he wrote, he sang 'The H-Block Song' so eloquently. I stand on behalf of republicans in Derry to extend our sympathy to Anne and the wider family. I attended the wake. It was a very big funeral as well, and we know that their hearts are very sore, as are the hearts of the republican family, on the loss. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a ana.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes the tributes to Mr Brolly.