From Irish Political Review: October 2006
Cllr. Michael Ferguson MLA
Michael Ferguson (53), Sinn Fein MLA, and for 18 years a Councillor in Lisburn City Council died from illness arising from testicular cancer on Sunday 24 September. He was best known to readers of Irish Political Review for recently launching the publication, by the Aubane Historical Society, of L.G. Redmond-Howard’s Six Days Of The Irish Republic.
Michael was active within the official Republican movement in the early 1970s, then the IRSP, before joining Sinn Fein. He was jailed in the late 1970s for arms offences, joined the blanket protest and was active in prison struggle. His younger brother Hugh had been killed by the Official IRA in 1975 in Ballymurphy.
I first met Michael over twenty years ago, not long after he came out of jail to enrol at Queen University. I had hitched a lift on the Queens "Community Action" bus on my way to Magheroarty Pier (and an International Volunteer building camp on Tory Island). The bus was taking a community group from Lenadoon to West Donegal, and amongst them was Michael Ferguson.
At that time we discussed politics quite a bit—Michael’s views were sure, shaped and forged in conflict—my own less well formed. He was eager to hear other views—particularly what thinking was going on in the Protestant community. He was interested in the Protestant working class, and their motivations. He was keen for information, absorbed it quickly, argued about it and started again. Later, as an Education spokesperson, he failed to understand the outlook of political unionism in promoting a selective system that worked against its most disadvantaged. He was particularly proud, recently, to have met and represented women from the Old Warren estate in Lisburn on a drugs issue. It is safe to say that Sinn Fein have lost one person who really could "connect" with the Protestant community.
He was elected as a Councillor on Lisburn Borough Council in 1989 at a time when simply attending the Council was a dangerous exercise. Moving from mere attendance to making a sustained Council contribution involved considerable risk. Times and places of meetings are public knowledge and, as such, made Michael and his colleagues vulnerable to assassination. His party colleague, Annie Armstrong, was indeed shot on her way home from a Lisburn Council meeting, surviving with injuries.
I lost regular touch with Michael—although we would meet on occasion with some fellow feeling—the experience in common of operating in 'hardwired majoritarian' Unionist Boroughs: myself in Newtownabbey, Michael in Lisburn. Michael and his colleagues made serious attempts to reach out to DUP and UUP Councillors, notably over the successful bid for City Status. Unionists in Lisburn look to have rowed back, since, on their commitments to a "City for All".
In 1998, when I was Chair of Playboard, the childrens’ play charity, we had discussions on the Dutch "Homezone" initiative that helped Michael plan some successful traffic calming campaigns. His years on Lisburn Council earned a grudging respect from Unionist council colleagues.
Michael was elected as an MLA in 2005 and took on the role of Education spokesman. He was the Vice Chair of the West Belfast Partnership Board. By his own admission he was most comfortable at community level, a tireless community campaigner, undertaking campaigns on traffic calming, tackling anti-social behaviour through positive youth engagement, forever seeking better facilities and programmes for people in Poleglass, Colin Glen and Twinbrook. Few community organisations or tenants associations in Greater West Belfast would not have received his help, wisdom and energy over the years.
In the past two years I had a lot of contact with Michael, in his role as Sinn Fein Education spokesperson. He had a detailed grasp of his brief, and earned respect from educational employers, administrators, civil servants, and teachers' unions. He surrounded himself with a well-versed education reference group and instinctively took the side of the disadvantaged.
Last November, he spoke at a conference I organised for the GMB (General, Municipal & Boilerworkers' Union) on apprenticeships and had well-formed views of forcing the Strategic Investment Board to build quality training places into capital contracts. We shared a platform a few months ago at a NICVA conference on the Post Primary issue, in opposition to selection at 11,
In his personal life he was, like many Republicans of his generation, disciplined and abstemious. He exercised regularly, once ran in the Dublin Marathon, lived modestly and felt guilty to benefit from even modest comforts. Chocolates were his minor weakness!
When diagnosed as having testicular cancer, he overcame a reluctance to do "personal stuff" by allowing his own case to publicize the need for men to overcome embarrassment to "get checked out" for cancer. When committed to hospital for Chemotherapy, and armed with his laptop, he turned his hospital bed into a makeshift constituency surgery, firing off electronic representations on behalf of his constituents.
Two days before he died, I received an e-mail from him—to arrange a get together. He was also undertaking a DLA (Disability Living Allowance) claim for a pensioner from Ballymena. That was "Massey"—always at his work!
His funeral was well attended, with a very broad range of people represented—a commentary on the way he lived his life.
Michael is survived by his wife Louise, whom he held in huge esteem, and children Aodh Tomas, Daibhead, Aoife and Naimh. He adored them all. Michael Ferguson will be a loss to Sinn Fein, to West Belfast and Lisburn - he was one of the good guys!
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