updated 8/26/2005 11:59:43 PM ET 2005-08-27T03:59:43

Gerry Fitt, a leader of Catholic nationalists in Northern Ireland and a fierce critic of the Irish Republican Army, died Friday, his family said. He was 79.

He died at an undisclosed location in England, the family said. The cause of death was not announced, but he had a history of heart disease and had been in declining health for months.

Fitt was a leader of a Catholic civil rights march which confronted police near Londonderry on Oct. 5, 1968. Violence broke out, gaining worldwide television coverage, and effectively marked the start of three decades of violent “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

‘He lit a torch for civil rights’
Fitt, a member of Britain’s House of Commons, was one of the first to be clubbed by police. He recalled saying a prayer of thanks as he felt blood flow down his face.

“I knew that at last Northern Ireland as she really was would be seen before the world,” said Fitt.

“He lit a torch for civil rights, and the image of a battered and bloodied MP on Oct. 5, 1968, exposed the then cesspit of Northern Ireland politics to a world stage,” said Alasdair McDonnell, deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearn said of Fitt: “In the ongoing quest for a peaceful settlement and constitutional politics in the North, history will record that he played his part by word, by deed and by example.”

A former merchant seaman, Fitt represented West Belfast in the House of Commons for 17 years and was one of the founders in 1970 of the SDLP, which attracted moderate Catholic votes.

He served as deputy chief executive of a power-sharing government which collapsed within five months in 1974 because of Protestant opposition.

Clashes with IRA
In 1976, armed with a pistol, he faced down a mob of IRA supporters who had invaded his home in Belfast.

“The thoughts that went through my head at the time all in the space of a few seconds were, ‘Gerry this is how you die’; secondly, ‘I hope to God you don’t get my wife and young daughter’; and thirdly, ‘I hope to God I don’t have to pull this trigger and kill someone myself.”’

His home was later burned down, and he moved his family to London.

Fitt left the SDLP in 1979, criticizing its increasing insistence on seeking greater involvement by the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s affairs — the line taken by his successor as party leader, John Hume.

Fitt, standing as a Socialist candidate, lost his Commons seat to Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-allied Sinn Fein party, in 1983, and subsequently was appointed to the House of Lords as Baron Fitt of Bell’s Hill in the County of Down.

Fitt’s wife died in 1996. He is survived by five daughters.

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