Last month saw the passing of former SDLP South Down politician PJ Bradley after a short illness at the age of 76. Michael McKernan pays tribute.
Those who didn’t know that PJ Bradley had been ill would have been shocked by his death, for PJ was a very sprightly 76-year-old, light on his feet, and full of energy. Although he retired from the front line of politics at the 2011 Assembly election, he had not retired from politics completely, and was at the heart of his daughter Sinead’s successful campaign to replace him as South Down SDLP’s ‘southern’ MLA at Stormont. It was particularly poignant for PJ’s family and many friends that he died just three days before the 2016 election which saw Sinead Bradley elected once again.
For a relatively quiet and reserved politician, the tributes that flowed after PJ’s passing showed that he had made quite an impact within political circles across the traditional political divide. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described him as a “fierce advocate for his community” and called him a “patriot”. South Down MP Margaret Ritchie praised his “firm belief in grass roots politics”. DUP South Down MLA Jim Wells described PJ as “a friend” and DUP Leader Arlene Foster called him “a gentleman”. An extensive tribute followed from Fianna Fáil (where PJ had many friends) and from its leader Micheál Martin.
In many ways PJ personified traditional SDLP rural nationalism. He was a proud Irishman but totally dedicated in his opposition to the violent tradition. He was a Gael with a long record of service to the GAA (Down County Board) and to his local, very successful club, St Mary’s GFC, Burren. PJ was also a committed Catholic and family man and would have been on the conservative side of his party on social policy. Like other leading figures around him in South Down, such as the late Eddie McGrady, PJ Bradley’s overwhelming priority was service to his constituents – a service to be delivered with dignity and integrity.
PJ was ‘old school’ as a political practitioner and one of the most effective campaigners around when it came to winning elections. With a background in grain sales/distribution followed by a career running his own estate agency, PJ knew how to network and how to connect with thousands of rural voters in his far flung constituency. From 1981 to 2011 he fought numerous successful elections, often topping the poll. As a campaigner he was able, almost uniquely, to combine the skillset of a wily political operator with his undoubted status as a respected local leader and man of principle. As a politician he served on Newry and Mourne Council for 24 years between 1981 and 2005. He represented South Down in the Stormont Assembly from 1998 to 2011. As an MLA he had a particular association with agriculture and rural affairs and for long periods was his party’s spokesman in these areas.
Although retired after 2011, PJ launched himself energetically into some of his other interests and passions. His love of local history resulted in the publication of two well received books about the history of Burren and PJ’s own role in the local community.
He also took a leading role in the national preparations for the 1916 anniversary commemorations, quietly determined to ensure that history was marked respectfully and accurately. He also continued with his long-term work to champion the position of the ‘undocumented Irish’ in the United States. And he continued to advocate for the proposed Narrow Water bridge connecting South Down and Louth.
PJ Bradley was, among many things, a successful bridge-builder, historian, politician, businessman and family man.
He’ll be long remembered as a true Irishman.