Very much the quiet country unionist, William Thompson only twice entered the political spotlight. Firstly in triumph, he found himself as West Tyrone’s first MP, elected against the odds in May 1997. Thompson squeezed through the gap between the SDLP and Sinn Féin, and picked up some Catholic votes to win on a 1,161-vote majority.
Just over a year later, he walked with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair along his home town’s ruined main street. The taking of 29 lives one summer day in Omagh was a painful burden for the three remaining years as its main representative.
It fell to Thompson to make a plain, moving tribute in the Commons on 2 September 1998. “Every decent person in Northern Ireland wants that bomb to be the last,” he told MPs, thanking them for their sympathy to “my people in Omagh.”
Twelve years on, it makes for stark reading.
Constituency cases were his mainstay, as they had been during 12 years on Omagh District Council (1981-1993) and three separate terms at Stormont (1973-1974; 1975-1976; 1982-1986) for the old Mid Ulster constituency. He topped the poll in 1975 and stood for the Westminster seat in 1983, coming fourth.
The bright lights of Westminster held no appeal for a straight-talking Beragh farmer and postmaster. To colleagues, Thompson was the antithesis of the political careerist. A homely maiden speech pictured West Tyrone’s “gentle rolling hills, glens, forests, loughs and rivers revered by fishermen”.
Many folk first met him when he rented and repaired colour TVs back in the 1970s. A Methodist lay preacher, his free time centred round church and family. Although Thompson opposed the Good Friday Agreement, his relations with David Trimble were gentlemanly and they stayed on speaking terms.
The loss of friends and neighbours who served in the security forces greatly influenced Willie Thompson’s politics, as did his strong faith. He resented Sinn Féin’s rise, and what he saw as concessions to terrorists and Dublin’s “foreign” power. While Pat Doherty’s win in 2001 was disappointing, it was expected. As a courtesy, he did shake his successor’s hand when conceding.
In retirement, he kept up his Orange membership but avoided attention as the party went through its tumult. Much like his career, he took his long and final illness in his stride. William Thompson is survived by his wife Violet, daughters Wilma and Elaine, and son Paul.