Irish Republican News · November 5, 2003
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
SDLP - No Problem!

By Danny Morrison

If I was in the SDLP and had worked hard all my political life for the party I would be angry and frustrated at the way Sinn Féin has `stolen' the limelight and is predicted by media commentators as being on the verge of opening up the gap between it and the SDLP.

However, blaming the media or `the problem parties', as Mark Durcan has done, is actually ignoring the fact that it is the people who in secret ballot are responsible for the changing fortunes of a party. In its case, the SDLP needs to ask itself why things have turned out this way. The SDLP itself was born out of opportunism in 1970 when various independents and small, nationalist parties, coalesced after the traumas the nationalist community experienced in 1968 and 1969. It was never an ideologically focused party and the only `history' it could call on was the various ineffectual attempts by constitutional nationalists to work the old Stormont. There, they were regularly humiliated - which then led to walkouts and years of boycotts.

Nevertheless, the SDLP was in an admirable and unassailable position: no other party was organised to represent the interests of nationalists. Sinn Féin was banned until 1974 and devoted itself to street politics and prisoners' welfare. The Workers Party was to the right of the Alliance on the national question and never represented an alternative. By the time the largely rural Irish Independence Party enjoyed a ripple of support in May 1981 Sinn Féin was just about to burst onto the political scene.

SDLP leaders tended to be teachers, doctors or lawyers and mirrored middle-class values. It had close links to the Catholic Church and the provincial nationalist press. A party merely looking for reforms, not an end to partition, it was a blessing for Dublin governments, allowing them to orient their deficient policies around a constitutional party, which didn't make huge demands of Dublin. Meantime, Dublin could get on with demonising and suppressing the Republican Movement. In July 1971 Ulster Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, offered the SDLP a few positions on various Stormont committees. The SDLP's Paddy Devlin declared it Faulkner's `finest hour'. Yet, within two years the SDLP was able to argue for a power-sharing executive and an Irish `dimension'. What had changed in the intervening period? Clearly, the IRA campaign, which had at its core the more fundamental demand for a British withdrawal, had created a new threshold that increased the negotiating position of the nationalist community and gave muscle to the SDLP. The subtext of the SDLP position was that reforms that included the SDLP would undermine the IRA campaign. After the ceasefire this position was transmuted into a strategy of expecting help from Dublin and London in undermining Sinn Féin. In the current election they are receiving help from strategists in the British Labour Party, the Irish Labour Party, Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats. Have they no strategists of their own or do they not trust local constituency associations? Furthermore, the SDLP believes that it is not only vulnerable to Sinn Féin in Newry and Armagh, and South Down, but even in Foyle, party leader Mark Durcan's home base!

Sinn Féin's history could not have been more contrasting. It emerged from a different tradition - a tradition of struggle and sacrifice, comradeship, discipline and loyalty.

My experience of the SDLP during the hunger strikes was that they were always looking for the prisoners to compromise more than the authorities. In other words, they were in awe of the British; never believed that they could break the Brits and would, therefore, unlike the republicans, never even make the attempt. One consequence of this mentality is the SDLP's obsession with Sinn Féin, with whom for electoral purposes it should be in alliance, actively seeking transfers. It surfaces at its most extreme in the intemperate outbursts of Alex Attwood, but others aren't too far behind, given the flavour of the following examples.

Gerry Adams goes to a fund-raiser in the USA, during which he meets the US special envoy Richard Haas to discuss the peace process, and Carmel Hanna accuses him of being a ``money grabber''! Patricia Lewsley attacks Martin McGuinness, falsely accusing him of not making children with special educational needs one of his priorities as a minister. An SDLP councillor in South Down launches an attack on Sinn Féin's Caitriona Ruane, linking her with `The Cocaine Three' (the three innocent Irishmen in a Bogota prison, who were never charged with any cocaine offences and whom this SDLP councillor has found guilty before even the trial judge delivers his verdict).

A fortnight ago, when SDLP leader Mark Durcan, miffed at being excluded from the talks in Downing Street between Gerry Adams, Tony Blair and David Trimble, referred to Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists as the `problem parties' he actually spoke volumes about the weakness of the SDLP.

For `problem' read `relevant'. In fact, the Paddy Devlin tradition of welcoming, embracing and hyping every morsel offered to nationalists (without having an eye to the bigger picture) is exactly what is wrong with the SDLP. When asked to join the policing board and district policing partnerships the SDLP declared, `No problem!' and leaped in.

Increasingly perceived by many former supporters as a `No Problem' party is just one explanation why the SDLP will remain in second place to Sinn Féin after the election.

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© 2003 Irish Republican News