SDLP recalls painful past while looking to the electoral challenges of the future

Seamus Mallon and other party veterans reflect on period when party members were murdered

Former SDLP leaders Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie with the former deputy leader of the party Seamus Mallon at the annual SDLP conference, in Armagh. Photograph: Bill Smyth/PA Wire

Former SDLP leaders Mark Durkan and Margaret Ritchie with the former deputy leader of the party Seamus Mallon at the annual SDLP conference, in Armagh. Photograph: Bill Smyth/PA Wire

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 01:01

Saturday afternoon’s session of the annual SDLP conference in the Armagh City Hotel was powerful, poignant and quietly emotional.

Anne Cadwallader, author of the Lethal Allies book had just spoken about the stories of RUC and Ulster Defence Regiment collusion with loyalist murder gangs in mid-Ulster.

Then Denise Fox, a Co Tyrone party activist told the story of how the same UVF squad murdered her father, Dinny Mullen – a senior SDLP figure – at their home in the Moy in Co Tyrone and how she had sat on the “doorstep in my nightie, covered in his blood”. It was 1975. She was four. She spoke of a smell that she could not describe but could never forget. Former SDLP Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon recalled arriving at the terrible scene after picking up on his car radio an RUC broadcast about the attack.

Mr Mallon spoke too about the “cess pool” at the time, of having to meet almost on a daily basis some RUC officers he knew were directly or indirectly implicated in such murders.

It was balanced – all UDR and RUC officers were not tarred with the same brush – Mallon recalled too a friend of his, an RUC officer, gunned down by republicans and how he cradled him as he lay dying.

What it all served to do was highlight the honourable tradition of the SDLP, of a people and a party who engaged in peaceful politics even in the face of such horror.

It reinforced too that in Northern Ireland for all communities the past is close, and that Richard Haass has a huge task in trying to address that terrible legacy.

With other veterans such as John Hume and Ivan Cooper, current senior figures such as Alasdair McDonnell, Dolores Kelly and Alex Attwood expressed pride in the SDLP’s role in helping achieve peace.

But the present and the future is what must chiefly concern the party. Next May, when the elections to the European Parliament and to the North’s proposed 11 new super councils are held, will be Dr McDonnell’s big moment. He will have left the conference yesterday morning satisfied, at least, that through all the generations some red blood still courses through the party’s veins.