Memo from 1983 warned of SDLP losing ground to Sinn Féin

Westminster official said John Hume’s party were seen as middle-class, middle-aged and out of touch with the community

John Hume “will find it hard to convince the electorate that a ‘talking-shop’ in Dublin will reduce NI’s current difficulties”, it was claimed

John Hume “will find it hard to convince the electorate that a ‘talking-shop’ in Dublin will reduce NI’s current difficulties”, it was claimed

Fri, Dec 27, 2013, 01:00

The British government saw clear signs 30 years ago that the SDLP was in serious danger of being eclipsed by Sinn Féin.

The problems faced by the SDLP on the eve of the June 1983 British general election sounded alarm bells in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

In a memo dated May 13th, 1983,
R S Reeve of the NIO’s political affairs bureau noted the decline of the SDLP since 1974 when it won 150,000 votes or 80 per cent of the nationalist vote. The hunger strike of 1981, he noted, had seen a further decline in the SDLP vote.

Reeve’s memo for Northern secretary Jim Prior added: “The SDLP are by no means out of the woods.”

Referring to their “shaky constituency organisation” and lack of funds, he added: “The [New Ireland] Forum has so far failed to make a major impact and John Hume [pictured] will find it hard to convince the electorate that a ‘talking-shop’ in Dublin will reduce NI’s current difficulties. By comparison with the Sinn Féin team, the SDLP are seen as rather middle-class, middle-aged and out of touch with
the community.

“Men like [Dr] Joe Hendron [later MP for West Belfast] will have to fit in their electioneering with busy professional commitments – a difficulty which is
hardly faced by their opponents in Sinn Féin.”

On Sinn Féin’s electoral prospects, the same official felt that there was “sufficient hardline nationalist support in Northern Ireland for Sinn Féin to increase both their total vote and their share.”

In his view, it would take “a fairly dramatic collapse of SDLP support for Sinn Féin to win more than half of the nationalist vote, but they could increase their share from one third to 40 per cent”.

He predicted that in the 1983 Westminster election Sinn Féin would take West Belfast from the Independent MP and former SDLP leader Gerry Fitt. He was proved right when Gerry Adams won.