The sinking, ageing voice of Northern nationalism


Once the IRA and Sinn Féin decided on peace, republicans took the strongest cards from the hands of the SDLP, writes FIONNUALA O CONNOR

THE SECOND underwhelming candidate for the job of leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party declared this week, highlighting yet again the fall of a once-remarkable party – never truly an organisation.

Many of the faults that helped reduce it to its present state date from the start, when the newly formed SDLP struck out into a Northern Ireland descending into the chaos of the Troubles.

An amalgam of individuals too stubborn and competitive to want an organisation behind them, they set out equipped for camaraderie and wit, as well as back-biting and occasional intrigue.

Charles Haughey saw John Hume as a rival leader of nationalism North and South, so he plotted to have him deposed.

Northern Ireland Office ministers, completely ineffectually, sometimes fancied as leader Eddie McGrady, long-serving MP for South Down – and party loyalist to his core. Founding leader Gerry Fitt spent his last decades bad-mouthing Northern nationalism, Hume and many others, in the unlikely setting of the House of Lords.

One of the most striking features of the SDLP during the late 1970s and 1980s was that it retained such influence beyond a North bereft of any real political forum.

Another defining characteristic was the articulacy of so many in its ranks. Séamus Mallon, Bríd Rodgers, Brian Feeney and others gave unionist politicians and emergent republican spokesmen a run for their money in broadcast and university debates.

Much of the SDLP’s resilience and influence though came down to the rare persuasiveness of Hume, the party’s principal theorist from the outset and later a one-man mission to the world.

Well before Hume began to focus on the potential for ending IRA violence, it was largely moral SDLP pressure and reasoned argument, voiced abroad most tellingly by Hume, that laid out and copper-fastened the agenda for reform, delivery of which long ago became institutionalised – unlike the establishment of a “peace process”, it might be noted, every step of which brought eruptions of outrage.

Fair employment campaigners like Inez and Vinnie McCormack and the MacBride Principles lobby they helped sustain in the US – a venture Hume disliked – were vital stiffeners when British resolve faltered. The silken skills of Irish diplomats and drafters and ace committee men like Maurice Hayes played a major part. Between them, they overbore the patently untenable unionist case against equality.

The SDLP’s decline though had a harsh inevitability. It offered moderate nationalism with a social-democratic overlay, but first and last it appealed to Northern Catholics who wanted reform and fairness achieved by argument, not the pressure of violence. Once the IRA and Sinn Féin decided on peace, republicans held the strongest cards.

Now the governments needed them: they could play both muscle and politics. Sinn Féin could play a long game, as Catholics began to rise up through business, the law, the civil service.

Confronted by unionists such as David Trimble and Ian Paisley, and as republicans moved away from violence, more and more Catholic nationalists began to row in behind the younger, more assertive Sinn Féin leaders.

In parallel, the governments began to make it humiliatingly clear that they saw Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as the new leaders of nationalism, the people with whom to do business.

It began while Hume remained in place, then Mallon and Mark Durkan found themselves marginalised. The party’s present state is not, for the most part, the result of failed leadership post- Hume. While he remained leader, although increasingly ill, the SDLP’s position as the dominant nationalist voice had already gone.

A victim of success, it suffered because Hume had the fortitude and imagination to face down internal fears, ill-will in Dublin, atavism in London. For the greater good, he contributed to the undoing of the party which he once elevated, sustained and personified as an instrument of positivity and harmony.

We must include republicans, he said. In they came, and swamped his party.

For some older Northern nationalists, the SDLP’s descent is still demoralising, even shocking. Peace though was made against a backdrop of a Catholic community which had achieved pretty much all to which it aspired. Now, many look at the SDLP and ask what is it for. Many unionists unable to so much as voice the word “power- sharing” may drag their feet for years yet, before fully accepting the idea of equality. Society has changed despite them.

Sinn Féin may be in an awkward position at the minute, ambitions slapped down at least temporarily in the Republic, powerless to overcome DUP stonewalling. Yet electorally in the North, as the SDLP ages and sinks, it has a clear field and is only likely to get stronger rather than weaker.

Meanwhile the SDLP is pushed to choose the hapless Durkan’s successor from a very modest pool of 15 MLAs, among whom there is not a single obvious leader.

It is a sad sight. A party once of political stars and political strength today lacks both.