The day the SDLP was formed ‘in the spirit of optimism’
From the archive: ‘There has been a need in Northern Ireland for a strong political alternative to the Unionist Party’
Gerry Fitt addressing a party conference in Belfast. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Saturday, August 22nd, 1970
The front page of The Irish Times and extensive coverage inside the newspaper on August 22nd, 1970 detailed events that took place the previous day in Belfast, where the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) formation was announced. The newspaper ran photographs of men sitting at a top table, cluttered with microphones and teacups, including the new party’s leader, Gerry Fitt, Paddy Wilson, Ivan Cooper, Paddy Devlin, Austin Currie and John Hume.
“It has long been obvious that there has been a need in Northern Ireland for a strong political alternative to the Unionist Party,” Fitt said at the press conference. “We regard this present crisis as being particularly urgent in view of the fact of a very real possibility that there may be an extreme right-wing takeover of the government of Northern Ireland with a consequent interference in the reforms which have been recently placed on the Statute Book.”
Fitt continued, “We recognise that many people have been frustrated over many years, and we will set about immediately to stomp the country to involve particularly the younger people in our community. We want direct popular participation in the policies which we put before you today.”
Those policies outlined were based on “radical left of centre” principles, and entailed securing just and adequate distribution of wealth, upholding democratic rights and principles of organised labour, promoting financial, industrial, consumer and agricultural co-operatives, minimum living wage, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for all citizens, the reintroduction of proportional representation, public ownership of fishing rights of all inland waters, establishing State industries in areas of high unemployment, promoting co-operation between North and South, that the party would be anti-sectarian and would have no connection “with any secret or sectarian organisation.”
Henry Kelly wrote the newspaper’s lead that day. “New party in North is pledged to socialism”, the headline ran. “Asked if they would try and recruit Miss Bernadette Devlin to their ranks,” Kelly wrote, “Mr Fitt and Mr Currie said that if she subscribed to the principles of the party she would be admissible and welcome.”
Spirit of optimism
Three years later, the party won 19 of the 75 seats in the elections to the new Northern Irish Assembly. The Assembly lasted four months. Fitt’s career in party politics was eclectic. He stood in a city council by-election in 1956 with the Dock Labour Party, losing to Paddy Devlin of the Irish Labour Party, who would later became his SDLP party colleague. In 1962, he won a seat in Stormont, and went on to create the Republican Labour Party, which was disbanded just over a decade later. He became an MP in 1966. Fitt was at the centre of the famous RTÉ footage which showed peaceful demonstrators being brutally baton-charged by police in Derry in 1968. Fitt died in 2005, and until last year, was the only republican from Northern Ireland who was a member of the House of Lords. Margaret Ritchie broke that record.
The SDLP was formed in the spirit of optimism for an alternative within chaos. Earlier that month, the British Army fired rubber bullets in Belfast for the first time. In June, riots had broken out in Derry upon the arrest of Bernadette Devlin. Earlier in the summer, the recently resigned minister for finance and minister for agriculture, Charlie Haughey and Neil Blaney were charged (and later acquitted) with importing arms for the Provisional IRA. A curfew was imposed on the Falls Road. Dana won the Eurovision with All Kinds of Everything. Indeed there was.
The newspaper’s political correspondent at the time, Michael McInerney, reported on the view from Dublin, “There will be no official statement from the Government here about the formation yesterday of the new Social Democratic and Labour Party in Northern Ireland under the leadership of Mr Gerry Fitt, MP, but there can be no doubt about the favourable reception of government Ministers.”
McInerney wrote about the concerns senior government ministers had about the breakdown of the political system in the North, and the hope that a new party could help restore peace. Such hopes turned out to be just that, as violence escalated dramatically from 1970 onwards.
“We do not believe that Ireland can be united by violence,” Fitt said at the time. “Every single stone that is thrown in the riots that have taken place has meant distress and despair to one or other section of the community in Northern Ireland.”