Diarmaid Ferriter: New SDLP leader should take party into opposition and challenge SF

Colum Eastwood needs to dig his own trench and move his party out of the Hume shadow

Colum Eastwood, the 32-year-old new leader of the SDLP, has a mountain to climb to make his party relevant. On BBC this week, a Spotlight programme looked at the history of the party's fortunes and inevitably focused on the legacy and shadow of John Hume.

Although the SDLP is now on its sixth leader since its foundation in 1970, it is what has been dubbed "the Gospel according to John" which still dominates assessments of the party's achievements, most obviously the 1998 Belfast Agreement and its plight, central to which is its eclipse by Sinn Féin. There was a time when the SDLP commanded 22 per cent of the overall vote in Northern Ireland, but it secured only 13.9 per cent in this year's Westminster elections.

The focus on Hume remains steadfast, especially by loyal colleagues, including Seán Farren and Denis Haughey who next month will launch their book John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, with a foreword by former US president Bill Clinton. In reference to the Hume strategy to create the dialogue that ultimately led to the Belfast Agreement, Eastwood described the SDLP in his first speech as leader "as the most successful party in the history of these islands". Whatever about the accuracy of such an elaborate claim, it still does not give Eastwood a solution to the relevance issue.

The Spotlight programme was a reminder that party grandees such as Ivan Cooper and Séamus Mallon can still be relied upon to speak about the party's rise and fall, often with admirable honesty, but once again, the spine of the story is Hume.


Difficult colleague

There is little doubt Hume’s courage and resilience reaped many benefits, but not for his party. History will also record that the towering place Hume occupied in Irish politics was also part of the problem for the SDLP, as Mallon in recent years has acerbically observed.

True, many of the ideas that underpinned the peace process came from Hume and were constantly reiterated by him, but he was also a difficult colleague who internalised too much and excluded too many.

When he published his history of the SDLP in 2010, Farren, as a party insider, perpetuated the idea that one of the SDLP's biggest problems at that stage was "the departure from public life of two of the giants of Irish politics, John Hume and Séamus Mallon together with several others who had served in the leadership of the party from its early years". But Farren's narrative was too narrow; not enough attention was given to co-founder and first leader Gerry Fitt or to Paddy Devlin, another key figure.

Labour tradition

Though both these men struggled with the idea of party politics and seemed to many to be maverick individualists, they also represented a labour tradition that got lost in the party’s early years. The term ‘Labour’ in the party’s title had been included at Fitt’s insistence, and in 1977 Devlin resigned from the party in protest at what he perceived as its failure to evolve into a genuine nonsectarian labour party.

“Labour” is still a part of the party’s title today, but what does it mean? One of the challenges Eastwood faces is to answer that question convincingly.

Of course, the SDLP has much reason to feel aggrieved. Alongside the contribution of the noble peacemakers such as Hume, the history of Northern Ireland’s peace process in recent decades has also been riddled with fudge, ambiguities and cruel ironies.

One of the cruellest of all was underlined by the comments then British prime minister Tony Blair made to an SDLP delegation in 2002. At that stage, controversy raged about the decommissioning of IRA arms and all the focus was on Sinn Féin while the SDLP looked on from the sidelines. Blair told the SDLP: "Your trouble [is] you have no guns." But in recent years the party has surely been right to reject the idea of joining forces with Sinn Féin, given what that would mean for the notions of inclusivity the SDLP has espoused; as former leader Margaret Ritchie has said, you cannot create a better society in the North by "driving people into sectarian trenches".

Eastwood, if he is to be successful, needs to dig his own trench and move his party out of the Hume shadow. He could start by taking his party into opposition in Northern Ireland and challenge the credibility of a Sinn Féin that has become a cheerleader for a 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate and a master of spin and compartmentalisation.

As a “no guns” party, the SDLP should also come up with a credible solution to a problem that, for all the heralding of the Fresh Start agreement at Stormont this week, has not been resolved: how to deal with what are referred to as “legacy issues” arising out of the Troubles, principally victims’ need for hard information, acknowledgment and truth.