After another failed siege of Derry?

Malachi O’Doherty considers the qualitative difference between the two main nationalist parties after the SDLP’s (to some of us) surprise fightback. He asks which of them will take the decisive initiative in the next round of political contests. If it is Sinn Fein, he argues, it will need to move away from its traditional revolutionary position and, in effect, become an new SDLP Lite.

By Malachi O’Doherty

Last week’s elections have corrected the trajectory of Sinn Fein. The party has failed to take Derry. This is not a small matter. Derry was the birthplace of the Troubles. If Sinn Fein cannot overtake the SDLP there, either for the Westminster seat or for the Council, then that says there is something fundamentally wrong with the Sinn Fein project and its appeal to the people it purports to represent.

It also shows that Belfast and Derry are very different cities. Belfast is the real spiritual home of Sinn Fein. Belfast is a dark city with an industrial past, horrifically divided. Belfast’s sectarianism is more blatant. Catholics in Derry feel no threat to their sense of being Irish.

When Northern Ireland was closest to civil war in 1972, it was Belfast which took the brunt of it. It is only Belfast which is still haunted by the fear of a future sectarian civil war.

But there are other reasons why Sinn Fein failed to take Derry.

The Westminster candidate, Mitchel McLaughlin is older than Mark Durkan. The people of Derry do not see talent behind McLaughlin. He appears to be all that Sinn Fein has to offer to oppose a candidate who is young and brilliant and who actually plans to take his seat.

When you think of it, it is disheartening that so many did vote for Mitchel McLaughlin; it would have been an act of self- abasement on the part of the city if the majority had preferred him.

And now the question arises: why did Martin McGuinness not stand in Derry?

There had been speculation that he would swap campaigns with McLaughlin and throw his weight against Durkan.

Today, he is either wishing he had done that or he is relieved that the SDLP’s survival in Derry was not at the expense of the more senior Republican.

One of the common arguments against the SDLP was that it did not have a clear policy distinguishing it from Sinn Fein. It had been fighting Sinn Fein by mimicking Sinn Fein. And it is determined not to go back into the executive unless accompanied by Sinn Fein.

That means two things.

By one reading, it means that there is little point in voting for the SDLP if Sinn Fein is the real thing.

By another, it means that Sinn Fein stands to gain long-term advantage from any vote given to the SDLP.

The nationalists who want Sinn Fein to do well can help that party by voting for the SDLP, so long as the SDLP is committed to keeping the door open for Republicans into the executive.

In their current deadlock, an homogenous nationalist community behind Sinn Fein would probably just deepen Unionist fears and make agreement even more difficult.

Sinn Fein, tarnished by the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, may still have a better chance of finding its way back into the executive with the aid of a mediator, as in the past.

But there is also now clear water between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. It is now plain that the SDLP stands for something which Sinn Fein does not. That something is participation in Westminster and on the policing board.

Had Sinn Fein succeeded in virtually eradicating the SDLP, it would be equipped to say today that nationalists in Northern Ireland have rejected the imperial parliament and rejected the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its abstention from both would have been virtually uncontested within the nationalist political community.

The success of three SDLP candidates and the survival of the SDLP in Derry, as the majority party on the city council, denies Sinn Fein that prospect.

Now policing and participation will be at the heart of the debate about the future of nationalism.

Sinn Fein will seek to have its MPs admitted to the Dail and given voting rights there. This will be resisted, and an energetic campaign will follow. But now, Sinn Fein will have to deal with the SDLP’s willingness to participate.

Expect to see them pointing the finger at SDLP MPs and accusing them of undermining the national project.

But there is another danger for Sinn Fein. So far, it has led the nationalist community on issues short of the full claim for Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. To move further now, it must move on to the ground of the sovereignty question in a much more assertive way. How many nationalists will follow?

It may be that Sinn Fein has peaked. At the next Westminster election, it may take South Down but it is very likely to lose Fermanagh South Tyrone. By then, it will need to have established a new, more credible, candidate in Derry, to fight a Mark Durkan who will hopefully have distinguished himself in parliament by then and won the point that it is worth going there.

Of course, the SDLP will probably lose South Belfast in 2008.

And, much depends on whether the assembly will return. If it does, the DUP will probably insist on a new election to it, to finish off the Ulster Unionists’ chances of getting ministerial positions.

Since the return of the Assembly executive depends on Sinn Fein establishing its credibility with all other parties, and particularly with the DUP, the odds are massively against it.

Political reality will dictate that, for Sinn Fein to grow further politically, it will have to grow more like the SDLP, taking its seats in Westminster, taking its seats on the policing board, acknowledging that Northern MPs have no seats of right in Dublin, and impressing the electorate with its competence and sense of responsibility.

The question for the electorate then will be whether to settle for the real SDLP or to buy more of this new SDLP lite.

  • Paul

    O’Doherty claims it would be an act of self-abasement if the majority in Foyle had voted for McLaughlin. But republicans and many nationalists find it degrading that the Maiden City is sending to Westminster a man, who by his very presence there, recognizes British rule in Ireland.

  • Tom Griffin

    The question for the electorate then will be whether to settle for the real SDLP or to buy more of this new SDLP lite.

    Doesn’t this just underline how unattractive such a course would be for Sinn Fein?

  • carlosblancosq

    Paul,

    So Durkan should instead sulk on the sidelines and pray for ‘speaking rights’ in a parliament where he can’t vote and can’t spend. Hmmm a cutting edge strategy for national unity if I ever heard one.

    By taking its seats in Westminster, like nationalists have done since O’Connell, Durkan demonstrates to the unionists who make up a large part of our island that he respects reality as well as their institutions, and is prepared to work within them for the betterment of all.

  • Occasional Commenter

    Are Sinn Fein recognizing British rule in Ireland simply by engaging in talks with the UK government? Why don’t they just be consistent and take their seats?

  • Liam

    Because then they will not have to take the Oath.

  • Occasional Commenter

    Liam,
    I was thinking that. If they scrapped the oath would they take their seats?

  • Henry94

    OC

    If they scrapped the oath would they take their seats?

    If the English want to scrap their oath they should do it for their own reasons. I’m sure Irish republicans don’t want to interfere in how they run their country. But if the oath was gone then walking into the chamber at Westminister would be just like walking in anywhere else in my view.

  • another_pleb

    You cannot have any realistic hope of influencing something if you don’t take part. If Sinn Fein MPs had taken their seats in the Commons, they could have given their opinions on important issues such as top-up fees (which only passed by a very slender majority) and the Iraq war.

    What exactly are Sinn Fein running for if they don’t want to take their seats? The free stamps? Is it some sort of twisted “dog in the manger” attitude?

    “Because then they will not have to take the Oath”

    There are many republicans sitting in parliament who “take the oath” through gritted teeth. The thing that bugs me is that SF seem to have hijacked the word “Republican”. It used to mean someone who beleived in high-minded ideals such as meritocracy but now seems to be synonymous with intimidation and violence.

    I know plenty of protestant unionists who don’t like the idea of the royal family but would never in a million years describe themselves as “republican”.

  • Jo

    My understanding of the origins of abstentionism with CS Parnell (not a Republican and OMG not even a Catholic!) was that it was a tactical strategy so that the Nationalist MPs would instead sit in a Dublin Home Rule government. In other words, they’d have some decision making role reflecting their mandate.

    Rolling the clock forward and SF don’t take their seats but instead…er…emmm…go over to London and use rooms in the Palace of Westminster and draw allowances. Not really a matter of high principle at all, is it?

  • Concerned Loyalist

    “an homogenous nationalist community behind Sinn Fein would probably just deepen Unionist fears and make agreement even more difficult”.

    O’Doherty is correct in this assertion and that is why so many unionists tactically voted for Durkan rather than Willie Hay of the DUP.

    It is now time for the SDLP to take steps in addressing the problem of sectarian attacks on the Protestant people in Irish Street, beside the “Top of the Hill” interface in the Waterside, and the Fountain Estate in the City-Side.

    Actions speak louder than words, and the unionist people went against their fundamental political beliefs to vote for a candidate who they felt would be more likely to address the problems of sectarian descrimination, intimidation and exclusion, than a SF/IRA candidate who’s supporters are the root of the problem.

    It is now time for Durkan to prove he is not just full of hot air, and to use his unionist/loyalist mandate to include, not exclude, our community from everyday life in the city of Londonderry.

  • Paul

    I’ve lost count of the number of times i’ve heard people say SF MPs don’t sit at Westminster because of the Oath. The Oath is neither here nor there, as far as SF are concerned! Whether you agree with them or not, they choose not to sit at Westminster because they believe it is a foreign parliament with no right to legislate for Ireland.
    If they are sincere in their commitment to the principles of Irish Republicanism, even if the Oath was dropped tomorrow SF MPs would still not take their seats.

  • another_pleb

    Paul

    “they believe it is a foreign parliament with no right to legislate for Ireland…even if the Oath was dropped tomorrow SF MPs would still not take their seats.”

    If this is so, what possible reason could they have for standing? Is it just to keep “The other side” out?

  • barney

    AP

    I believe Paul is correct, the oath is not an issue for SF. They will never take their seats in Westminster.

    “If this is so, what possible reason could they have for standing?” A better question might be “why do people elect them?”
    I suspect they were sick of people pitching up in a foreign parliamnet pretending to be their representatives.

  • brendan,belfast

    Paul says:
    “But republicans and many nationalists find it degrading that the Maiden City is sending to Westminster a man, who by his very presence there, recognizes British rule in Ireland.”

    21,000 citizens of the maiden city don’t finding it degrading Paul – they kinda like the idea. Don’t you think?

    As for the principle of not taking to oath – the provos are very quick to run to British Courts time and again, they even took their own case for office space in the ‘foreign parliament’ to a UK court.

    Those are mighty fine principles to live by! I’m glad i’ve got my own.

  • brendan,belfast

    Paul says:
    “But republicans and many nationalists find it degrading that the Maiden City is sending to Westminster a man, who by his very presence there, recognizes British rule in Ireland.”

    21,000 citizens of the maiden city don’t finding it degrading Paul – they kinda like the idea. Don’t you think?

    As for the principle of not taking to oath – the provos are very quick to run to British Courts time and again, they even took their own case for office space in the ‘foreign parliament’ to a UK court.

    Those are mighty fine principles to live by! I’m glad i’ve got my own.

  • PatMcLarnon

    What is overlooked is the fact that the days of post nationalism, in SDLP terms are now effectively over. There attempt to claim not only the ground of nationalism but the mantle of republicanism is welcomed by me.
    People should also look at what is effectively the redrawing of the border. Half of the land mass of the northern part of our country is represented by abstentionist MP’s.
    The people in a private and peaceful way have withdrawn their consent to be ruled by Westminister, progress indeed.

  • brendan,belfast

    ? sorry Pat but you lost me. are SF voters purely voting for SF because of abstentionism? why do they vote SF local government and Assembly elections when they take those seats? its not all about abstensionism. in fact not much of it is.

  • andy

    The SDLP had the worst attendance record of any party at Westminster

    How did they fully represent their constituents when they where never there.

  • carlosblancos

    Jo,

    Parnell developed the pratice of obstructionism, which meant using delay tactics in the House of Commons on ALL legislation to force movement on the Irish question.

    Abstentionism followed the 1918 election where SF candidates were returned across the country, and, instead of going to Westminster, formed the 1st Dail.

  • carlosblancos

    Paul,

    Please outline exactly which ‘principles’ of republicanism preclude SDLP MPs taking their seats.

  • DerryTerry

    Carlos, call me old fashioned but i would imagine either swearing “…by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.” or affirming “…solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.” to a Queen, would sit with difficulty on the shoulders of any Republican, Irish or otherwise.

  • carlosblancos

    DerryTerry,

    According to your criteria the early leaders of the Free State, including Collins and de Valera, who both took the oath at various stages are also not Republicans? I think not.

    Perhaps if we took a look at what republicanism really means, instead of fixating on silly oaths, we could engage in a proper discussion. But somehow I’m doubting we’ll get there.

  • objectivist

    Regarding Malachi’s electoral predictions I would agree with South Belfast.I would strongly disagree with F&ST and South Down.

  • Conor

    ‘21,000 citizens of the maiden city don’t finding it degrading Paul – they kinda like the idea. Don’t you think?’

    well if thats what you think brendan, how about considering the number of nationalists in northern ireland that DONT want to remain part of britain.

  • barnshee

    “People should also look at what is effectively the redrawing of the border. Half of the land mass of the northern part of our country is represented by abstentionist MP’s.”

    The sooner the reality is reconised by fprmal realignmenty the better

  • Kevin

    I wonder why Malachi feels FST will be lost by Sinn Fein next time around? The nationalist population in the area is rising, so even if the SDLP were to make some gains surely it wouldn’t affect Sinn Fein that much. anyone got a view on this? South Down will probably stay with the SDLP and South Belfast will probably be lost to the DUP next time.