“to Sinn Fein and hardline nationalist commentators it is nothing short of a declaration of war..”

During the Politics Show discussion Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd attempted to deflect attention towards the SDLP’s Mark Durkan’s recent speech. In the Sunday Times Liam Clarke provides a timely reminder of the history behind that tactic.

The most backward sections of northern nationalism were enraged that Durkan had put another nail in the coffin of the so-called “pan-nationalist front” which has dominated the movement since the mid-1980s. The expression was first used by Adams, but became more widely known after being adopted as a term of abuse by unionists. It fell into disuse after it was cited by loyalist terrorists to justify attacks on the SDLP, but the fury shown by Sinn Fein towards Durkan demonstrates that it is still a powerful factor in Sinn Fein’s thinking. The party still believes that the SDLP owes it something.

The pan-nationalist front, which chopped years off the IRA’s campaign and helped tempt republicans out of the cul-de-sac of violence, was based on the thinking of Father Alec Reid, the Redemptorist priest who oversaw the decommissioning of IRA weapons, and a mediation group based in Clonard monastery. Reid first mentioned it to me in 1985. His big idea was that the moral authority and political clout of the Catholic church and the broader nationalist community could be substituted for the IRA campaign of violence. If republicans believed that some of their objectives could be secured by peaceful means with the help of broader nationalism, then the campaign could be ended.

Reid recruited Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, then the Irish government and John Hume for different aspects of this project. It was never meant to be a permanent arrangement. It was a way of bringing republicans into the constitutional fold and weaning them off violence. It was meant to be an assistance when it was needed, not a meal ticket for life.

Over the years Sinn Fein has come to take the support of broader nationalism as a given. The party has characterised those who say it’s time Sinn Fein stood on its own two feet as backsliders. The list now includes Durkan as well as Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern.

Pan-nationalism enabled Sinn Fein to hollow out the SDLP and to trade on other people’s political capital. Sinn Fein believes it can keep borrowing against the resources of others but it is wearing a bit thin. It faces the political equivalent of the credit crunch and is being asked to pay its own bills in a competitive political environment.