What’s required is a Leader to bring about SDLP unity, not Irish unity…

Ian Parsley’s been doing some quietly impressive analysis pieces on the sidelines of NI politics. His latest piece is on what (and it’s easy to forget) has only just become the SDLP’s leadership campaign:

Firstly, as discussed on this blog earlier in the week, Irish unity is not about to happen and people know it. The SDLP’s constitutional stance is clear, but it is also largely irrelevant unless is can be given extra meaning (in the same way the Alliance Party gave extra meaning to its anti-sectarian stance by emphasising the costs of segregation – no matter what your view on that, it’s relevant and interesting to the same degree “North/South makes sense” is boring and forgettable). Mr McGlone makes matters even worse by hiding behind slightly ambiguous language – apparently it’s about “unity of the Irish people”, whatever that means.

Secondly, it is already obvious that the SDLP is carving itself up. What is required is a Leader to bring about not Irish unity but SDLP unity. Starting immediately with the suggestion that you are smarting because you weren’t picked for a position, and suggesting that the only grounds you would have been picked was time of service (and, implicitly, that you were in another faction) is as pointless as it is divisive. What difference would McGlone make as a Minister, that Attwood isn’t making? What difference, for that matter, would McGlone make as a Leader, that Ritchie isn’t making or that McDonnell wouldn’t make?

It’s early days. Very little of substance has yet risen to the surface. But there are some fundamentally useful questions in there that all any candidate ought to consider carefully. Not least because the answers to them will define the size and shape of their ambition.

For themselves surely, and for their party of course. But also for the people whom the seek to represent. It’s the lack of ambition, and courage of conviction that defines the difference between themselves and their nationalist rivals.

Whomever takes the lead needs to express some degree of appetite and ambition if the party is to become relevant to future voters.


  • FuturePhysicist

    It’s an interesting mix from Parsley, in one sense sympathetic to the SDLP as reformists and committed democrats and squeezing in a few unionist titbits here or there. I will say that it’s right that McGlone talks about a united people rather than simply all-Ireland party mergers, because social unity on the ground is the only thing that will cause Ireland to be a united nation, the political parties and whatever divisions or diversities that exist within are very much a secondary issue in that regard, doesn’t matter if they’re an all Ireland party or part of an Irish Nationalist front.

    In terms of uniting a party, well we know from the very beginning that the SDLP was in some sense a coalition group between Irish Nationalists, Republicans and Socialist/Social Democrats. The unity was a common purpose, not a charisma from Hume, Fitt, Mallon, Devlin or Currie but rather a common desire to ensure Civil Rights and better representative democracy ahead of military insurrection in the North, alongside that of Irish Unity. I’m sure in the 70’s people would’ve asked what meaning this group had and not have seen what the party had been working towards with the people at the grassroots. Something I believe Patsy McGlone and McDonnell has highlighted.

    I believe that the unity is there and the common purpose of the party is still there, the courage of the conviction was shown in Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast that principle comes before electoral success, In the long run I think that principle does win out in the end against short term populism, even here.

    I remember a youtube video from Monica McWilliams that asserted out of all of the 10 parties at the talks, the Woman’s Coalition had achieved the most of what they campaigned for, in a way it had brought progressive politics when so many had resorted to hard-balling and petty machoism, their “meaning” had the most resonance and assertiveness with being accepted by the rest of the other parties. She herself won a seat in South Belfast on the basis of a broad demographic of liberal unionists, moderate nationalists, republicans, loyalists and centrists who couldn’t stand the APNI.

    The SDLP does however have a broader electorate to represent, and a broader party base. I do believe though that voters will have to jude the party’s unity not from its head but from its body.

  • FuturePhysicist

    * judge, not jude. sticky g it seems.

  • DC

    Mind you many would settle for a leader that could do both.

  • Rory Carr

    “…the Alliance Party gave extra meaning to its anti-sectarian stance by emphasising the costs of segregation – no matter what your view on that, it’s relevant and interesting to the same degree “North/South makes sense” is boring and forgettable”

    Or, at least, so says Parsley, which, while very nice of him to tell us his preference, is about as meaningful as him telling us that he prefers to sing “Red River Valley” rather than “Clementine” while having a bath.

    It does however gives us a little clue as to where his heart lies in the matter of anything touching upon North-South co-operation, especially, we might think, any co-operation which might illuminate the potential for good of national unity.

    “If only,” we can almost hear him mutter, “they would drop all that pesky United Ireland stuff, there might even be a home for me.”

    And indeed there might and, who knows, someday maybe even…. perhaps? just posiibly?

    But no, we will draw a discreet veil over such speculation. Too much excitement already in one day.

  • Rory Carr

    But what of this from Eamonn O’Mallie’s Twiiter page opposite:

    “leadership will there be an agreed candidate in the SDLP to avoid bloodletting with guarantees given”

    Does anyone have any further details?

  • IJP

    Rory et al.,

    My diagnosis could be right or wrong, you can take it or leave it, but here’s one thing I’m certain won’t get any party out of the abyss: ignoring reality, and ignoring people merely on the grounds you don’t like them rather than by disproving the evidence they put forward for their case.

    Two things in particular: the evidence – from polling – points clearly consistently to less interest in a “United Ireland” year on year. If there is opposing evidence, I’d gladly see it. I would further opine that the very fact that people choose to dismiss a broadly centre right Alliance voter as “unionist” (and then use that designation to dismiss his argument without providing a shred of contrary evidence) is one reason for that!

    Secondly, I noted that Alliance had made its anti-sectarian stance more relevant than the SDLP has made its Nationalist stance. Does anyone even remember “North/South makes sense”? Did it even hint at catching the popular imagination? Yet the costs of segregation have become widely accepted, at least as an issue (whether you accept it or not), to the extent that it is frequently quoted by people as varied as voluntary sector chiefs and the Secretary of State. Since 2005, when that was first put forward, the Alliance vote has consistently risen and the SDLP’s consistently declined – the SDLP now receives fewer than 2 votes for every Alliance vote; in 2003 that was over 4.

    The evidence is indeed that the SDLP, like the UUP, will ignore those warnings. If I were being pettily pro-Alliance partisan about that, I wouldn’t even bother publicising my thoughts. But I happen to believe the UUP’s and SDLP’s failure to provide a serious and responsible alternative to what we have is bad for our democracy. I am but one commentator, but the one thing I do ask, again for the sake of our democracy, is that we judge arguments on the merits of the case and the evidence applied, not by labelling people and using those labels to ignore some inconvenient points.

  • DC

    There you are Rory, stuff his motives – if any, what about the merits?

  • Or to put it another way the SDLP receives nearly 2 votes for every vote AP gets.
    Or to put it another way in May 1973, the AP actually got more votes than the SDLP.
    IJPs views on Party unity is always interesting

  • Statistics are always problematical, fjh. I’ve been browsing through some earlier results and note that APNI got almost 95,000 votes in local government in 1973. That sort of turn-out now would almost justify two seats in the Executive.

  • Rory Carr

    I am quite properly chastened. I did vector in on Ian Parsley’s presumed motives based upon a judgement that I have made of him which in itself was based upon what I know of his political career to date and how I view that.

    It was wrong of me and I apologise.

  • ThomasMourne

    The SDLP had the important role in the past of giving voters a democratic, non-violent alternative to Sinn Fein.

    The political situation has changed and it is past time for the SDLP to try to keep up with the changes.

    Their main purpose now should be to provide non-sectarian politics for any voter in N.I., if necessary in partnership with other parties.

    Unite the people of N.I. and drag them away from sectarianism [or at least try to] and then the North/South situation can be put on the agenda.

  • Rory Carr

    But Thomas it was ever the SDLP that was the party that had the blessing of the Catholic Church. Indeed the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland could (to paraphrase an old saw about the CofE and the Tories) well be said to have been “the SDLP at prayer” (or at least the Catholic middle class at prayer). Whereas Sinn Féin was forever being read out from the pulpits, being condemned by bishops, its adherents under threat of excommunication if not damned to hell.

    The SDLP are the Catholic party, the sectarian party if you insist on applying such a label to any anti-unionist party. Sinn Féin are the Republican party avowed to embrace all, Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. That warm embrace yesterday wrapped its arms around a minister of a Derry Presbyterian church himself a Britsh Army chaplain. Now that’s inclusive!

    But of course the reality is that it is the unionist parties and the unionist parties alone that have fostered sectarianism in this land of ours. It would be laughable if it were not tragic that those who oppose their inherent sectarianism are themselves branded sectarian because of that opposition.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Firstly the SDLP have recruited many Protestants and Dissenter in the past, I don’t recall at any time there being a Sanctifying Ceremony taking place.

    Secondly, the only organisation linked to Sinn Féin that the church condemned was the IRA, and let’s remember the civil rights taken away by the child abuse of Infanticide:

    Bernadette and Carol Anne McCool 9 & 4- Killed in a bombing by the IRA

    Angela Gallagher 1 – Shot by Sniper near a BA base

    Tracey Munn & Colin Nicholl 2 and less than 1 year old – killed in a sectarian bombing campaign in the Shankill

    Rosaleen Gavin 8 – Shot by Sniper near a BA base

    Alan Jack 0 – Killed in a car bomb

    Kathryn Eakin 9 – Killed in the blastzone of three car bombs

    The last one was of course the Claudy bomb possibly organised by a priest Fr James Chesney.


    Now let’s compare the position Ivan Cooper of the SDLP took here against the Catholic Church, to the one taken by Francis Brolly of Sinn Fein in the same area!

  • FuturePhysicist
  • Future Physicist,

    “I will say that it’s right that McGlone talks about a united people rather than simply all-Ireland party mergers”,

    The words are well meaning but the message is not. On the contrary, it is a confusing contradiction similar to Margaret Ritchie’s utterances about seeking a shared future.

    When an Alliance politician uses the term “shared future,” the words have substance. When the same words are uttered by an SDLP politician it sounds utopian and hollow. That is because Nationalism is, by its nature, factional. The stronger Nationalism becomes, the less likely there is any hope of cross-communal unity.

    SDLP supporters reading this wont like it but they have to accept the fact that they can not ride two horses travelling in different directions and be successful at the same time.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Nationalism works both ways, unionism is another form of nationalism, let’s remember. It’s also worth remembering that a community can be bigger than a nation.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I don’t believe that simply aspiring a United Ireland is the stumbling block to a divided society in the here and now, After all the Ireland of the future may be a lot more pluralist and amicable to current Unionists than the Britain of the future may be, and the pendulum may swing the other way. The reality is that nations are what the people make them to be, we are not the only region of the world with a constitutional dispute, with the possible exception of Iceland there is not one region of Europe without one.

    However, even in Iceland the issue of the power of sovereignty and self determination, in the form of a nation’s independence is of course challenged by a global economic system, and where like in the Republic of Ireland ambition has surrendered to realism, as to which the United Kingdom is far from immune itself. To say such disputes are irrelevant in modern times is highly disputable when parties left, right and centre in Europe are playing patriot games to get votes.

    Also it is worth remembering that the biggest sectarian catalyst have been social and in particular social class segregation, which elitists sometimes with liberal views and were popular with the media often ignored. These challenges need to be addressed but the simple sticky plaster of a “Big Society” policy without substance or sustenance will not impose the growth of a shared society, simply expose a fleeting ideology, to those who are effected by it of the conveniences in forced marriages.

    A shared future is never some hybridised romanticised, Unitarian Zeitgeist that plays well to the media, a real shared future is founded on the courage and altruism of people who can look beyond superimposing their own identity onto other people and find effective ways to resolve conflict, disagreements and provisions.

    I’m guessing Parsley is not a fan of what has become the common ground between “Tiocfaidh ár lá” and “No Surrender” that governs this region but the will of the people wish otherwise to have this diplomatic settlement at this time. Of course any alternative will have to look at a wider range of people, perhaps even forming stranger alliances (pardon the pun) who may see beyond what these parties represent, and can offer a practical improvement.