The SDLP is in a bit of a pickle at the moment with its council members in Newry and Mourne appearing to have refused the party whip over the naming of a park after local man and IRA Hunger Striker Raymond McCreesh.
The history of the park, the SDLP’s original support for its naming and the reaction to it has been well-documented elsewhere and I do not intend to revisit those issues in this column. What is interesting in this context is what appears to be the gaping chasm between the Head Office position of the party on the matter – it now supports renaming the park – and local representatives who voted with their feet and didn’t attend a meeting where such a re-naming might have taken place.
All politics is local. We all know this. The SDLP’s councillors in Newry and Mourne are the ones that are canvassing for the party on the ground day and daily, who know that a second preference vote is better than an outright no. In the communities where they canvass and work as public representatives, the McCreesh family are well-known and respected and anything that hints at disrespect for them would be a huge blow to the SDLP’s electoral results. There is no gaping chasm ideologically between Nationalism and Republicanism in an area like South Armagh, merely different shades of opinion – everyone is sound on the national question but differ on the best approach to achieving the same ultimate objective.
What’s most startling is that the position of the SDLP party HQ has the effect of making the party appear not to be nationalist at all and to be bowing to Unionist pressure, to not recognise that its roots, its policies and its identity has, in the past, been one of aspirational reunification of Ireland. If that’s no longer the case, then they need to have the guts to say so.
Alban Maginness on BBC’s The View last night said that the position of the Councillors in failing to attend the meeting, and in the case of the one member who did attend and abstained from the vote, had damaged the party. He said that it was “contrary to the position the party had established on this particular issue.” He said “they got it wrong.”
Maginness and party leader Alastair McDonnell might want to have a wee think about that. They might want to consider whether party HQ are the ones who’ve got it wrong and whose position is, in fact, more damaging to the party.
There is a huge difference between a diktat on how to vote handed down from head office and public opinion in the area – that is glaringly obvious from the mass non-attendance of councillors. Parties need to rely on their activists locally to gauge local opinion and if the SDLP’s councillors in Newry and Mourne have done that (one has spoken of her position in support of maintaining the name) then more fool the leadership for not listening.
But then again, perhaps it’s a lack of listening from the leadership that’s led to the continuing decline in the party’s electoral fortunes in the first place.
I’m fairly sure Margaret Ritchie and Justin McNulty weren’t anticipating having to deal with this as an electoral issue on the doorsteps of South Down and Newry-Armagh.