Yes Alasdair, the SDLP oppose republican criminality but is anybody listening?

Signs of life in the SDLP are an interesting sidebar in the great IRA structures  kerfuffle. Alasdair McDonnell has taken up the challenge to contradict the Guardian’s Henry  McDonald’s charge below in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, which is basically that the SDLP has played mini-me to Sinn Fein for far too long.

The SDLP may have stopped passively supporting the Sinn Fein line through those tortuous post-Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and the party is no longer perhaps the Shinners’ advert-adjuncts, but its inaction over what happened to Kevin McGuigan is evidence that it remains strategically frozen in the peace process past.

Today SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell replies.

The only party that attempted to get the issue of organised crime into the Stormont House agenda was the SDLP. We have written correspondence with the Irish and British governments pointing to this, but we were resisted and rebuked for scaremongering.

We did not give up and were successful in February when we negotiated to the 11th hour on accountability measures to govern the ( London based ) National Crime Agency, allowing it to tackle the scourge of cross-border organised crime.

Sinn Fein continues to oppose its existence here, perhaps we now know why. The Chief Constable has told us now that this current incarnation of the IRA is not a terrorist or military organisation on a war footing, but has other elements.

The police have further questions to answer. What are those other elements? Are we being asked to turn a blind eye to PIRA’s criminality because it is murdering its own members or former members?

Were the guns used to murder Kevin McGuigan from the IRA’s old stock or fresh weapons smuggled in?

(Theresa Villiers)  has admitted knowing that the IRA has existed all along. What more does the Secretary of State know that she is not telling us about – what of the side deals, was PIRA allowed to retain its criminal assets, and why has it taken so long for criminal proceedings to begin against those charged with fuel laundering and property scams in Dundalk and Manchester?

These are all fair points but they have two limitations. One is that the SDLP’s street  knowledge should be at least as good as the NIO’s and arguably far better. McDonnell’s article argues on the surface of politics and shows little independent knowledge or insight into what is going on in the communities.What is being done  to offer alternatives to the republican ethos in the Markets for instance, and what is the SDLP doing to help create it?  This is worrying for a party that needs to build up its support all over again in many places.

Two, I predict that the political dividend that all other parties are frantically trying to create will in the end be small. The electoral system gives the SDLP and the UUP chance after chance to revive. As Henry says, we are in effect in the post peace process era but the parties have yet to rise to the challenge. This row is a coda, not a new theme . Other parties need to develop their own  causes and profile rather than merely grab a handy stick to beat Sinn Fein with . By now they should have learned not to underestimate Sinn Fein’s ability to absorb pressure.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London