Reflections on the SDLP, prompted by Seamus Mallon

Seamus Mallon, estimable figure that he still is, has left it a bit late  to declare  that a “fundamental mistake” was made to allow Sinn Féin into government without decommissioning. His point is not new but I don’t remember him saying it at the time. As Seamus’s successor as DFM Mark Durkan retails it: “Tony Blair at that time – we reminded him of this at Weston Park – said, ‘Yeah, you guys, your problem is you don’t have guns.” That was admittedly a handicap but is no excuse.

As the first FM and DFM,  Mallon and that equally crusty figure David Trimble made an awkward couple and failed to find enough in common to begin creating a centre ground. This has to be an important part of the verdict on them, even though they’re nicer about each other today than they were then.

The launch of the first Executive was a unique window, a huge opportunity tragically missed for both the UUs and the SDLP but above all for Northern Ireland. Later there were rumours they were contemplating calling for Sinn Fein’s suspension but they came to nothing.

Seamus’s greatest tag line was that the GFA was  “Sunningdale for slow learners.” But Sunningdale for all its brevity created a moment when all the constitutional parties as they were then called, came together without an elaborate superstructure and just got on with it. True, on what  much later were to become peace process issues, a deal was left pending, but they began to run the domestic aspects  of regional government  entirely harmoniously with SDLP ministers easily the most effective.

Paddy Devlin, minister of health, when it was suggested that the Council of Ireland might have a role in health retorted to the southerners “Get your fuckin’ hands off my ambulances.” True too, the gap between the Belfast Catholic labour tradition, more used to handling  unionists up close, and the  more conservative and greener “schoolmasters “ as Gerry Fitt used to refer to them disparagingly, was already apparent. Hume was well on the way to becoming a latter day Parnell.  Austin Currie was a sore loss.

But the big difference was that coalition in those distant days did not involve paramilitaries. Of a peace process, there was no sign.  By 1998 the calculations were very different.  To well into the 21st century, fears prevailed  that the IRA ceasefire would be broken if Sinn Fein were seriously thwarted. Peace – without without quotation marks –  took precedence over the character of regional government formation. .

However it’s not just nostalgia to say that the SDLP of 1973-4 commanded far superior talent  than the party of today. This unlike today, even though for most of the period they earned only  a single salary out of politics among them, Gerry Fitt’s at Westminster.

The explanation that  the solo run of the Hume-Adams talks sucked  the life and the raison d’etre  out of the party has some merit but is not the whole story. A party that can win 14 out of  108 Assembly seats and  almost 100,000 votes last May is still being offered repeated opportunities for rebirth.

The obvious  niche for the SDLP is to park the greener elements of nationalism  (whatever these are – nebulous to me) and champion the real interests of their constituents  by pragmatic and progressive  policies that have the added bonus of cross community appeal.  Even what’s left of traditional anti Provo Catholic support realises that a shift has to be made from McDonnell’s see- no- evil approach to social change. Sinn Fein are hoovering up enough kids  to consolidate for the post, post-Troubles era and the zeitgeist  is with them there. Can Colum Eastwood take it away from them? Who? Can the SDLP pivot towards that confident burgeoning Catholic middle  class we hear so much about, without feeling trapped by the stereotype of the nationalist oppressed or  fading memories of a belt from the crozier?  It’s  an exhilarating challenge for somebody.

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  • Brian feels the SDLP need to “park the greener elements of nationalism”. Chris Donnelly feels they need to be greener and add a 32 country dimension (well actually he thinks they should fold and become either FF or FG). The fact is does anyone actually have a clue what the SDLP can do to win back votes?

    Real politics doesn’t exist up north so there is no point in them trying to winning votes by policy as what they do inside Stormont is irrelevant when it comes to an election.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s the 26 county ambulances that are coming this way.

  • Jack fotheringham

    Mallon really is a bitter old man who hasn’t come to terms with the fact that the SDLP have been eclipsed by SF.

  • Zeno

    They have but SF have also eclipsed nationalism.

  • Zeno

    They could stop electing awful leaders?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I feel Chris is more on the ball. The facts speak for themselves far than cause a decline in the SDLP vote the post-peace process SDLP had a higher vote than before, the highest vote in Northern Ireland and certainly a higher vote than pre-Hume Adams. The big problem generally agreed among many nationalists both supporters and opponents is that the party held a sense of entitlement and didn’t adapt to a different kind of politics with competition from Sinn Féin.

    My belief is in part Sinn Féin are at risk repeating the SDLP’s mistakes in the North.

    Alasdair McDonnell winning a seat in South Belfast seem to challenge the orthodoxy and dogmas about a declining SDLP not winning seats ever again when both Irish nationalism and socialism or social democracy should be in decline. He is a policy politician, he generally sticks more to issues than those who focus on flags and stuff. By Lucid Talk reconning South Belfast should be a safe DUP seat with the SDLP not in the contest.

    The SDLP were never going to be the Northern Irish equivalent Islington branch of the Labour Party, few people think they should be.

    They clearly polled non-voters about why the party wasn’t been voted for, these independent individuals were more concerned with “green” than “red”.

  • Zig70

    SDLPs biggest mistake was confusing that bitter old man with a leader

  • Zig70

    Brian has shown with his gaffe comments that he doesn’t really get nationalists too much.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t think he got elections very well either. The 70’s SDLP had a Sunningdale brought down by civil unrest, it had one MP while Hume’s had four at one stage. Also we can’t live in a world where somehow the 17 other constituencies in Northern Ireland all behave like North Down.

  • Reader

    Sunningdale ran successfully for months, and was then brought down by civil unrest over the Council of Ireland.

  • chrisjones2

    and trying to out green SF leaving Catholic Unionists with few choices

  • Kevin Breslin

    Fairly sure there was a thing called the Ulster Worker’s Strike going on, and I’m fairly sure those involved (rather than the SDLP voodoo around the Council of Ireland controlling their free will) should have been held accountable for their own actions.

    If it wasn’t the Council of Ireland as in your reality (even though in reality the protests were about powersharing), it would’ve been because the SDLP wouldn’t just leave over the border and take Sinn Féin with them. Forget democratic mandates and all that.

  • Zeno

    Yeah, but its all about short term votes. If they stood up to SF more they would gain voters. They’ve already lost all their potential SF voters long time ago, so it couldn’t hurt.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Do you even know what do you even mean by “outgreen”?

    Doing anything that upsets the DUP the slightest these days seems to be green.

    The DUP impose a semi-technocratic government beyond public accountability to basically allow themselves to be as “orange” as possibly imaginable, as a negative means of maintaining the status quo.

    I honestly think it’s a phrase used by political unionists when they have nothing else positive to say about their own cause. Catholic unionists don’t seem to attracted to what’s being offered by parties and individuals that are on these rants, it’s a turn off for many Protestant unionists as well.

    In all honesty though I can’t tell if this is another one of those rants about Mark H banning Fracking in Fermanagh or some Hibernophobic rant about our friends and neighbours in the South who’ve seen more of Jamie Bryson on the TV over the last fortnight than they have of Gerry Adams.

  • Surveyor

    They’ve lost all credibility in the Nationalist community. On one hand you have McDonnell saying that Unionists don’t want a taig about the place, and on the other they cost Sinn Fein a seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone back in May. They don’t seem to know what they stand for.

  • James7e

    They cost Sinn Fein a seat? I didn’t realize Sinn Fein owned that particular seat. In a democracy people are free to choose which party represents them.

  • Surveyor

    The DUP and the UUP ran an election pact in Fermanagh South Tyrone. The SDLP in it’s arrogance thought they knew better. The fact that they’re now whining about being sidelined by Unionists shows up their naivety.

  • Granni Trixie

    You mean you think sectarian pacts a good idea? To SDLPs credit (Big Als credit!) they refused to do one in SB.

  • tmitch57

    Pacts are a good idea for unionists as there is little in real policy terms to separate the DUP from the UUP after Big Ian made the major policy switch in 2006; they are a bad idea for nationalists as there are major policy differences between the Shinners and the SDLP. If this hurts nationalism as a whole that’s a pity, but the Shinners are all too happy to play the sectarian card.

  • James7e

    No, I mean what I wrote. That is, that the FST seat (and FST itself) is not the personal property of Sinn Fein to lose.

  • Acrobat_747

    Sinn Fein couldn’t get the nationalist vote out to the extent that the unionists did. In fact SF vote share was down overall across the six counties.

    Simple fact is nationalists are loosing interest while unionists are turning up in droves to vote. The people who voted SDLP in FST probably would have stayed at home if there was an pact.

  • Zig70

    Bitter old man is probably a bit harsh, though he did put me off the sdlp.

  • Granni Trixie

    Whilst I agree outcomes are key, in context of NI,a Divided society, pacts encourage rather than discourage people to vote on sectarian lines. If political parties are ever to step up to the reconciliation plate here pacts are at odds with making a renewed stab at power sharing.

    As I take this view I was aghast when in a speech after the Westminster results Jonathan Bell said that the results showed that SB “had potential to be a unionist stronghold”. Sidelng value for diversity in SB, the reality of life here, is hardly progress is it? (But then he was parashooted in)

  • Reader

    The UWC were accountable for their own actions whichever of us is right about the trigger. I am definitely right that Sunningdale ran for several months before the UWC strike.

  • Gaygael

    I don’t think the SDLP can continue to ride 2 horses. It is either a social Democratic Party or it is a conservative nationalist party. It cannot continue to be both, and I would hazzard that its continuing decline is that people who expect it to be either of those two things, keep being disappointed that the opposing side seems in control. They then desert them.

    It’s the southern ambulances that need to come north. And the SDLP must choose who to throw their lot in with. And even that would be hugely divisive.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It’s the most important political task there is at present. The province urgently needs a much stronger SDLP.

    I’d tend to agree that the SDLP made both a moral and a strategic error in the Decommissioning Prevarication Years. They could have been much more understanding and supportive of moderate unionist insistence on holding SF to their decommissioning. Unpopular amongst nationalists? In the short term maybe, but it would have shown leadership and signalled a clear positioning as the party of the cross-community future, not the tribal past. Instead they bottled it, and backed up SF’s narrative, that they were being picked upon by nasty unionists trying to do them over. In preferring to think the worst of unionists rather than grabbing onto the hand that we were reaching out, they abandoned the core of the cross-community spirit briefly engendered by Good Friday.

    More tribal impulses seemed to win out. And it costs them, as they could never beat Sinn Fein on tribalism. And on the unionist side, centrist unionists were left isolated and undermined by the SDLP’s greenward orientation; while agreement skeptics on the unionist side, seeing that the nationalists weren’t supporting centrism, were emboldened; and unionist voters reacted to the greening process on the other side by seeking a counterweight against it, the DUP.

    The relative failure of the centre has had a disastrous effect; it’s not just the SDLP’s fault of course; but Mallon is belatedly right, they must take a good whack of the blame.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But it’s also important to show zero tolerance for terror apologism. Pacts to keep parties like the BNP, or SF or the Loyalist equivalent out are OK surely, in the interests of a healthy civil society with liberal values – distasteful as pacts can be.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It did, but correct me if I’m wrong the all inclusive post a Good Friday Agreement Assembly lasted longer despite its problems.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Sunningdale failed to carry the unionist community and shouldn’t be harked back to as some ideal we should all thank the far-sighted SDLP for. Truth is they overplayed their hand (understandable though, as the British and Irish governments were similarly insensitive to the popular mood). Power-sharing wasn’t the problem, it was the Council of Ireland that holed it below the water line. Insisted on by the SDLP and the Irish – but deeply disliked by many, as shown the success of anti-Sunningdale candidates when the people had a chance to vote.

    Luckily, the British government at least, if not the Irish and the SDLP, learned from the mistake. Again in the run up to the GFA, the Irish and SDLP were pushing for something similar to the Council of Ireland. It’s only because the British government and UUP resisted it that we ended up with an agreement, the GFA, that won broad acceptability from the NI people. Nationalists consistently underestimate how unpopular some of their programme is; it’s no good just railing against those resisting it. They have every right to.

  • Granni Trixie

    We will have to agree to differ.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The fact that the Ulster Worker’s Strike happened after the DUP and the Vanguard Unionist party lost a vote on powersharing, seemed to indicate that powersharing was a huge problem at the time.

    If not powersharing then simply the fact that the DUP and Vanguard Unionists weren’t in power while the SDLP and Alliance were. This was a voluntary coalition where an SDLP vote weighed as much as a DUP one and there was some degree of disgust that traditional Loyalism didn’t seem to buy any influence, particularly over mainstream unionists that had been the victims of their vitriol.

    The DUP and Vanguard unionists were the ones who overplayed their hand I’m afraid. They now oppose the all inclusive government that ensured they have a place, when the UUP at least show they do have the ability to leave it with a fairer degree of grace.
    We hear the same things these days with regards to a democratic decision made at Belfast City Hall, when legitimate protest defends to violence.

    The opposition was to Powersharing a lot more than unionists having their own direct forum with the Republic. O’Neill and Lynch were having their own all-Ireland forum years before that. Agreeing to disagree was very hard for loyalists to take. Unionism and those in the Republic were refusing to play a Strand Two approach before then and there was a lot of economic strife before that.

    Also it’s fairly ridiculous to say the Council of Ireland was a problem, when it was simply an SDLP aspiration like Irish unity. We have an interparlimentary council for both north and south, as well as east and west, we have another one for 28 countries across Europe. These are generally ignored with powersharing being labeled as a problem. With the peace funds, farm subsidies and the cross border infrastructure being made that help this place tick over the advantages of a loyalist Ourselves Alone approach is drawn into question!

    Only Insular unionism (and indeed insular republicanism) had something to fear from a Council of Ireland, because it would mean accepting a group of other people within their own community that was not completely like them, people who had been living there since the formation of the state.

    Hume’s SDLP even had their own New Ireland Forum and the McGimpsey brothers showed up to it, when the Unionist Forum was made in the wake of the flag protests there seemed no reaching out to anyone who wasn’t a big “U” unionist be that nationalists, the Alliance party or even the people of Great Britian. The two NI21 defections even showed there was mainstream unionist opposition for a them and us forum.

    It was similar when it came to opposing Equality legislation, indeed Gerry Fitt debated about taigs being labeled and excluded to Enoch Powell over 30 years ago before Alasdair McDonnell, but it doesn’t get a mention.

  • submariner

    Do you mean like not standing shoulder to shoulder with them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    This is a classic example of the “out green” criticism, read how William McCrea complains about UK citizens being forced to have driving licences they never complained about before for their absence of a flag. There are plenty of British emblems on the licence that most Irish people don’t have a problem with, but that level of tolerance is completely ignored because people who gave their lives to stop the Provos didn’t not do so, so that nationalists (some of whom were being targeted by the can’t get a Provo, get a Taig loyalist crowd) could be treated with equality and respect.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I know he was always head strong but it was nicely symbolic in a sense having an ex-GAA man from Armagh and an Orangeman in charge. I of course disagree with Mallon, guns were not the only problem. We needed the decommissioning of mindsets as well as guns.

    Without Hume-Adams, and by extension Trimble-Ervine exchanges on the other side of the fence … the bullet and the ballot box mindset would be persisting in both nationalist and loyalist communities with greater sense of purpose.

    In some ways more popular in his own constituency than even Hume was, and certainly more so as a percentage of the registered constituency electorate than his successors in Murphy and Brady.

  • tmitch57

    In reality power sharing was a problem for the DUP and for some/many in the UUP, but the Council as an issue was able to get the loyalists out on the streets to bring down the Executive. It was the loyalists of the LAW who brought down the Executive and they seemed to be ready for neither mandatory power sharing or for cross-border institutions like the Council. Plus the fact that Faulkner didn’t bother to organize his own political party after resigning from the UUP in Jan 1974 until AFTER the Executive had been brought down by the loyalist strike was a major factor as well.

  • tmitch57

    Catholic unionists can always vote for Alliance or the Greens.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’ve heard reciprocal complaints from the DUP about UKIP voters not voting for them in South Belfast. It is ironic because UKIP seem the only of the “hard unionists” to have a solid Roman Catholic membership.
    It’d be nice if the DUP believed in a cross-community union or Sinn Féin opposed the partitioning of people as much as the partition of a set of states … but I don’t think they are going to engage with that sort of eccentric abstract thinking at a time when historic grievances offer a clever distraction to austerity, better to accuse rivals of stooping down low or being lundies.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well the Greens are still too small to stand everywhere for Westminster at least, it might be interesting to see if they can in an Assembly election.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There’s really no principle here, we saw pacts being made against the Alliance Party, an ordinary former civil engineer who’s offices were targeted by terrorists in what people term a cross community party when there wasn’t one put against a person David Burnside accused of being on the IRA Army Council in Pat Doherty.

    Also loyalist parties like the PUP were signatories to pacts in both North Belfast and East Belfast.

    There was a pact against a farmer from Fermanagh South Tyrone with next to no proven or even alleged membership of the Irish republican army, but there wasn’t against Francis Brolly another outed member of the IRA, out of fears the UUP would be forgotten about there.

  • tmitch57

    The whole architecture of the GFA encourages sectarianism. The Irish academics behind the SDLP pushing the solution wanted a structure that would guarantee a safe place for the SDLP until demographic changes could deliver a united Ireland. But both the SDLP and the UUP lost out to ethnic outbidding by their tribalist rivals, SF and the DUP. A better more-appropriate structure would reward voters who vote for moderate centrist parties by requiring the first minister to have support from both communities or a minimum level of support across the province geographically. But, unfortunately, neither the DUP nor SF would go for this as it would mean their loss of power. In 1998 the two governments were primarily interested in a settlement that would allow Republican leaders to reap political benefits if the Movement gave up the use of violence. Those who were politically inclined went into politics in the Assembly and councils and those who were financially motivated went into crime.

  • tmitch57

    The Sunningdale Executive lasted for five months–Jan 1, 1974 to May 30, 1974. The first post-GFA Assembly/Executive lasted for about 34 months–Dec 1999 until Oct 2002. The SDLP learned from the experience of Sunningdale and made the powers of the Council–and their limitations–much more explicit in the North-South body of the GFA.

  • Kevin Breslin

    They may have learned from five months in power, but at the end of the day the protests were against power sharing, or at least power sharing at the expense of a certain group of unionists.

  • Reader

    Kevin Breslin: The fact that the Ulster Worker’s Strike happened after the DUP and the Vanguard Unionist party lost a vote on powersharing, seemed to indicate that powersharing was a huge problem at the time.
    According to CAIN website: “There was a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly on a motion condemning power-sharing and the Council of Ireland.”
    Simply repeating that Power Sharing wasn’t accepted isn’t a solid argument – clearly the opponents of power sharing needed the issue of the Council of Ireland to get enough momentum for the strike. Without the issue of the Council of Ireland, power sharing could have run on for month, after month, after month, after month…
    Plenty of people were slow to learn the lessons of Sunningdale. At least make sure you learn the *right* lessons.

  • Kevin Breslin

    You clearly left out powersharing which was a voluntary arrangement between a genuine parliamentary majority out of your arguement. This was simply loyalists against democracy. When people compare the reaction to a civil rights march in Derry to that of the Ulster Worker’s Strike and say nationalists were playing victims and overplaying their hand and unionists were being marginalised simply justifies the sense of sectarian supremism that existed in that group at that time.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The problem for a lot of loyalists is power lying in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland rather than absolute power resting in the hands of unionism. If the Council of Ireland was such a problem why did Faulkner’s unionists not vote against the motion?? The fact is today I was able to avoid the dole because of cross border cooperation. Why should I live in resignation simply because of someone’s paranoid fragility about their Britishness? How would me losing a job opportunity from a cross border body make them more British?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sinn Féin could hurt mainstream unionism where it really hurts, by swinging their electorate on common political causes.

    How long is Sinn Féin going to prolong unionist and provisional movement critic outreach in the greater goal of Irish reunification and constitutionally secular issues in order to protect their own caveat interests around saving the PIRA’s face and sectarian tribalism.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I agree, some of the pacts were really problematic – especially the East Belfast one. There is no justification for dealing with Alliance in that way, they are to all intents and purposes a pro-Union party.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I mean just not being them. “Standing shoulder to shoulder” isn’t enough – if being involved in common endeavours with these people rules you out, there would be literally no parties left.

    Being on a demo that happens to be also backed by paramilitary supporters, like say an anti-internment demo or NICRA ones or even the massive anti-AIA ones, doesn’t necessarily delegitimise the demo (it depends on the paramilitaries’ role, surely)? Nor does it make other people on the demo supporters of the paramilitaries, if they genuinely don’t support them, surely?

    So enough of the “standing shoulder to shoulder” stuff, you could level that same charge at any nationalist attending any demo that the IRA or SF had some involvement in – and that is a huge number. I wouldn’t do that, as I know there have been very many peaceful and well-intentioned nationalists at those events. I’ll judge them on whether they are/were properly against terrorism or not, and whether they treated terrorists with the disdain they deserve(d); I won’t immediately assume they are no better than terrorists purely because they demonstrated over an issue that terrorists also supported. I don’t think any other position is logically possible really.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    you’re half right Kevin, there was at that time genuine and deep opposition to power-sharing within unionism – nationalism, even of the SDLP variety, being still regarded with deep mistrust by a lot of unionists. I’m not saying those unionists were right – but I think their opposition is very understandable, for two reasons.

    First, N Ireland used a Westminster-style electoral system to elect its governments – nothing innately illegitimate about that – and under that system it would be unthinkable to voluntarily form a coalition if you had a majority. The reason for doing power-sharing was the special circumstances of N Ireland and I would agree it warrants a cross-community power-sharing arrangement given how the ethnic divide plays out politically. They didn’t accept N Ireland should be treated any differently than anywhere else – and that terrorism was effectively forcing this arrangement to be made, which would not be there otherwise. Further, the parties asking for this power-sharing fundamentally failed to accept Northern Ireland and were committed to its dismantling. So it was a not wholly unreasonable argument to make at that time, if not one I ultimately agree with.

    Second, we are used to thinking of the two communities as 50/50 in numbers, but in those days it was closer to two-thirds / one-third. So again, the democratic logic of needing something cross-community was much less clear-cut than today. Though as I say, nationalist numbers were big enough and their issues serious enough that I think it was foolish not to try harder to make a settlement work.

    That said, Edwards and McGrattan take a sensible view in “The Northern Ireland Conflict” when they say:
    “The principal lesson that we can draw from Sunningdale is not that a different decision – a reduced Irish dimension or having power sharing without the Council of Ireland – would have produced a different outcome. Sunningdale was not a missed opportunity precisely because the gulf between the communities was too great to begin with … unionists had an embedded distrust of power-sharing while nationalists held a deep-seated desire for gradual reuniification.”
    The Council of Ireland was what I picked out as it symbolises the nationalist side of the lack of agreement – had they not pushed for that, it might have shown they weren’t still stuck on anti-partitionism. That made life very difficult for unionists trying to persuade their own community that nationalism was no threat. But it’s fair too to flag up the unionist part of the equation (or a large part of that) wasn’t where it should have been either. So to improve upon my earlier comment about power sharing not being the problem – it was an issue for a lot of unionists, more than it should have been, but I personally think their opposition could have been overcome, had it not been for the Council of Ireland element of the package, which was simply a deal-breaker for a lot of on-the-fence unionists.

    Both sides were being a bit unreasonable and both sides learned lessons from it – unionists ultimately it seems learned more than nationalists. Power-sharing is embedded within unionism now; they are realists and to suggest any serious unionist politician seriously thinks the Province can be run other than on a cross-community basis now is daft. However, nationalism has been slower to adjust. It still can’t help itself dreaming of the deus ex machina of unification coming along to take all its problems – more specifically, unionists – away. And we still hear the supposed ‘illegitimacy’ of Northern Ireland seriously propounded by mainstream nationalists, not even extreme ones, some 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement and almost a century after partition. Sorry to be broken record on this, but I do wonder who the slow learners really are in this.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Yes, but the fact the DUP and UUP oppose STV and AV to try to win seats West of the Bann without a majority,

    It reminds me of what David Ervine said, the only way there will be a United Ireland is if political unionism drives people towards it.

    Socially, Economically and Politically I have every reason to feel happier living under laws of the Republic of Ireland, or in a constituency lead by democratically elected former IRA peace process supporters when the alternative is complete contempt and an entitlement to power over my political affairs by toxic patriarchal unionism.

    This is why the people of East Belfast voted out Peter Robinson in the first place, he did learn the lesson for a while, but he completely unlearned it later.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s where I find a problem though Kevin: you find it unacceptable that unionists are elected under the current system, on the basis that you see them as ‘patriarchal’ and ‘toxic’ – yet you have no problem having unapologetic ex-terrorists, some of whom actually murdered voters, elected. Would it be fair to say you’re demanding a much higher standard of conduct from unionists than you are of SF? Surely we should judge both by the same standards.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I would disagree on a number of points.

    1. In Westminster there are no forced marriages, a single SDLP could bring down the Callaghan government, or keep it going. Even this level of influence by nationalists was unacceptable to some unionists in Northern Ireland, yet it was happening in Westminster.

    2. There was a desire for forced marriage of pro-reform unionism and anti-reform unionism simply to impose a settlement rather than accept the settlement the people of Northern Ireland wanted.

    3. Nationalists didn’t accept the principle of consent, but unionists didn’t accept the nationalist’s right to dissent either.

    4. It was perfectly legitimate political question to ask why the principle of consent on an all-Ireland basis was ignored given the problems that Northern Ireland was creating.

    5. Nationalist/Catholic/Socialist dissent by democratic means during the Civil Rights marches was looking for equality reform, and faced violence. The Ulster Worker’s Strike never pretended for a second that equality was necessary

    6. Because of the intransigence of loyalist and republican extremists the petition of concern mechanism ensure twinned community majorities took precedence over democratic majorities. The SDLP never asked for that during Sunningdale.

    7. The legacy of the Ulster Worker’s Strike is the DUP using a petition of concern to stop investigations into Jenny Palmer in complete opposition by a super-majority of all other parties and then having the nerve to ask why the same mechanism stops welfare reform etc.

    8. A Council of Ireland had been agreed to by Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP and the British government as a compromise. The SDLP had agreed that these bodies were to have “advisory and review functions” only.

    9. This was part of the British Government’s own Government of Ireland act from 1920 that had entwined it with partition. The only real change from the Council of Ireland bodies and today’s cross border bodies is the addition of implementation bodies.

    10. And finally, you speak about a deus ex machina about Irish unity, as if it would have taken an deus ex machina for 26 counties in Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom in the First Place. Borders come and go. The Kalmar Union is much older than the Union between Great Britian and Northern Ireland even factoring the Union with the whole of Ireland before it.

    You cannot make political conservatism a God, you cannot put a ban on political flux and political change. The fact that things can change one way or the other is why many people can tolerate peace in a political situation they do not like anyway.

    For example: The main British Opposition these days is the British Labour Party find their origins in a British Government that used Draconian force against it. Now are you honestly saying that the Labour Party that emerged from that, should’ve given up in some “deus ex machina” around labour reform and suffrage because the Conservatives would never have accepted it?

    When you are in the minority be that Irish nationalism, or British socialism you look at the “ex machina”, it is the conservative elements such as the British establishment and the Unionist single party states of the time, that focus on protecting their own “deus” ensuring no political leeway even if the people are crying out for it. And the old Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the Irish Catholic Church have abused power with weak opposition in the Republic as well have been just as guilty at times.

    If it wasn’t for what Julie Anne Corr Johnson called “Mother parliament” lead by Wellington sending in soldiers to stop the Rebellion of workers we’d have the Whigs and Tories still acting like Lilliputians and Blefuscudians.

    If Irish republican dissidents want to use their right of freedom of conscience and political belief to peacefully challenge for a mandate for reform, unity on an all-Ireland basis even without the consent of the Unionist or indeed Northern Irish people, they have that right. Similarly with loyalists with regards to nationalists. Stop creating “thought crimes” here.

    As a pro-European I will defend UKIP’s right to a mandate, I’ll defend and indeed support their belief to have a more PR, UK that gives the British people a more representative parliament because I believe in that republican principle, I believe in that Irish principle even towards the British and I believe it is to some extent the Christian/Catholic thing to do.

    However I disagree fundamentally with UKIP on several issues, emotionally, intellectually and in simple self-interest but I don’t say one of us is going to have to capitulate their beliefs, lie to themselves for the rest of their life just to keep society ticking over, and as the extremist it should be you. I don’t support gerrymandering against them, particularly if it is used to later justify them gerrymandering against people like me.

    Your problem is that you want to put handcuffs and constraints on all political opposition rather than looking at growing networks to support common causes that have much bigger support than that dissent. The only handcuffs I want to see on politicians are on those who cause criminal harm and damage though unpeaceful means.

    For any shared future we can’t simply play “meet me in the middle where I stand”, we have to meet each other at our extremes, and to be fair putting handcuffs on a political aspiration you don’t like (that has limited public support anyway) is perhaps one of those extremes.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    OK then:
    1. “In Westminster there are no forced marriages, a single SDLP could bring down the Callaghan government, or keep it going. Even this level of influence by nationalists was unacceptable to some unionists …”
    Maybe, but that wouldn’t have been a problem for wider unionism, had it been only that.
    2. ” …the settlement the people of Northern Ireland wanted.” Now there’s the thing – the elections returned 11 out of 12 anti-Sunningdale MPs. More to it than that of course but it was less than clear people ‘wanted’ the Sunningdale deal.
    3. “Nationalists didn’t accept the principle of consent, but unionists didn’t accept the nationalist’s right to dissent either.’ Some truth in that, but the problem was dissenting over the over existence of the state. There is of course a right to dissent over it; but it creates big problems of trust if you do and relationships will struggle – as they did until nationalism belatedly conceded.
    4. “It was perfectly legitimate political question to ask why the principle of consent on an all-Ireland basis was ignored given the problems that Northern Ireland was creating.” Legitimate question with an easy answer. More people would find themselves living in the ‘wrong’ state in a united Ireland than with Northern Ireland. Question answered, move on.
    5. “Nationalist/Catholic/Socialist dissent by democratic means during the Civil Rights marches was looking for equality reform, and faced violence. The Ulster Worker’s Strike never pretended for a second that equality was necessary” Not every protest movement is about the same subject; I’ve been on anti-war protests in London for example as well as the massive pro-democracy protests in Northern Ireland in 85. This one happened to be about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland, which looked like it was being stitched up against the wishes of the people. Reasonable thing to protest against.
    6. “Because of the intransigence of loyalist and republican extremists the petition of concern mechanism ensure
    twinned community majorities took precedence over democratic majorities. The SDLP never asked for that
    during Sunningdale.” Not sure what this is referring to.
    7. “The legacy of the Ulster Worker’s Strike is
    the DUP using a petition of concern to stop investigations …” Not sure about this, may well agree with you on DUP, I’m no fan.
    8. “A Council of Ireland had been agreed to by
    Unionists, Alliance and the SDLP and the British government as a compromise. The SDLP had agreed that these bodies were to have “advisory and review functions” only.” Yes but the problem, as evidenced by the elections, was that Faulkner did not carry the unionist people with him. British and Irish governments should have taken his pleas a bit more seriously that the agreement wouldn’t hold.
    9. “This was part of the British Government’s own Government of Ireland act from 1920 that had entwined it with partition. The only real change from the Council of
    Ireland bodies and today’s cross border bodies is the addition of implementation bodies.”
    Crucially the GFA allowed for Stormont to have a veto on cross-border bodies in terms of their number, identity and remit, so unionists could make sure they didn’t become a vehicle for creeping unity by the back door. Huge difference.
    10. And finally, you speak about a deus ex machina about Irish unity, as if it would have taken an deus ex machina for 26 counties in Ireland to break away from the United Kingdom in the First Place.” How so?
    “Borders come and go. The Kalmar Union is much older than the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland even factoring the Union with the whole of Ireland
    before it.”
    True. Borders change and I’m not against all border change. NI stays in the UK because it reflects the wishes of the people, indeed the wishes of people BOTH sides of the border, since 1998.
    “You cannot make political conservatism a God, you
    cannot put a ban on political flux and political change.”
    Well, I’m on the left, so I don’t “make political conservatism a God”. All I stand up for here is that the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland on sovereignty, expressed many times without room for doubt, are respected. I hope that within the UK, we create as progressive and dynamic a country as possible where *real* change is possible. The border is an irrelevant side show these days; indeed it always was.
    “If Irish republican dissidents want to use their right of freedom of conscience and political belief to peacefully challenge for a mandate for reform, unity on an all-Ireland basis even without the consent of the Unionist or indeed Northern Irish people, they have that right. Similarly with
    loyalists with regards to nationalists. Stop creating “thought crimes” here.”
    That would make them dissident Republicans though. SF signed up to the peace process and the GFA, which makes it clear any future change in status of Northern Ireland needs to be by a vote of its people, not people anywhere else – which just reflects the position in international law anyway. If a few people wish to argue for anything else, that is of course possible and their right to object to the GFA, but their arguments are paper-thin and should not detain us long. The GFA settled that one.
    “Your problem is that you want to put handcuffs and constraints on all political opposition …”
    Do I really? Based on what? As a supporter of HM Opposition, I wasn’t expecting that one 😉
    “For any shared future we can’t simply play “meet me in the middle where I stand”, we have to meet each other at our extremes, and to be fair putting handcuffs on a political aspiration you don’t like (that has limited public support
    anyway) is perhaps one of those extremes.”
    It’s unclear why you think I’m “putting handcuffs” on Irish nationalism. Its only handcuffs are that it needs a democratic vote in its favour in N Ireland. I’m not imposing any other barrier than that – its own failure to persuade people is barrier enough to its success.

  • Kevin Breslin

    1. It clearly was.

    2. Westminster is not a real referendum, it is a biased poll that can leave 30% in charge of 70% on a split vote.

    Look at the election of my party’s own leader as South Belfast MP, it’s good for my politics, but it shows a clear problem with the political system. Do you really believe Belfast is 50% DUP, 50% Nationalist and literally nothing in between on a Westminster Poll?

    My party opposed this gerrymandering during the AV referendum, even if it could have cost McDonnell his seat in South Belfast. Unionists oppose it because they feared they may need votes from the other side to win Fermanagh South Tyrone or even South Belfast.

    Unfortunately, members of the Labour Party put success before principle and backed the No campaign on that one. Yet if it existed in the last campaign the irony would be it could have had the seats in England and Scotland to maybe form a coalition government.

    They are suckered in to the trickle down democracy of the Conservative Party and the Unionist Unity crowd.

    There are people within the Labour Party who think nothing changes.

    I’m not going to take lectures in accepting the principle of consent while you are almost defend a system where an MP doesn’t need the consent of the majority of people living there to represent them by using it as a metric.

    Would say nationalists only need 10 Westminster MPs (or indeed 9 if it’s reduced to 16) in order to achieve Irish unity?

    It’s hypocritical you might actually oppose Scottish Independence on the basis that all but 3 of their MPs are Scottish Nationalists!

    In Stormont a majority of seats backed power-sharing with a plurality of the local electorate, yet your argument a minority of people who just happened to be Westminster politicians said “Overruled”

    Westminster’s election system is corrupt to its political core particularly in comparison to that used in Stormont, European elections on this island and Dáil Éireann and it’s made even worse by The House of Lords, or as it should be called The House of Despots.

    As far as I am concerned there is nowhere more “anti-principle of consent” when it comes to public consent and political power in modern Western European politics than the British political system as it now stands.

    The EU elections over the United Kingdom is a far better mirror of itself, warts and all.

    You say you are left wing, but in my opinion is anyone who believes in meritocracy, in social democracy and the value of work could not look at that political system and not be disgusted. No one without a mandate should ever be in executive power, and I’m speaking particularly about the Lords here, and First Past the Post is nothing more than modern day gerrymandering.

    3. Northern Irish unionism was founded on the basis of opposing the will of the people of Ireland. Rather than creating a power-sharing home rule parliament in Ireland or in Northern Ireland, it created a state that large numbers of its population both nationalist and unionist could never really accept.

    A proof of this was loyalist opposition to O’Neill’s reforms which was unilaterally carried out by unionists.

    My point being not only was there them and us between Irish nationalist and Northern Irish Unionists, but there was them and us within Political Unionism as well, and that was causing problems for the NI Parliament when there was no power sharing, no Council of Ireland.

    You can bang on about Principle of Consent or Articles Two and Three but the real issue here is the will for equality on both sides.
    Do you think the UK and Spain cut diplomatic ties because the Spanish don’t recognize Gibraltar, or UK and Russia cut diplomatic ties because the UK doesn’t recognize the Crimea referendum.

    Non-recognition was never going to stop business. I don’t really recognize partition in the sense I grew up with the Republic of Ireland a big part of my life, I don’t live in an island that’s like Cyprus, I don’t live with border controls … I’m happy enough to go to the Connemara Gaeltacht or Dublin City or to Sandy Row or inner city Lisburn and actually feel a strange sense of home wherever. That’s just me personally. There are British people who may feel the same way, and Irish people who are more comfortable in England or Scotland of course.

    Whether removing the political borders is going to change people or emancipate people is a different question. But when Famine and War were causing Ireland problems and there was a feeling that the Union with Britain wasn’t helping people wanted separatism.

    The Principle of Consent gives a tangible means of peaceful Irish unity, The principle of Consent verifies that the United Kingdom has no “selfish, strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. From a republican point of view an Ireland of its own making that includes Unionists who want to make it British or indeed Orange. This emerged even in the militant psyche of Padraig Pearce:

    “One great source of misunderstanding has now disappeared; it has become clear within the last few years that the Orangeman is no more loyal to England than we are. He wants the Union because he imagines it secures his prosperity, but he is ready to fire on the Union flag the moment it threatens his prosperity”

    Partition exists because both sides wanted consent for their own nation and both sides said no. Did Parnell recognize the Penal Laws that kept him from parliament? Do Orangemen recognize the Jaccobite claim to the British throne?

    There are perfectly pragmatic reasons behind “not recognizing” the official state line… and in some extent it’s a necessity of politics not to recognize something you feel is wrong.

    To me one of the Greatest Achievements was the Anglo-Irish Agreement, not because it worked, but it provoked unionism into thinking about Strand Two in the South and Nationalism into thinking about Strand Three with Britain in the East and what their ideologies really mean in these contexts.

    Also as unreasonable as Irish nationalist demands may’ve been, they are not the reason for every single unreasonable action carried out by Northern Irish unionism, and I’m not going to recite a list here.

    This mentality is completely against the Aristotelian Principle that the true path to power starts Power over ones’ self and responsibility for one’s own actions.

    When the Republic of Ireland became independent there was a point where things were no longer England or Great Britain’s fault. I would like to see that politics here, where collective responsibility comes before assigned blame. I don’t believe any of the five parties are willing to give up the blame game any time soon, unfortunately.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think the political system is toxic, I think pacts are toxic and patriarchal, and I think any politician can have a right if they get a mandate from the people. I think we should ask why people in an area elect Bobby Sands or indeed Billy Hutchinson to council level rather than live in denial about the constituency make up through a gerrymandering attempt.

    Unionists in the DUP, UUP and TUV did not say transfer to the SDLP and Alliance and not to Billy Hutchinson in the Belfast City Council elections, to keep the “unrepentant terrorists” out and I don’t ever expect them to.

    I don’t think in their eyes innocent Catholic people who lived in Belfast deserved to die at his hands. In reality I don’t think political unionism’s moralising about the PUP and SF who are overwhelmingly full of people who are not convicted terrorists and do not build their politics around paramilitary organisations has anything to do with delivering justice.

    Whether it’s Billy Hutchinson or Gerry Kelly, they do have the right to stand under UK or indeed Irish law, and their mandate is not a unilateral support for them killing again, but their ability to do their job in the here and the now.

    To have the nerve to moralize opposing Irish republicans while not opposing loyalists like for like is simply sectarian.

    There are members of Security forces and Armed forces elected in constituencies where they killed people also, some of whom may be innocent and their mandate is not a unilateral support for them killing again, but their ability to do their job in the here and the now.

    Michelle Gildernew was not a terrorist, Micky Brady was not a terrorist, Justin McNulty and John Coyle were not terrorists. Naomi Long certainly was not a terrorist, and Dr McDonnell treated victims of terrorists and they were going to have a pact against him too.

    They used a pact against Gerry Kelly one time, and they did not do so before. The main impression is that the fear of Gerry Kelly winning the seat mattered more than the people of North Belfast.

    There will be in less than a generation a Sinn Féin party as absent of IRA members as the SDLP and Fianna Fáil, when pacts (and I am under no hope that it is an if) are used against this new McDonald-Pearce led Sinn Féin it will only be because “they do not want a Taig about the place” which a lot of people think is simply the problem they have now.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “To have the nerve to moralize opposing Irish republicans while not opposing loyalists like for like is simply sectarian.”
    I hope you’re not accusing me of doing that? And I’m not sure there are many unionist politicians you can accuse of that either.

    With SF being riddled with former terrorists, obviously this is a major problem. You would hope it will become less of a one as that generation ages and withers away. But the problem is less who the individuals are and more what they think and say about the Troubles. The supposedly ‘clean’ younger generation seem no more willing to condemn the IRA’s “armed struggle” than the older generation, though they condemn Loyalist terrorism easily enough and focus an oddly disproportionate energy on bigging up the relatively small (in proportion to what the IRA did) number of mistakes by security force personnel. The IRA itself couldn’t have written a more IRA-friendly script for this narrative. The rest of us see it for what it is: pathetic attempts at self-justification by guilty men unwilling to face up to the full brutal, cruel reality of what they chose to do, in which tens of thousands of lives were shattered.

    The younger generation certainly seem unwilling to challenge what their father and uncles did and speak truth to power. They don’t seem to be rocking the boat at all. So let’s not pin all our hopes on generational change, though it should help to some extent.

    Unionists have proven time and again willing to go into government with SF, despite their understandable distaste for a party that so recently murdered its political opponents and poured vitriol on hundreds of thousands of British people in Northern Ireland merely for their ethnicity. They went into government anyway. The charge that unionists are unwilling to make compromises to get things working is simply hot air I’m afraid.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    OK that’s probably too much for me to respond to – and I think I made my point anyway in the last post. We’ll move on. But look, I’m pro-PR as well, and voted for the change in 2011 – but it was a fair vote and sadly most people didn’t agree with us. In the light of that we have to accept the FPTP system has democratic legitimacy.

    It produces anomalies of course, not least UKIP in 2015 getting 4 million votes and 1 seat. It needs to change in my view. But it’s going way, way too far to say results under the current system are not to be respected.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’m not accusing you of anything. My problem here is that political unionists use pacts for their own self-interest and it makes little difference to tackling para-militarism or tackling the justification for it among Sinn Féin supporters.

    If anything pacts will simply increase support for paramilitaries, increase support for Sinn Féin or any other group they are used against and they increase support for Irish unity.

    It would be better to force the electorate to forget about the IRA by tackling bread and butter issues, by tackling the economic issues, by facing up to the crisis in our health service, by acknowledging everyone’s contribution to a better society regardless of their differences. By letting the police and judiciary do their jobs without prejudice and by due process.

    This is not a blind eye to terrorism but rather an appeal for calm, and an appeal for justice not bitterness.

    We also need to face up to our reality, Sinn Féin has the highest number of Queen’s University Belfast graduates in our society. To me the problem is not Sinn Féin, but Sinn Féin’s supporters having such critical contributions to our society.

    We moan about brain drains and skill shortages, but the elephant in the room is that we cannot substitute political narcissism for merit. The idea of a pick and mix society carved up along comfortable lines between customers and service providers has to go. Equality legislation has put an end to it.

    If Sinn Féin supporters (not Sinn Féin) are described as “Scum” by these individuals it is a message that political unionism doesn’t think that Irish people, Irish nationalists, Irish republicans who are filling the structural employment gaps in our society have any right to actually be here.

    If people want a shared future, we can’t have people demanding that their doctor, teacher, engineer etc. does not support Sinn Féin or whoever else. We can’t have a society where we have one side demanding that their neighbours stop supporting the other side.

    This is a problem for many anti-republican Unionists, they want Northern Ireland to work, but they don’t want a republican about the place. That makes things very difficult for the British to adopt the non-partisan, non-sectarian approach when tribal bottom lines become the only show in town.

    Unfortunately too many political Unionists want to be a mouthpiece because that’s the only talent they may have. The fact that many Sinn Féin candidates are similar demagogues is no advantage to them either.

    It is difficult for unionists when they enter a pact to clearly say they oppose terrorism, without being accused that they also oppose Catholics, Nationalist, Republicans, Liberals, Left-wingers, Environmentalists or whoever threatens their personal microcosm image of what Ulster is as well.

    If you read the Westminster Hansard you can see what some of these unionist politicians do with their mandates. When Slyvia Herman is discussing community based action being a positive in reconciliation and bringing people together, Sammy Wilson throws in a shout out to Kyle Lafferty, goading the Secretary of State that she can’t get a last minute winner in the talks process.

    If Northern Ireland is to work, the political diversity, the religious diversity, the ethnic diversity, the sexual diversity can’t simply be ignored. I’m not saying Unionists shouldn’t be themselves, but that all politicians should be representatives rather than individualistic personalities, and pacts very much appeal to the latter in my opinion.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I respect the results, and the AV vote defeat. My issue was reading support for an issue by a system that does not accurately represent the public choice.

    In other words 11 out of 12 unionist MPs opposing Sunningdale doesn’t say that represents Unionist views.

    The pro-White paper UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party had a public vote of 55%, 41 seats to 23 (24 if you want to include the abstaining anti-Sunningdale “Republican Clubs”) with the Northern Ireland Labour Party seat closer to the Government stance than the Protest stance initially.

    It was quite obvious that the 23 anti-Sunningdale would be outvoted opposing the pro-White Paper UUP because they were outnumbered by the SDLP and Alliance.

    Interesting to note the West Belfast result in these results. Most anti-Sunningdale but also most Loyalist.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I wouldn’t disagree with a lot of that but would challenge the assumption that unionist attitudes are any more problematic than those of nationalists. We’ve seen precious little progress on parity of esteem for the British tradition and identity in NI since the great promises Irish nationalists made in 1998 to turn over a new leaf. If anything, it’s gone in the opposite direction. Neither community is helped by having SF and the DUP respectively as their most prominent voices. I wouldn’t lump moderate nationalists in with SF and would urge you not to be tempted to imagine moderate unionists are all just the DUP in disguise. They really aren’t.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I would lump a few moderate nationalists with Sinn Féin and a few moderate unionists with the DUP … and say there are of course “moderate nationalists” within Sinn Féin and “moderate unionists” in the DUP. By moderate I mean extremely proud and secure of their identity and politics with the moderation to respect those people who are different to them.

    Compared to the early 90’s I would almost call both the DUP and Sinn Féin moderate parties, closer to the UUP and SDLP respectively than to the parties that they once were.

    On the issue of pacts, I don’t see how a pact sends any message to criminality or terror, that’s more the role of policing and justice. I don’t approve of trial by election. There does need to be a politically independent judiciary to judge guilt and innocence.

    A pact for unionism, even a pact against abstentionism … is a lot more honest a line to sell than a “non-terrorist” pact, the vast majority of people are non-terrorists. Politicians should be judged on their actions, not their opinions. You could have the most benevolent opinions on the planet but be the most laziest politician around. Good politicians earn a respect for their traditions and beliefs.

    The simple issue here with Tom Elliot and with Gavin Robinson is that if they play the tribal chief role like Ken Maginnis and Peter Robinson, they’ll get booted out again by their constituents and no pact is going to help them, one lives in a mixed constituency and the other with a mixture of liberal and working class unionists.

    I know what these people are against, but I don’t know what they are for (apart from the obvious in terms of the union, which of course only comes into the equation on a border referendum).

    I do know to some extent what Lady Slyvia Herman and Danny Kinahan even Jeffrey Donaldson stand for, but I can’t say as much for Nigel Dodds, Tom Elliot or Gavin Robinson.