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.

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

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