We need to talk about the SDLP…

Over the past few days there has been some great thoughts and discussion on Cleenish’s posts, something I have to thank all of those who have commented for. It’s been a resounding success and a great starter to a process I hope will allow us to start to move to think gerry fittout loud about how to create an agreed Ireland, one where we try and melt the border so to speak.

There was a post from Sir Ike Broflovski in the first part of Cleenish’s posts which got me thinking about a number of things, here it is below:

‘I happen to think one vehicle for helping progressive or lefty prods out of the stifling unionist cul-de-sac without losing any Catholic support is an all-Ireland openly pro-unity Irish Labour Party that includes (obviously) the Irish Labour Party, alongside the nationalist and/or left leaning membership of the Alliance Party, the SDLP and maybe even some random bits of unionist parties – offering a bridge through the wider Labour movement to British and Irish reservoirs of principle, tradition and new thinking like the GB Labour Party’s Irish Society, the Fabian Society, the Christian Socialist movement and also, of course, the Unions. That’s the party I’d like to be part of anyway.

I really think that’s the next stage for the SDLP but it will have to have a think about whether it might be suffering a bit of what Cleenish identifies as a disabling “Northern” orientation and whether that orientation leads it to be a bit communal at times – more a protector of community rights within the North than an active all-Ireland integrator. (emphasis added)’

Whether he is on to something, we can all discuss later, however, I wonder what the SDLP does nowadays. What is its purpose to the Nationalist community it serves other than to be not Sinn Fein? What has the party achieved by way of political success or convincing the voting public that a United or Agreed Ireland is the way forward? Where is there vision as to what the future should be outside of john humebroad, sweeping statements about how we should all get along because I am at a loss as to what they do.

Am I the only person who thinks this? Look at Ruarai over on Slugger O’Toole in a piece where I felt he over egged the pudding too much but he does have a number of very valid points with this being the one that stands out for me:

‘Irish nationalism is drifting. Its would-be voters are caught between a secret desire to see just how far Sinn Fein can take their all-Ireland project – and in fairness to Sinn Fein, at least they have one – and a sense that local politics is essentially a theatrical sideshow staffed by empties. The project is being left to two relatively small and, in different ways, dysfunctional political parties north of the border.’

At least Sinn Fein has something of a strategy and are working an all island angle, where’s the SDLP’s? This is not good enough and we should be expecting more from our elected representatives. A United Ireland is their raison d’etre yet we’ve got Bo Diddley of real substance from the SDLP since the GFA when we should have their reps out front row and centre telling us how they’re pushing for practical cross border cooperation, bringing a realistic vision and a sense from their representatives that they can achieve something.

mark durkanI am not for one second suggesting that we should have Nationalist ‘unity’ as we need choice, we need to hear different opinions and we need as many parties as possible so as to enfranchise as many Nationalist voters as possible, however, what I am questioning is whether the SDLP is the vehicle for centre-left nationalism that will help achieve something. Has it gone as far as it can and perhaps its members should disband and go their separate ways, whether off to Fianna Fail, Southern Labour, Fine Gael and, dare I say it, APNI? As FJH has noted on his own page many times, the party is a broad church of Nationalists, Republicans, Social Democrats and Socialists. I would also add that it has often been seen as a party of middle-class Catholics too and their decision to support continued discriminatory practices in relation to Catholic schooling back home could be seen in this light, something Sinn Fein didn’t support. This leads me to think of them as increasingly parochial and a  party that is incapable of representing me and my aspirations.

The ever sage FJH noted that he was at an SDLP Youth Conference in Doire over the weekend and it appears to have been quite an interesting discussion, I regret not going to be honest. What I found particularly telling though is the well spotted disconnect between the big words of SDLP representatives and their actual workings:

‘Conall McDevitt stated that the “real” division is between the “haves and have nots” but is committed to the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA is “ours” and I think he was speaking both in terms of the SDLP AND Norn Iron. He believes that Nationalism ” needs to change” and should be having a conversation with itself… Conall’s call for conversations within Nationalism would have more credibility if a Sinn Fein MLA was asked on a Panel at a SDLP Conference. ….have we not heard enough of Davey Adams, Rev Norman Hamilton, Duncan Morrow, Mary Hanafin, Brian Hayes….and that Joanna Tuffy ?’

We have indeed. We know that Conall would be more credible and the SDLP’s call for a discussion within Nationalism would be taken margaret ritchieserious if they were actually serious about it, but we know they are not. This is particularly annoying for someone like myself, a person who to many should be a prime SDLP voter. Upwardly mobile, a pacifist and a young professional yet I would find it very difficult right now to put an ‘x’ or give a first preference to any member of the party as I do not see any kind of all island vision but merely  a party that may have arrested  its decline but is nonetheless bleeding votes and seems to be in some kind of stasis.

So what would I like to see coming from the SDLP in the coming months? First of all, less of the grand, now meaningless, sweeping statements about inter-communal reconciliation, more talk about practical things, the nuts and bolts please. I may be wrong but we have had 20 years or more of politicians talking about the hand of history etc. and in the current climate we really need someone to be practical, tell us what you would change, what you plan on implementing and how this ties in with your voters’ wish for a United Ireland AND inter communal reconciliation. We are in the midst of a terrible, self-inflicted recession, where can we save money by pooling resources with the rest of the island. You have a chance to be innovative and with perceptions set so low if you achieve any kind of rationalisations or cross border cooperation that benefits the island as a whole, not just the North East, then you will gain trust from sceptics like me and from those who think it is not worth their while to come out and vote for you, who want someone useful to vote for and who do not want to vote for Sinn Fein.

Also, you will need to tell Nationalists how you are not merely a parochial, middle-class and Catholic party. You will need to tell us how you connect with the rest of the electorate in the 26 counties and no, in your current guise being a sister party of Southern Labour will not do as we all know that a lot of your members would fit in a whole lot easier in Fine Gael or Fianna Fail than with Gilmore et al. alastair mcdonnellSo, either you bite the bullet and make this connection of yours with Southern Labour a bit more than being a sister party, you face up to the very possible chance that Fianna Fail may organise in the North and you may lose some support for this, but gain respect (important) and votes (more important) from many others and bring people out to vote for you who see you as a genuine left-leaning party as opposed to a receptacle of a lot of confusing ideas OR continue on as a Nationalist party that only has representation in six of the thirty two counties.

What I liked about Cleenish’s pieces was the notion that we have put ourselves in something of a cage whenever it comes to how we, Nationalists, think when we confine ourselves to thinking about how things pan out in the North East alone as opposed to our country as a whole. With the demographic changes as per the most recent census, I believe that by continuing to confine itself to the North East the SDLP is unfortunately making itself into an irrelevance and will limit itself and the electorate they represent.

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20 responses to “We need to talk about the SDLP…

  1. This is a tricky one and to be honest it scares me a bit.
    I dont think I have ever felt more old than I did at the SDLP Youth Conference. I have always felt an affinity with the modern SDLP Youth because I was the prime mover in trying to set up a SDLP Youth group in 1973-74. I failed of course so I am delighted to see that they now have a scarily brilliant SDLP Youth group now. Almost…too good with eight on the full Party Executive. They wont be able to replicate this in November 2013 as to some extent it is a blip.
    The SDLP WAS in a curious position. They HAD a brilliant first team. …Hume Mallon etc and have a brilliant Youth Team but the reserves who have tried to take first team places in the last few years have not been good enough. This opens the door for youngsters but the SDLP slipped back in 2011, making the job more difficult.
    Of course in 1973..I was 21 interested in Politics, Manchester United and 21 year old women..
    Now I am -almost 61 and still interested in Politics, Manchester United and 21 year old women. Well no obviously not in the last case. I am old enough to be their grandfather.
    nd Im scared. My world is not theirs.
    Indeed Mark Durkan said as much at the weekend. The GFA was for 1998 and he was practically instructing the young people there to go out and find a GFA for their generation. At least thats what I took out of his speech.
    To illustrate this point (maybe) Conall McDevitt pointed out that Katherine McCloskey, the youngest person on the Panel Discussion, is 25 years old…the same age Conall was in 1998 and Conall is now the same age Mark Durkan was in 1998.
    Perhaps the point of disconnexion to me was that the Questioner asked how will things be in ten years time……ten years!!!!! To me ten years is like a long weekend. My older grandson is ten and the day of his birth seems like only yesterday. Not being patronising here but to the 20 year old who asked the question it seems like a long time…indeed half his lifetime.
    But realistically nothing can really happen in ten years…it wont look a lot different. At leat I hope not.
    Did I really say “I hope not”?
    Yes I did. But as Professor Peter Shirtlow pointed out, people are increasingly not identifying along tribal lines. There IS a changing narrative and nationalists….is DUBLIN really doing anything?? …are in danger of being marginalised.
    Ive seen the future and I dont like it.
    Rather like my father hadan aversion to me playing and singing Bob Dylans “The Times They are a Changin”….I am starting to feel the same. I cant bind the Future generations to my way of thinking. But I genuinely cant embrace the Future. I sincerely hope I dont live to see the Future.
    I am not for one moment suggesting that the Future wont be good. Merely saying that I am uncomfortable with it and certainly dont want to be part of it.
    To this extent Gregory Campbell is a kindred spirit. He spoke of “steady as you go” and did not want to hear “big announcements” Would be interesting to look up Gregorysdate of birth on wikipedia. ut he is probably in his mid 50s and resigned to a Future he doesnt like….so bring it on slowly.
    In Texas…in my broadcast to the American nation….or 16 of them anyway….I said that History and Politics is the point where I became conscious that I lived in a certain time and place….Belfat 1963 when I was 11 years old. Everything before that is History. Everything after is Politics….increasing awareness to 1969. Scaling up.
    But I am increasingly aware that there is a scaling down at the other end of Life. I feel less able to control the Future and it seems unfair to just stall the ball. But increasingly I dont like the Future. Just want it to begin the day after I kick the bucket. But not before then.

  2. I could well imagine the SDLP choosing to remain as a regional party in a Reunited Ireland, probably in some continuing form of the present Stormont Assembly and Executive. Somewhat like the powerful regional parties in the German states. In the Federal Republic it is because of the political structures there and the importance of local identities. I suspect in our case it would be more to do with the lack of ambition and the parochial nature of the SDLP. In recent years the party has come to be severely lacking in the testicular area. In other words they need to grow a pair and break out of the north-eastern Gulag. Is there anyone to lead them?

  3. In 2007 Fianna Fail announced that it would organise in the North. The project was to be championed by Dermot Ahern bit by bit. The motion to organise in the six counties was unaminously passed in the 2009 Ard Feis. Recruitment drives took place in northern universities. Fora were set up in each of the six counties and the party were gearing up nicely to contest assembly elections. Then the economy collapsed.

    The export boom of the early 1990s which fed into the domestic economy was the victim of FF led government overspending which eroded competitiveness to such an extent that the boom was squandered. FF then replaced the Celtic Tiger with an unsustainabe property boom fuelled by lack of bank regulation and tax incentives to property developers.

    The economic collapse meant that FF lost 75% of its vote in the 2011 general election. Rather than build in the north the party has had to rebuild in the South.

    As the party recover will they look at continuing their ambition to organise and contest elections in the north? Hopefully. FF will take votes off the SDLP probably to the extent that a merger with Labour will occur. Three All Ireland parties would be a massive boost to Nationalism.

    • That’s definitely a path they could go down Enda and could perhaps tie in with what SIB mentioned in my quote at the beginning.

      As much as they are not liked on our boards, I still feel FG would be the ideal party to come up North as the left leaning ground for Nationalism is a pretty crowded area at the moment.

  4. Increasinqgly i think that we will have to skip a generation before a real SDLP Leader takes over. I supported Patsy McGlone and would do so again but one thing to emerge from the 2011 Leadership contest was that if there was a single candidate that had what the four brought to the table, it would be near enough perfect. I have a fair idea who will lead the Party in ten years time.
    But clearly Conall is Le Dauphin and the leadership will fall into his lap. He carries the support of key people at branch levels although I dont think the wider membership see him that way. And probably not SDLP voters.
    On the “fear” factor…I think it is just a recognition that this 21st century world is not “my” world.
    I do fear LetsGetAlongerism….it has the money and the influence…thru a series of mutual supporting network and they are setting the agenda. There is undoubtedly some social enginneering going on and coupled with Official Dublin apathy or lip service, then there is no rallying point.
    The Good Friday Agreement is dead.
    In broad historic terms there is always an ebb and flow. Its a never ending battle…war even.
    The first tribe that loosens its grip on the others throat will lose.
    But there have been times in the last fifty years when nationalism and unionism have been “up” and “down”.
    Being involved in this struggle my adult life I want to be beamed up to the Afterlife when I am feeling optimistic.
    For example if I was a Russian soldier losing my life in the Battle for Berlin in 1945, I might be a little bit happier than a German soldier. Optimism and Pessimism I suppose.

  5. There is a famous Irish Times editorial, published in 1911, eulogising the visit of King George V to Ireland: garden parties in Dublin Castle, happy Irish peasants waving Union Jacks, and an Empire and colony in Ireland upon which the sun would never set and upon which no unseemly turmoil could ever befall. Irish Nationalism was dead, the Fenians were dead, the mountainside men were scattered to the four corners of the globe and we were all going to be good little West Britons.

    And we all know what happened five years later.

    Appeasement may have the day in certain sections of the media but the reality of politics and society in the north-east of Ireland is the anti-democracy protests and protesters (NOT flag protests). It is an ideology that is evermore in decline, evermore receding. 47% British and falling. Outreach, whether to Catholic Unionists or culturally Irish Unionists, is all fur coat and no knickers. It is the king’s new clothes. An illusion.

    Far from pessimism I see optimism. And opportunities abound! 😉

  6. I personally believe you are deluded, Seamas, as deluded as the flag protesters are/were. The only ideology that is gaining ground is a middle approach that has unionism and the status quo at its core for a variety of reasons, the strongest of which on one side is economic. It crosses the sectarian divide and also the social divide, but not in a symmetrical way, ie there are middle class Catholics, middle and working class Protestants who support it.

    The only way to change things is another armed struggle and ira campaigns seem to have a habit of failure following success (after 1916-22 came the ww2 nonsense and the the border campaign. You could even say that 69-98 failed too).

    • As deluded as the Unionist staff members of the Irish Times in 1911?

      Similar editorials were issued in 1918 before Sinn Féin went on to an electoral landslide in constituencies across the island of Ireland. The IT editorial writers claimed that the people of Ireland were “entirely content within the Union” and that the end of the Great War marked a new era reconciliation between Irishmen of all faiths and loyalties forged on the battlefields of France. They pointed to the same consensus of Protestant and Catholic middle-class satisfaction with their lot, of all true Irish patriots knowing that their future lay within United Kingdom for their own economic and “moral” well-being. The status quo ruled the day. Until December 1918 proved that the status quo was a house of cards built on shifting sands and “reconciliation” in Ireland was simply continued British rule on continued British terms.

      I wonder if one scanned the editorials of the Belfast Telegraph from 1966 would it tell a similar story? In fact I rather think they did, albeit confined to the last remnant of the British colony in Ireland.

      “Never, never, never” became the Chuckle Brothers. No “Sinn Féin/IRA” in government became Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister.

      Every stepping stone of Irish freedom leads in one direction, and one step at a time. It took the British centuries to “pacify” all of the island of Ireland. And ultimately they still managed to fail. If it takes us a century and a bit to remove the final British state presence in our country, so be it. Time is on our side. You’ve had a century. Now we are into the “bit”.

      Somewhat odd to see someone from a Unionist background (?) agreeing with Resistance Republicans that the only way to bring an end to British colonial rule, partition and the reintegration of the national territory is through the exercise of military force.

  7. My impression is that changes in the Republic of Ireland (the 26 counties) have generally made relations between us in Dublin and people in NI much less antagonistic than before – the change to articles 2 & 3 in the GFA allowed people in NI to see us as friendly neighbours.

    That has in turn allowed ministers from NI to meet our ministers in cooperation over practical matters. We in Dublin also work much more cooperatively with the Westminster government in London.

    I don’t myself think that we in Dublin are that eager in any haste to move to a UI (in part for financial reasons and in part the need to accommodate NI people with their distinct historical narrative); better to allow people in NI to have a chat among themselves to figure out what they think best.

    Then if they do want a UI we would be willing to talk about that, and Sinn Féin would welcome this as it would give us more votes in the Dail,

    I don’t myself think fanciful “federal” structures would be practicable in such a small island so some Northern Irish amour propre could be punctured in a UI, .

    • I could see it being federal at the beginning of the UI though I wonder for how long? As for Southerners being ‘eager’ for a UI, was it not an IT survey or poll that show the vast majoirty of the Southern electorate in favour of a UI and this would be despite the hypothetical increase in taxes to accommodate it?

  8. The much MUCH better relationships all round were shown when the UK Queen came to visit us in Dublin; moreover Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness’s historic meeting with her in NI was significant. All of this is an outworking of the GFA and — because it sets a good example in terms of how our leaders are able to work together – it does allow for a more mature set of relationships to evolve within NI. Well done Martin.

  9. Carrickally:

    Welcome to the forum. It is encouraging to see a member of the NI Unionist Community join us; persectives from people who actually live in (or are from) NI are most welcome. We do not hear enough from them.

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