Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? The SDLP, Part 2

Thanks for all of the comments on the last post concerning the SDLP and some of the insightful points made from commentators new to the site and who have followed the site for a while now, all were much appreciated. Here’s the concluding post from Cleenish on his thoughts surrounding the party and its way forward.

To date there has been little to indicate what direction the party may be heading and it may be more likely to continue to drift along. There have been a number of tantalising strands in the wind to tentatively signify the direction of thinking.

Firstly the media friendly 😉 and much touted future leader Conall McDevitt gave the following speech The main lesson I draw from this is that the contrived arrangement Northern Ireland is to be maintained as a central tenet of the future. The future is centered on the GFA with a vision of being northern Irish and Irish but with the heavy emphasis being on making Northern Ireland work and making Northern Ireland a common home for all.

At the recent SDLP Youth conference some indicators of the future direction from Conall where GFA should be seen as being owned by theconall mc devitt people of the north (note – not Ireland) and that nationalism needs to change, although no indications of what needs to change are indicated.

The blog entry on Baron Creeth also hints at big changes to come from ‘sources’ in the party,  which suggest a left-ward swing at the expense of nationalism, identity politics and the  development of a new Irish nation.

With this direction of travel nationalism whilst not abandoned would seem to be put on the back-burner. It may partly explain Alex Attwood’s inelegant modeling of an owc jersey during the press release upon the planning permission for the new Windsor and Conall’s intervention on a new anthem for the NI team scroll to DaitiO’s comment.

The use of language such as ‘this region’ and increasing use of ‘Northern Ireland’ would also indicate this course.

Perhaps I am reading too much into such speeches and actions by a small number of party members but perhaps not. The call for a nationalist conversation may be just to over the outworking of such a proposal? A conversation and debate within nationalism is required and long overdue in my opinion, although in the current climate it is hard to imagine a respectful, productive conversation!

With a ‘Northern Irelandise’ policy combined with the absence of a campaign promoting a new Irish nation the SDLP will gradually move to a post-nationalist position. This may or may not be the intention but it will be the eventual outcome. Putting nationalism on the back burner means our right to be full, equal and active members of the Irish nation is no longer a prime issue or focus for the party.  The Irish Question will no longer be a question the party is seeking to answer.

Can it honestly be thought that a nu-labour, nationalist-lite party would deliver a politically mature society at ease with itself? For me this is a recipe for simply more of the same and ignores the basic proposition that until there is a settlement that breaks the current mould we are consigned to perpetual schism and to groundhog political debates.

I believe without a central driving sense of purpose and mission, without being rooted within an Irish national context and without a clear, consistent message underpinned by values and principles I believe the SDLP will face a further slow decline.

The repositioning of the party on the lines above or on the proposition of NI socialist-lite (or nu-labour) party will not advance nationalism alban maginessand will present an opportunity for other parties to exploit. The more nationalist minded SDLP voters will be open to persuasion and if Fianna Fáil ever moved north of the border they would be presented with an ideal opportunity of providing a non-Sinn Féin alternative. It is easy in such a scenario to see the party being quickly reduced to a diminishing rump.

For Irish nationalism the central issue of the SDLP is whether it is to nationalism’s benefit to have the party and if so, what role and purpose it should play.

I believe that there is a potential role & purpose for the party that whilst not being the predominate position within ‘northern’ nationalism, nevertheless would be pivotal in the creation and promotion of a new Irish nation.

The party can only carve out a new role if it radically re-assesses its future and recognises it has a historic responsibility. It is the party best suited within nationalism to build relationships across all sections and elements of the Irish nation and to act as a catalyst in changing perceptions and preparing the grounding principles for, and building blocks of, a new inclusive Irish nation.

There may indeed be a pressing need for a conversation within nationalism but such a conversation requires being inclusive and based on developing a common vision.

It urgently needs to develop a central driving sense of national mission, with a clear, consistent message, underpinned by a core set of value and principles.

So what recipe can the SDLP follow to give it a purpose and role in helping to lead the nationalist people of the north? I am no baker so I will refrain from grandiose claims of my ability to serve up a delightful, appetising feast. You may find the following hard to swallow with the odd bit of grit sticking in the throat but hopefully though it will get you thinking.

From both a nationalistic and party selfish viewpoint, the SDLP ideally should adopt the following position and strategy. Such a party would act as a competitive counterweight to Sinn Féin and a complimentary stream in engaging minds that would be closed to a party with Sinn Féin’s history.

Such a party would be;

  • left-wing, focused on rights, mutual respect and fair play for all;
  • with equality at its core; on education, on opportunity, on race, gender and orientation;
  • where equality of identity is recognised and cherished for all its citizens, where parity of esteem if given to all;
  • a regional party but with a clear and central focus on resolving the Irish Question;
  • a party whose purpose is deliver a settlement of our ancient quarrel;
  • a party actively promoting and building a new Irish Nation; infusing all aspects of policy development.

It would have be a party with a national perspective, with or without a close relationship with a detoxified Irish Labour party (minus the worker party stamp). It would propose and purse national outcomes across the nation; for public services, across civic society and developing pride on our national achievements. It would pursue equality of citizenship with concrete and meaningful expressions of our identity.

The strategic approach of the party being one of developing relationships across the nation on a basis of mutual respect and recognition of sdlpidentity. It would develop a discussion and debate with our British Unionist neighbours, exploring how our differing identities and allegiances could be accommodated in a new Irish nation. If the concept of a continuing NI within a New Ireland is adhered to as policy then the party must out in detail how it would work. A federal or confederation solution, 2 or 3 parliaments and whether the boundaries are set – the inclusion of other Ulster counties eg Donegal?

The SDLP may not be the only party able to deliver on the agenda above but there are aspects on which the party is ideally placed pursue particularly the engagement with the British Unionist strand of the nation.

In the present context nationalism would be the poorer; it would have fewer overall votes and representation, a more complacent SF would follow leading our politics to become moribund. In the short to medium term we need a reinvigorated SDLP to pursue the nationalist agenda. I think we need the SDLP to be a party of nation builders playing a crucial in developing and articulating a new vision for Ireland. Acting as the bridge builder between our different peoples and serving as a catalyst in helping to shape the future.

As someone who is SDLP friendly, if far from a partisan proponent, all of the above may be a case of wishful thinking.

I may be completely wrong – who knows, only time will tell?

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14 responses to “Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? The SDLP, Part 2

  1. Im not totally convinced that Conall will be the next Leader. He is certainly in pole position but there are other factors. He has the powerful (semi- detached?) South Belfast branch and more Twitter followers than any politician in North but ultimately he courts the wrong people. His rhetoric is balanced but performance isnt.
    On the last two occasions that I have heard Conall apeak, he has said that nationalism needs to be haviing a conversation with itself….whibch sounds great and those of us produing nationalist blogs are faciltating that process….but on one of the occasions that I heard him say it, he ahared a platform with Michael Copeland UUP and Gregor Campbell DUP (in the Bogside) and with John McCallister (now NI21) in Rostrvor.
    So the rhetoric and performance dont match up.
    Although there has been a welcome departure in 2012 where SDLP voices dominated their own Conference and where the Pat Finnucane Centre wascentre stage (literally) in 2011 and 2012.
    Im holding fire a little in commenting here today becayuse early next week I expect to blog something which will probably be negative about SDLP.
    I have certainly ben accused of talking them up….but Id say thats only because have given them the benefit of the doubt in 50-50 situations.
    To some extent the future prospects of SDLP are not in their own hands.
    They lost North Antrim and South Antrim seats due to boundary changes as much as performance but FST was bad organisation.
    Signs are that both Sinn Fein and SDLP have got that message and there are signs SF is putting the squeeze on again. An Feile and the New Mayors VISION seem a deliberate attempt to turn up the heat on SDLP in Belfast.
    And how SDLP respond….?????

    • I do think Conall will be leader at some stage, whether it is the net leader or the one thereafter, who knows, but I’m very glad you brought that point up in relation to CD talking about Nationalism having a discussion among its main protagonists (welcomed by myself btw and I know something a lot of us here and on the other blogs would love) and yet nothing comes of it.

      Why is this? Well, it sounds great, it sounds progressive and it sounds like leadership but when you don’t follow through, when all you do is make sound bites and act like a glorified councilor like what we may see in the letters to the editor page of the Lurgan Mail where it is some disgruntled UUP man bemoaning something and a few ops thrown in too, it screams something that is all fur coat and no knickers tbf.

      I think you may be right about SF starting to put a real squeeze on the SDLP in the next few years. In many ways, as Mick has noted, the SF leadership has focused its resources on cracking the South and it is making some headway but clearly not enough to be in government. However, at that time you would have expected the SDLP to marshal together its followers and try and take it to SF, instead they haven’t and they are starting to remind me of the RC Church in Ireland; it will remain but its reach and influence will be greatly diminished and it may never see its day in the sun again.

  2. “It is the party best suited within nationalism to build relationships to act as a catalyst in changing perceptions and preparing the grounding principles for, and building blocks of, a new inclusive Irish nation.” I’m not sure this is true. If it means that unionists are more likely to talk to SDLPers rather than Shinners, maybe; but the DUP will regard it – the SDLP – for the most part in the same light as it does the UUP: a political eunuch.

    • I too have my problems with this point as it is reminscent of the argument used by the OO in not talking to residents groups. You cannot pick who your enemies are in a quarrel and us unpalatable as it may be for some to discuss issues with a discussion is still required. That and I believe it ties in with a post colonial mind set of talking to ‘good natives’.

  3. There is the distinct stench of the old “two nations” or “two Irelands” ideology hanging over “liberal” Unionist politics in the north-east of the country of late that seems to have infected elements of the SDLP. Some of the people in NI21 are articulating its seems to me a sort of “Northern Irish” nationalism, one that wishes to present “Northern Ireland” as a distinct nation within the “UK” on an equal footing with England, Scotland and Wales. There is an attempt to create a “NI” national identity within a broader British/UK one. Those elements of an Irish national identity that are non-threatening (or non-sovereigntist) are open to being co-opted into this project and given a Pro-Union splash of paint.

    The desire among some Unionists/Pro-Unionists to have a distinct and separate “Northern Ireland” flag, anthem, etc. are part of this.

    This is simply partition by other means and a variation of the discredited “Ulster nationalism” of the 1970s. It is the sort of thing the Alliance Party was supposed to give political form to but largely failed. Now NI1921 are the new version. The media love them because many share the same view, the old Workers Party/Conor Cruise O’Brien view of Ireland as two distinct nations sharing one island.

    Nationalists who indulge this strategy do so at their peril.

  4. Conal McDevitt is the only politician north of the border that would pass muster in Dublin. He has progressive labour values. If the SDLP don’t pick him next time, quite honestly, I don’t think they deserve to survive.

  5. Brian Feeney, the well-regarded Irish News commentator, has said on Eamonn Mallie’s excellent blog, that the SDLP should focus on its strong areas which is rural NI. It should accept that it is miles behind in Belfast, said Dr Feeney.

  6. Conall got a lot of votes in the leadership election. Personally I think he is a very good speaker, and there is no doubt he has progressive labour values. I just think he is head and shoulders above the other options. Attwood just does not have the charisma.

  7. The problem for the SDLP is they occupy the same position as SF. Both are left leaning and Nationalist.

    • I think that’s what Conal was getting at when he said on UTV he wanted the SDLP to be a left wing party for nationalist people , rather than a nationalist party for left wing people.

    • That’s so stupid it’s not even funny.

      Alex didn’t do that, that’s from Conway Mill, or tbh, ANYONE.

      I’m certain that he is being honest but it just looks stupid on his part.

  8. Pingback: Parti Québécois, Power For Power’s Sake? | An Sionnach Fionn·

  9. Pingback: Irish Nationalism & Party Representation – Nation Building? Sinn Fein, Part 1 | footballcliches·

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