Monday, June 26, 2017

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Back To Basics - SDLP

In this special five-part series, Political Commentator Dr John Coulter, outlines the way forward for the five main political parties in Northern Ireland. In the opening two articles, he examines the crisis facing both the SDLP and UUP as they stare at electoral oblivion. In Part One, Dr Coulter deals with the SDLP.


An all-island political identity and structure, as well as the ethos of a rebirth of Holy Mother Ireland religiously – that’s the only way the election-decimated SDLP can have any future in Ireland.

The state of the crisis in the party built so capably by John Hume, Ivan Cooper and the late Gerry Fitt, was evident when the jewel in the SDLP’s political crown – Foyle – fell to Sinn Fein.

Just as in the early 1970s, Hume, Cooper and Fitt et al provided the nationalist people with a radical, workable alternative to the politically neutered Irish Nationalist Party through the new voice of the SDLP, so too, has Sinn Fein been able to both attract and keep large numbers of middle class Catholic voters.

It would be easy to dismiss the SDLP’s rapid demise in recent years by stating that it had deserted the socialist ethos espoused by Fitt, or that it had failed to develop a dark green nationalism to combat the blatant republican credentials of Sinn Fein.

But the blunt fact is that Sinn Fein did to the SDLP what the SDLP previously had inflicted on Eddie McAteer’s Irish Nationalist Party – it stole political clothes, policies, voters, and ultimately seats!

Again, it would be all too easy to attribute the Sinn Fein electoral steamroller over the SDLP to the facts that Sinn Fein had much more activists on the ground, and its vote management strategies were much more competent than the SDLP. Plus, Sinn Fein seems to have a much more thriving youth wing than the SDLP. Sinn Fein was building for the future years before the SDLP, which seemed to rely on the ‘folk in grey suits’ attitude to carry the party through.

Sinn Fein had the ultimate ace card to play over the SDLP. The republican party was organised on an all-island basis, while the SDLP limited itself to the six counties. As the numbers of Sinn Fein TDs has crept up in recent Dail elections, the perception emerged that Sinn Fein was more serious about delivering Irish unity than the SDLP.

The stereotype was created that while for the SDLP Irish unity was an aspiration, for Sinn Fein it was a practical reality in winning seats south of the border.

Tactically, over the generations, Sinn Fein played a key card – its republicanism came first, socialism second. The SDLP tried a high wire act by balancing moderate nationalism with soft socialism equally. That flopped miserably.

The SDLP standard of always taking its seats in institutions – a tactic which the SDLP used on many occasions to taunt Sinn Fein – is now also a dead duck. Sinn Fein now takes seats at local government, Dail, Stormont and European levels; only the Westminster hurdle is to be cleared.

However, at some point in the nationalist journey, the SDLP would face the inevitable brick wall that the party was simply not republican enough. This crack began to emerge in the mid 1970s with defections from the SDLP to the dark green, democratic republican organisation, the Irish Independence Party, once fronted by former British Army soldier, Protestant and ex-SDLP member, the late John Turnley.

While the IIP did not win any seats in the 1979 Westminster General Election, it did lay a significant voter base for a future democratic republican movement.

But within two years, all those foundations were shattered with the murder of Turnley by the UDA in 1980 and the 1980/81 republican hunger strikes which showed that – unlike the IIP – Sinn Fein could get IRA prisoners and supporters elected, with first Bobby Sands and then Owen Carron winning the two Fermanagh South Tyrone Commons by-elections.

However, Sinn Fein quickly realised the Achilles Heel of the SDLP – the Catholic middle class. If Sinn Fein was to overtake the SDLP, it had to break out of its traditional working class urban and rural republican heartlands and roam freely into middle class nationalist strongholds.

To achieve this, Sinn Fein developed the electoral concept of the ‘draft dodger’ – the republican candidate with no apparent links to the Provisional IRA and no criminal past. It chose horses for courses – a blend of ex-jailbirds mixed with ‘draft dodgers’.

Sinn Fein also had to combat the perception from the James Connolly days that it was nothing more than a communist party under another banner. Connolly’s own political movement, the Irish Socialist Republican Party (no connection to the INLA’s political wing, the IRSP), pushed a secular atheist agenda totally at odds with the teachings of the Irish Catholic Church.

The SDLP could quietly play the religious card that it was the only true party which could protect the ethos of Holy Mother Ireland and build a Catholic party for a Catholic people.

But that was before the Catholic Church was floored heavily by the clerical sex abuse scandals. The solid religious church/state partnership which de Valera had built with the Irish bishops was shattered. Catholics wanted new political icons, and Sinn Fein filled the void.

And what is the end result of this disillusionment with Irish Catholicism? Southern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to endorse same-sex marriage, and Fine Gael has elected an openly gay Taoiseach in Leo Varadkar. The Catholic Church in Ireland remains muted and powerless.

So how does this leave the SDLP? Can a workable rescue plan be put in place, or is it destined to join the INP and IIP in Ireland’s dustbin of history?

Firstly, merger for the SDLP is a ‘must’, but who with? It has to be with Fianna Fail. The latter has already signalled its intentions to both organise and contest elections in Northern Ireland. An SDLP/FF merger would give what remains of the SDLP the all-island identity to combat Sinn Fein in future polls.

Secondly, the SDLP must re-engage with the Catholic Church. Realistically, not every priest and nun was involved or support child sex abuse! That’s akin to believing that every Protestant supports the UDA and every Catholic backs the IRA.

A merged SDLP/FF party must rebuild the ethos of Holy Mother Ireland and that it represents a Catholic party for a Catholic people. This will put the new merged party at direct odds against the secular socialism of Sinn Fein, given the republican movement’s rocky relationship with the Catholic Church since the party’s formation in 1905.

Only a merged SDLP/FF movement which actively targets Catholic middle class voters and values and upholds Catholic Church teaching on same sex relationships, divorce, abortion and social conservatism will become a radical alternative for nationalist voters against Sinn Fein.

This stance will not work in a merger with Fine Gael while the latter is led by an openly gay man. Besides, Fine Gael has no plans to organise in Northern Ireland.

  • Follow Dr Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

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