An emerging narrative in recent weeks as the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was celebrated is the spurious notion that the SDLP’s electoral decline is because it set aside its own political self-interest in the interests of the peace process. This has long been the refrain from some southern commentators. The truth is much simpler. Apart from John Hume the SDLP leadership has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to think strategically or to plan for the long term. It thinks in the here and now, in the short term.
In the beginning the SDLP was an amalgamation of a number of political personalities led by Gerry Fitt. They included Eddie McGrady, Austin Curry, Paddy Devlin, Ivan Cooper, Seamus Mallon, John Hume and Bríd Rodgers. They replaced the old Nationalist Party. The strongest of these personalities ran independent fiefdoms with little effort outside of their own constituencies to build a political party. So there was very little political or ideological cohesion. The SDLP were to become the political alternative to the IRA for those nationalists, as was their right, who were opposed to the armed struggle. They also had very little electoral competition. In those days Sinn Féin did not contest elections.
John Hume became the leading voice of anti-unionist opinion. His leadership of the SDLP was unchallenged but without doubt there was political tension between him and Mr Mallon. This was very clear during Sinn Féin/SDLP talks and my subsequent talks with John in the 1980s and in the 1990s. Many in the SDLP leadership were vehemently opposed to this initiative. They weren’t on their own. Both governments had the same position.
Last week I wrote about the debt of gratitude that is owed to the community and voluntary sector for their crucial contribution to the Good Friday Agreement. I recalled the hostility of the governments, the Catholic Hierarchy and of sections of the media, to the visit to west Belfast of President Mary Robinson in 1993. Foremost among those who opposed the visit and lobbied against it was the SDLP in west Belfast.
So, when the British introduced political vetting against community and voluntary groups, it was actively supported by the SDLP in Belfast. When Irish America and progressive voices in Ireland called for stronger anti-discrimination laws to challenge job discrimination against Catholics, and supported the MacBride Principles campaign in the USA, the SDLP refused to support the campaign and joined the British and Irish governments to travel to the United States to speak against the MacBride Principles.
When Sinn Féin accused the British government of running state sponsored death squads SDLP spokespersons rubbished our claims and denied there was collusion.
In 1985 the Anglo-Irish Agreement was sold by the SDLP and Irish government on the basis that the “nationalist nightmare is now over” and that we would see an end to the UDR and reform of the RUC. It did none of these things.
At the same time as British intelligence was smuggling hundreds of weapons from the apartheid South African regime to the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance, the SDLP leadership claimed the British government was neutral and that the conflict derives from the attitudes held by nationalists and unionists. For increasing numbers of nationalists the SDLP position was increasingly out of line with their own assessment.
After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved the future of policing emerged as one of the big issues to be negotiated and resolved. In August 2001, the SDLP told nationalists that nothing more could be got from the British government on policing and it was time to sign up to the Policing Board. It did so.
Sinn Fein didn’t. We refused to acquiesce to any of this and between 2001 and 2007 our negotiations delivered substantially new policing and criminal justice legislation - including overturning the ban on ex-POWs from holding the PSNI to account; gaining increased powers for the Police Ombudsman; winning increased inquisitorial powers for the Policing Board; cementing community policing as a core function of the PSNI; and securing a new judicial composition more reflective of this society.
It is obvious that there is a vast difference in policy, ideology, philosophy and objectives between Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Sinn Féin is an Irish Republican party with progressive social and economic policies and is for a United Ireland. We have a strategy to bring that about. Republicans believe that British government involvement in Ireland is at the heart of centuries of conflict and division and reject the view that the British are neutral. No one believes this – not even, despite their protestations, the SDLP.
The SDLP hold an aspiration for a United Ireland, but has no strategy and no methodology to achieve it. And finally, the SDLP take the Oath of Allegiance to the British Monarch and sit in that Parliament when they have MPs to send there. But last year the electorate in seven nationalist seats voted for Sinn Féin candidates. They turned their backs on Westminster and the SDLP.
In 2001 John Hume stood down as party leader. No one of his stature has emerged since as SDLP leader. I have no doubt that over the years many SDLP stalwarts were motivated by a desire to serve the public good. But unless you are relevant you will fail. Nothing is surer in politics.
So, despite efforts by some of its loyal and dedicated members there is little evidence of any serious attempts to regenerate the party or to find a real role in the changing politics of recent time. But let’s be clear. The electorate that the SDLP represents will not go away. The anti-Sinn Féin core of its support is diminishing and aging but like Seamus Mallon it is as trenchant as ever. It does have a small cadre of young and likeable MLAs. But they are but a few and are unlikely to change the fortunes of their party. Its leaders are now contemplating being absorbed by Fianna Fáil. This explicit acknowledgement that the party has no future of its own ignores the role it could play with Sinn Féin and others in building a progressive Consensus for Change and Rights for everyone.
Far from sacrificing itself for the peace process the SDLP, particularly in the absence of John Hume, simply became less relevant, especially to younger voters. They failed to plan for the future.