Editorial from Irish Political Review, December 2007

News From Limbo

What is at issue now between the SDLP and Sinn Fein? Why is Dennis Bradley advising the SDLP about doing down Sinn Fein? If the SDLP recovered the ground which it lost through being gulled by David Trimble, what would it do different from what Sinn Fein is doing? And if the SDLP remains an anti-Partition party, why is it so vehemently opposed to increasing the presence of all-Ireland politics in the North through the expansion of Fianna Fail?

A case has been made that Fianna Fail organisation in the North would upset the class-based politics that now exists there. In this argument, the SDLP is the party of the Catholic middle class. It is not an argument that has been made by the SDLP. And in any case it is hard to see its relevance. Fianna Fail is hardly the class party of the proletariat.

A difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in the Republic in this regard is that the pretentious stratum of the middle class feels more at ease with Fine Gael, while the vigorous, competent and thrusting element of the middle class,which takes a substantial element of the working class under its wing, is at the heart of Fianna Fail.
Sinn Fein is becoming, socially, in the Catholic community in the North, what Fianna Fail became in the South in the early 1930s. Is the SDLP intent on becoming what Fine Gael became?

It does seem that the SDLP has become the pretentious party, though it is not clear what it is pretending to. When SDLP founder, Austin Currie, went South he joined fine Gael. But we cannot see that there is the same ground for pretentiousness as a party ideology in the North as there was in the South. The North is not a state, and not even the best efforts of the SDLP and Sinn Fein combined could make it one. And the electorate, within which the SDLP and SF compete, is less than half of the whole electorate.

It has been suggested that the SDLP should join forces with the UUP on the basis of middle classness, and thus constitute an Opposition within Stormont through which normal politics might develop. But this would involve the disruption of the 'Constitution' which was in great part the work of the SDLP, and which was carefully designed to prevent the emergence of that kind of politics by providing that every party of any consequence should have a place in Government.

There was within the Unionist community a social basis for the rise of a popular party against the hegemony within the Unionist community of "the fur coat brigade". It kept trying to happen right from the start, and eventually it did happen. There was not the same social basis in the Nationalist community for the rise of a working class party against the SDLP. When one thinks of Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt, founders of the SDLP, the category 'middle-class' does not spring to mind.

The SDLP/SF division, as it emerged in the early 1970s, had a considerable element of role-playing in it. The two parties sought the same object by different means, and the different means ('constitutional' agitation and war) were in substance complementary rather than antagonistic. The Catholic community was no longer willing, after August 1969, to vegetate under oppression in the old way. It had been pressed into defensive military action by the Unionist assault and would not revert to mere 'constitutional' action until some definite and irreversible constitutional change had been achieved. The SDLP was the constitutional alternative to the "men of violence", to which concessions might be made under pressure from the "men of violence".

In 1971 Brian Faulkner's Unionist Government offered the SDLP a position of some influence in the old constitutional system. Agreeing to it would have set the SDLP on an independent course. Taken by surprise in the remoteness of Stormont, Gerry Fitt agreed to take up the offer, and spoke of "Faulkner's finest hour". Then he made the long journey back from the Parliament building to the busy civilisation of West Belfast, and realised that it was No Go for an independent course of action by the SDLP in real antagonism with Sinn Fein.

Rather than go back to Stormont and withdraw its agreement to Faulkner's proposal, the SDLP found an excuse to withdraw from Stormont altogether. It set up an Alternative Assembly in Dungannon. This inspired an intensification of the Republican war effort. The Government (the real one in Whitehall) decided to see whether a small administrative massacre would deflate the situation, but SDLP leaders responded to Bloody Sunday by declaring that it was "United Ireland or nothing". A few months later the old Stormont system was abolished.

The SDLP held out against constitutional approaches for about two years, until the Prime Minister (Ted Heath) indicated that, unless the SDLP agreed to negotiate for an internal settlement, he would arrange for Northern Ireland to be governed as an integral part of the British state.

At Sunningdale a power-sharing system was worked out between the SDLP and the Unionist Party under the pressure of the London and Dublin Governments. The power-sharing Government was set up in January 1974 and ran until May. It fell because of the rigid Anti-Partition stance of the SDLP and the Dublin Government (C.C. O'Brien and G. FitzGerald in particular). The Unionists had agreed to a Council of Ireland on the understanding that the Dublin assertion of sovereignty over the North would be withdrawn. When the duplicity of the Dublin Coalition on the matter was made clear in the Dublin Courts, a strong grass-roots Unionist opposition emerged. It demanded that, either the setting up of the Council of Ireland should be deferred, or a Northern election should be held. The SDLP, supported by the Dublin Coalition, would not agree to either, and the Sunningdale system as a whole was abolished in the face of a Unionist General Strike in May 1974. And that is essentially how matters stood for 24 years, until the Republicans and John Hume (rather than the SDLP) negotiated the 1998 Agreement.

The SDLP might have taken credit for Hume's achievement and flourished under the GFA system, if it had not lost its bearings and fallen into illusion during those 24 years. But, without Hume to make it do things in accordance with its real mandate, it no longer knew what to do. It was given the run-around by Trimble for two years, and then, when he allowed government to begin, it acted as if it was taking part in an authentic democracy.

Now that it has been pushed to the margins by Sinn Fein—with its better understanding of constitutional affairs—it is trying to subvert the system negotiated in 1998 by undertaking the role of an Opposition jointly with the marginalised Unionist Party.

Jim Gibney of Sinn Fein, in his Irish News column of October 25th, gave it a lesson the GFA for slow learners:

"Another false argument which emerged out of the ministerial row is the idea that the assembly needs a formal opposition. The assembly cannot have a formal opposition; a formal opposition is based on a parliamentary system which rests on democratic institutions and democratic culture. The current parliamentary arrangements have been carefully structured."

"These are novel arrangements and are needed because the six county state is not a democratic entity".

In fact it is not even a state. Its actual status has been deliberately obscured and the language for discussing it meaningfully has been retarded.

The "ministerial row" was sparked off by SDLP Minister Margaret Ritchie, who decided to withhold funding of the UDA through the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) on the ground that it had not decommissioned. Her move has been understood as an electioneering tactic for the election Gordon Brown decided not to call when he saw how Cameron's Party Conference speech had influenced the opinion polls.

The SDLP has three Westminster seats. Alasdair MacDonald got South Belfast on a split Unionist vote and will probably lose it. Eddie McGrady, who has something like gentry status in South Down, is nearing retirement, and Sinn Fein's Catriona Ruane is in the running for it. With an eye to that contest Mark Durkan did not take a seat in the Executive himself, nominating Margaret Ritchie who was unknown to the wider public. It was thought Margaret Ritchie might just get it if she made a strong impression on the traditional electorate, so she set out to hammer the Prods.

It was a party-political move of the essentially meaningless conflict of the SDLP with Sinn Fein, and it went against the grain of Catholic-Protestant collaboration under the Agreement.

The UDA is not a Protestant counterpart of Sinn Fein in its political aspect or of the IRA in its military aspect. There seemed to be a slight possibility that it might become so when it made its first appearance 35 years ago. It didn't. It went off at tangents into dead ends, encouraged in later years by the Stickies. The possibility of a Protestant working class political development went awry with it, helped on its way by the erosion of Protestant industry. The CTI is an administrative measure for containing a working class community in decay. It involves a necessary combination of genuine do-gooders, crooks, and militarist poseurs who are no longer to be taken too seriously. Sinn Fein understands this and facilitates it. Margaret Ritchie affected not to understand it for the purpose of playing the Catholic card against Sinn Fein in the Election that was called off.

The loss of South Down to Sinn Fein would ease matters for Fianna Fail if it ever did organise in the North. It would leave SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, as the lone "constitutional nationalist" figure at Westminster, to keep company with the lone Ulster Unionist, Lady Hermon, and reduce the thing to its appropriate absurdity.

The SDLP was vehemently opposed during the 1970s and 1980s to the campaign to bring the North within the sphere of operation of the British political parties, and thus establish a common political ground for Protestants and Catholics. That was consistent with its anti-Partitionism. It felt that, without the communal antagonism of Catholic and Protestant, Partition would die as an issue. But now it is doing its best to prevent Fianna Fail from organising. (And it will probably succeed. Bertie has always retreated in the face of difficulties in the North.) This can hardly be justified as anti-Partitionist. The SDLP seems to have become a mere Partition Party.

Garret FitzGerald (Irish Times 17 Nov) asserts that cross-Border parties would "put at grave risk the future evolution of political relationships within our island". He does not say why, and it is not self-evident.

He asserts that "the whole process of restoring peace" in the North "depended on the fact that none of the various government parties" of the Republic were "directly involved in the Northern Ireland political scene". Again he does not say why.

The suggestion seems to be that, because they were not involved in the situation, they were better able to impose peace on it. But the peace was not imposed. It was internally generated by Sinn Fein and John Hume, with Dublin usually being hustled along. The exception is Albert Reynolds, who himself hustled London.

FitzGerald sees "bipartisanship" in the South as having achieved great things. As we recall, what it involved was an agreement to do nothing, except take Sinn Fein off the air-waves.

He says bipartisanship was threatened three times: always by Haughey.

"The first of these arose in 1980 when Charles Haughey attempted to call off the campaign against the IRA in the United States which had been initiated by John Hume in 1972."

What we recall of John Hume in 1972 was inflammatory speeches which fuelled the Provo campaign and led to the abolition of Stormont.

We cannot extricate the second from the tangle of words in which it is presented.

"The third occasion… was when Charles Haughey opposed the 1985 Agreement". That Agreement was FitzGerald's crowning achievement. It was a goad planted in the neck of the Unionist community for the purpose of driving it crazy, and it nearly did. Or, as John Hume put it, it was a scalpel for lancing the boil of Unionism. We did our best to counter its disruptive influence. So did Mary Robinson, though on the occasion of FitzGerald's 80th birthday she said she had been wrong to do so.

FitzGerald set his police to stifle expression of dissent—by nod and wink rather than direct order we assume—but was kept within limits when Haughey brought out Fianna Fail in Opposition.

Pat Rabbitte, in a slick operation, ensured the passing of the Labour Party leadership to another Stickie without a party election. Eamon Gilmore has put the development of the Labour Party in the North on hold. Labour must wait—again.

It was not De Valera who made Labour wait in 1918. It waited because it didn't know what else to do. And now Labour is waiting again to see how things work out, and it is acting as a drag on the Fianna Fail initiative to bring real politics to the North. In the meantime its Northern members must rest quiet in Limbo-land.


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Index To Irish Political Review, 2007

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Ireland And The Last Crusade.
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Rudyard Kipling And The English, Ah The English (Part One).
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An Irish Examiner Debate On Elizabeth Bowen.

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Land Grabbers (Part One).
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Chipping Away At Ireland's Sovereignty.
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Labour Comment
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Labour Hijacked.

Unity On The Left.
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