Editorial from Irish Political Review, March 2008

The Mischief-Making Party

The long search for a centre-ground in Northern Ireland was finally successful last year when the DUP and Sinn Fein came together in a devolved government. The equally long attempt to constitute the margins into a hegemonic centre was given up as deference collapsed on both sides. Respectable Protestants no longer found it necessary to make obeisance to the fur-coat brigade, and they accepted—reluctantly perhaps—that Paisley expressed the substance of what they were. Paisley, for his part, overcame the fundamentalist Unionist urge to humiliate Sinn Fein and struck a deal with it—humiliating the fur-coat brigade instead, which had spent a quarter of a century havering to no purpose. And Catholics freed themselves from the spell—the mirage—of 'constitutional nationalism', took rational account of the predicament that Partition put them in, and backed the party which had been the means of improving their position through warfare.

DUP / SF devolution has been working so well that there is now talk of police powers being devolved in the Autumn. And the fringe parties are desperate. There is now a de facto coalition against the functioning Executive by the SDLP, the UUP, a group of dissident Paisleyites, and a group of dissident Provos, supported by the Irish Times, whose London correspondent, Frank Millar (Wee Frankie) is headlining a campaign to retire Paisley. (Millar was Secretary of the UUP in the 1980s, when he lost out to Molyneux in inner-party struggle and was given a plum job by the Irish Times.)

The SDLP and UUP are, of course, both members of the devolved government, but they are trying to act as an Opposition. But there is no role for an Opposition in the system introduced in 1998, which the SDLP itself claimed to be the architect of.

It might be said that that is not democratic. Of course it isn't! Anything resembling democracy is what had to be got away from it, if a functional settlement was to be made in Northern Ireland. That is why the SDLP devised a system in which all parties, above a very small base, would be in government as of right. It assumed when doing so that it would be one of the dominant parties in the Government. Now that it isn't, it feels a wrecking urge.

The UUP wanted (or said it wanted) to form a Coalition with the SDLP when they were the top two parties, and to opt for a kind of democratic local government in a weighted majority system. The SDLP flirted with the idea, but rejected it, fearing that it would lose out heavily to SF if it accepted. It lost out heavily anyway, as did the UUP to the DUP. It still rejects it, even though it has little left to lose.

If SDLP / UUP want normal adversarial politics in something that looks a bit more like a democracy, they might possibly get it it by refusing to take part in government, and acting as an opposition to the system which they set in motion ten years ago. And then what? And then nothing. The SDLP is as bereft of realisable purpose today as it ever was. (John Hume's intensely purposeful activity for a few years, in conjunction with Gerry Adams, was a solo effort, kept up in the face of hostility in the party.)

The campaign to destabilise the DUP / SF combination had a minor success with the resignation of Paisley junior on a nothing issue hyped by the media for want of anything else to do.

The SDLP is now projecting an image of itself as the Civil Rights Party, as distinct from Sinn Fein which was something else. In those days Sinn Fein did not exist—it was another party that went under that name. Provo Sinn Fein was formed after the 'Northern Ireland State' had been subverted by the Civil Rights agitation, and political life was thrown into flux by the pogrom.

Nor did the SDLP exist then.

It is true that the founders of the SDLP had been leaders of the Civil Rights agitation.

The great Civil Rights slogan was One Man, One Vote! It played well on the international media, but it was actually much ado about nothing. What it mainly referred to was not voting in either the state or the Stormont elections, but an element of plural votes in Local Government elections which had been ended in Britain some years earlier. Conceding that demand would have changed next to nothing. The astonishing thing is that the UUP did not concede it the instant it was made.

When it was conceded, in 1969, it was treated, by those who had raised it, as being of no consequence.

The slogan, as played in the British, Irish, and international media, suggested that the Northern Catholics were deprived of voting rights en masse, as were blacks in South Africa and the Southern USA. The Civil Rights leaders must have known very well that this was not the case, and that the element of disfranchisement was trivial, and was not one-sided. But the obtuseness of the UUP made it an effective wedge for splitting the whole Northern situation open.

The major disfranchisement issue was the Derry City gerrymander. But that was a highly particular case with no general implications.

When the situation was split open by the Civil Rights wedge in August 1969, some of the future founders of the SDLP went to Dublin looking for guns, and they were promised guns, and guns began to flow into West Belfast before the Provo IRA had ever been heard of.

At the critical moment in mid-August 1969 the Dublin Government, in the shape of Jack Lynch, played a crucial role in radicalising Northern Catholic expectations by making an inflammatory speech, deploying his little Army on the Border,and promising guns to Gerry Fitt and Co.

The Civil Rights demands were quickly implemented, and scarcely noticed. The B Specials were disbanded. The Wilson/Callaghan Government told off the Stormont administration in headmasterish fashion. And the Civil Rights/SDLP leaders called off the agitation and urged the people to settle down.—Or did they? We were carried away for a moment by the image which they are currently projecting of themselves.

What we recall of the SDLP on its First Coming is that it was itself carried away by the groundless expectations attached to the One Man, One Vote! slogan—though it must have known them to be groundless—and that nothing that was realisable would satisfy it.

We recall the slogan British Rights For British Citizens. This was a demand that the normality of British political life should spring up in Northern Ireland and displace "sectarian head counting". We pointed out that the normality produced by British politics was not to be had without British politics, but that was dismissed as pessimism.
The SDLP programme, devised in 1970, had two contradictory aims—reform on British lines and the ending of Partition. We indicated that we would support the SDLP if it chose one or the other of those aims and was willing to adopt realistic preconditions for realising it, but said that the two together were impossible. But it insisted on having the two in a self-contradictory programme.

In 1971 Premier Faulkner made it an offer for participation in Stormont which bowled it over. It did not see how it could refuse it, in the light of what it had been saying. It coped with the dilemma by not returning to Stormont, instead setting up an Alternative Assembly at Dungannon. In 1972 it declared for "United Ireland or nothing". In 1973 Willie Whitelaw oozed all over them, seduced them back to the conference table at Sunningdale, and set up a kind of voluntary but obligatory power-sharing system of devolution for them at Sunningdale.

They took office in January 1974, with our support for what it was worth. By March it was obvious that power-sharing had been endangered by events in Dublin under a Fine Gael/Labour coalition, and we warned of this. Michael Dwyer wrote to the Minister for Social Welfare (Paddy Devlin) suggesting a meeting to discuss how the power-sharing Executive might be saved. He received an abrupt reply saying that everything was well in hand and the SDLP needed no advice from a group that could hold its annual general meeting in a phone box.

Two months later the Executive fell and the whole Sunningdale system was scrapped. It might have been saved if the SDLP had been willing to negotiate on the establishment on the Council of Ireland.

25 years passed before there was another Agreement. And now the SDLP is intent on destroying that too!

It is not the Civil Rights party. (The Provos have stretched Civil Rights far beyond anything that was imagined forty years ago, both as ideals and realities.) The SDLP is better described as the mischief-making Party.


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