Editorial from Irish Political Review, September 2002

The S.D.L.P.

When the Social Democratic and Labour Party was set up, there was no ‘constitutional’ wing to the Republican movement. Sinn Fein was its legal expression—and there was no idea that it would enter either the Treatyite Dail or any devolved assembly with an ‘illegitimate Northern Ireland State’. The SDLP was described as a ‘Constitutional’ party because, while seeking an end to the ‘Constitution’ of Northern Ireland, it was prepared to work within its parameters. When Sinn Fein made its transition to using the given electoral systems, the Catholic community had a choice of two ‘Constitutional’ parties. The Belfast Agreement underlined the development that had taken place in Catholic politics and gave all ‘Constitutional’ parties a role in ‘government’.

During the period when this new form of politics was developing there was a definite role for the SDLP. It was given ‘concessions’ for the Catholic community by the British Government in order to undercut Republican electoral support. That phase is now coming to an end as Sinn Fein looks set fair to outstrip the SDLP, which is looking for a new perspective with which to justify its existence to Catholic voters.

It cannot outdo Sinn Fein on appeal to working class voters and there is not sufficient electoral power in the rural constituency, which is often said to be its main base, to keep it as the dominant party.

Neither has the SDLP been able to cross the community divide. It claims to be a Socialist party representative of both Protestants and Catholics, and as such, it is part of the Socialist International. And it was on this basis that it has fought off any thoughts by the Labour Parties of either Britain or Ireland of setting up in Northern Ireland. The SDLP was unable to broaden is appeal to include Protestant workers and it prevented the establishment of other parties which might have done so, for fear that they would cut into its nationalist electoral base. (Incidentally, the Sunday Times reported in August as a definite fact that the Blair leadership would be sponsoring a motion for Labour Party organisation in Northern Ireland at this year’s Blackpool Conference in view of the massive support for the project amongst Labour parliamentarians. We will be very surprised if this happens: it looks like more of Kate Hoey’s vague promises to keep her supporters on board. Moreover, we cannot see that the unionist Labour Party to which she is committed could appeal across the sectarian divide.)

SDLP difficulties have been further compounded by its implication in a Policing Board with little actual power over policing, but which takes the blame for the shortcomings of the Royal Ulster Constabulary/Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its membership of that Board has prevented it from launching a vigorous agitation for effective police action in combatting the street violence with which Unionism is trying to undermine the political institutions of the Belfast Agreement.

It is in this context that Mark Durkan came up with a ‘new nationalism’ which he thought could provide cross-community appeal. (We dealt with this proposal, in the context of Dennis Kennedy’s criticism of it, in the last issue of Northern Star.)

What the well-meaning SDLP Leader and Deputy First Minister does not seem to appreciate is that nationalism is an exclusive ideology or it is nothing—it includes in one direction, but if it does not exclude in another, it does not exist. So, what is the New Nationalism directed against?

It seems that he thinks he can act against the grain of the Two-Community-Politics of the Belfast Agreement—that he and First Minister David Trimble jointly can and should represent both of the Northern Ireland communities: and that the new cross-community Nationalism thus generated will find continued expression in the eventual united Ireland resulting from demographic change. The problem with this is that David Trimble has different concerns: he is fighting a rearguard action in defence of one of the Northern Ireland communities: he knows what his is against.

Mark Durkan’s strategy has not and can not work out. If he is to salvage the SDLP at the next election, he is going to have to think again.

So Much For Mark Durkan’s ‘Big Idea'.

Letter From The Irish News

By Councillor Mark Langhammer
Labour, Newtownabbey Borough Council

I TAKE issue with Denis Bradley (August 1) over his praise for the potential of Mark Durkan developing ‘new nationalism’ as a big idea. When demographics finally produce the 50 per cent plus one required, the notion that the cross-community ‘protections’ of the Good Friday Agreement should apply to a new united Ireland should concern us all.

I, for one, cannot think of anything worse! Under the agreement, a measure of devolved government operates on a federal basis. The devolved administration is not a power-sharing coalition operating with a protective weighted majority system. It is a federal arrangement between two formally designated communities – two body politics—with virtually no movement between the two.

The mechanisms within the agreement to operate the federal system are the "designations" system—whereby assembly members designate, in confessional fashion, their communal affiliation—and the "parallel consent" voting system. Taken together, as the Alliance Party and Women’s Coalition have now learned and understand, these mechanisms ensure that the votes of non designated "others" are worthless, and that non-communal voters are disenfranchised.

To design, from a blank page, a more discriminatory procedure—or a procedure designed to bottle and freeze politics in sectarian form—would be hard to envisage. Heaven help us if this is the sort of ‘protective’ measure to form the ‘big idea" of new nationalism.

The best way to gradually reduce communal divisions within any new united Ireland will be the consistent and prolonged application of normal party politics. The gravitational effect of state power—of who governs and in whose interest—remains the best hope of eroding sectarian division over one or two generations.

The Fianna Fail instinct for power will surely not allow swathes of northern territory to go uncontested for long. The currently tattered Fine Gael may regain purpose by openly acknowledging its West British instincts and developing a long-term relationship with Ulster Unionism. Labour, currently considering setting up a northern membership forum, will surely contest across the state. Sinn Fein, with its long-term view, will continue its march, while Green Party politics will have a northern constituency too.

What is difficult to envisage, however, is the purpose and role of the SDLP in a united Ireland. Perhaps Mark Durkan’s contribution to new nationalism will be to dissolve the SDLP in an orderly fashion within the mainstream of Irish party politics? Now, wouldn’t that be a big idea?

(Letter in Irish News, 12.08.2002)



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