The SDLP: A house divided…

Back around the turn of the century I was on a TV panel with Ed Moloney. Ed, for younger readers, was a journalist in this tormented little corner of Ireland. “The SDLP will shortly be consigned to the dust-bin of history” Ed said on that occasion. “But that’s OK, because Sinn Féin will shortly turn into the SDLP”.

He was right, to a degree. Sinn Féin certainly have assumed the mantle of the leaders of northern nationalism. They hold virtually all of the ministerial posts that the SDLP once had. Their leader in the north, Martin McGuinness, is the Deputy First Minister. So as the SDLP has waned, Sinn Féin have waxed.

It’s fair to say that the SDLP have been aware of this swap in positions. Some of its leading figures embrace the party’s decline as a badge of honour: John Hume had to choose between the interests of the society and the interests of the party, and he chose the former. The SDLP made itself a noble sacrifice on the altar of peace.

Although not quite. Just as the royals look like doing, the SDLP has skipped a generation and put at its helm the outrageously youthful Colum Eastwood. Many of its candidates such as Claire Hanna and Nicola Mallon look and sound equally youthful. And while the new party leader may not have put in a barn-storming appearance at the leaders’ debate on UTV recently, young Eastwood didn’t do at all badly either. So is it possible that the SDLP may follow the example of the UUP and experience a resurgence?

Not if West Tyrone is anything to go by. There, prominent SDLP people have been dropping out of the party like autumn leaves in a gale. The dropping out comes from the nomination of the youthful Daniel McCrossan as SDLP candidate in the upcoming election.

“During the past decade, there has been a complete and total disrespect for the constitution of the party and the work of the various committees and branches.”

“Two or three people have been running the SDLP in West Tyrone simply for their own advancement”.

“When you can’t trust people as colleagues, how can you go out and ask the public to trust them?”

Frustration has mounted, as these comments from SDLP people indicate. It links to the specific West Tyrone case but also because of the rise of Sinn Féin throughout Ireland and the apparent inability of the SDLP to win back its support. At a meeting last year, it wasn’t just verbal barbs that were fired.

“It was so bad that people feared for their own safety. There was a lot of shouting and our group left and set up our meeting in a supporter’s premises. There is no way we could have stayed”.

It would appear that the wind of change in the SDLP is getting the wind up a sizeable number of its members. Mr McCrossan may be pleasingly youthful, like his party leader Colum Eastwood, but that doesn’t appear to have impressed some people in the party.

Introducing a new member of the Tory party into the House of Commons, Churchill is said to have pointed to the ranks of Conservative MPs behind him and said “There, my boy, are the enemy”. When the green-horn suggested that surely Churchill meant the MPs on the other side of the floor, not those behind them, Churchill shook his head. “There, my boy, are the enemy” he repeated.

Elections can always throw up surprises but it’s hard not to have a bad feeling about the SDLP as they head into the fray.

26 Responses to The SDLP: A house divided…

  1. Iolar April 25, 2016 at 8:45 am #

    “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

    Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow

    As junior doctors prepare to engage in industrial action this week, a senior member of the medical profession had his work cut out for him on Radio 4 today. He accused the Tory government of distorting figures and research. The interviewer persisted in asking questions and talking over the responses, perhaps he worked in RTÉ or BBC NI? The doctor was obliged to plead to be allowed at least to answer the questions.

    There have been many noble sacrifices made throughout this country in order to achieve peace, prosperity and stability in Ireland. The question remains who and what led to the circumstances that created war, stagnation and instability in Ireland? Much has been written and discussed about a “recovery” in Ireland. Much has been written about current Anglo/Irish relationships. According to some, they have never been better. “Wow”.

    Ms Villier’s stance on a Brexit would suggest otherwise. Civil war politics remains alive and well within the ranks of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The Irish Labour Party may change its leader, however, James Connolly et al did not make the ultimate sacrifice in order to implement right wing austerity policies. The SDLP may be described as a social party, however, there are issues and challenges to be met if it continues to describe itself as being democratic or to represent the interests of people who are obliged to work for a living.

    Mr Adam’s posed a relevant question at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis.

    “To whom do we owe our allegiance today?”

    • Jude Collins April 25, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      I heard that interview too and I agree completely – the interviewer’s obvious intention was to present the junior doctors – and maybe the consultants as well – as irresponsible and heartless, leaving sick people to die because they had to strike. Despite the fact that the interviewee made it clear no such thing would happen, the interviewer continued apace. If the Church of England is the Tory party at prayer, is the BBC the Tory party at spin?

      • Iolar April 25, 2016 at 10:24 am #

        Tory party policy has more to do with leaving sick people to die than staff being left with no alternative other than to engage in industrial action.

        Talking of doctors, Gerry Moriarty described the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis as “listless”. There was nothing “listless” about Sráid Uí Chonaill on 24 April 2016.

        Perhaps Mr Moriarty did not see Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil delegations leaving their negotiations on Friday. Now that is what I call “listless”.

      • Iolar April 25, 2016 at 10:46 am #

        “Who fears to speak…” in Baile Átha Cliath?

        Speaking at a 1916 commemoration event in New York, acting Environment Minister Alan Kelly said abolishing Irish Water now would be:

        “political, economic and environmental sabotage”.

        I would have thought that the Irish Labour Party’s support for a right wing administration was a case of “political, economic and environmental sabotage”.

      • Croiteir April 26, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

        “James Connolly et al did not make the ultimate sacrifice in order to implement right wing austerity policies.”

        Sure about that? Didn’t SF call for the stickers in Dublin to be battered back to work. Fine socialist sentiment displayed there

  2. BYC April 25, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    Paddy Ashdown said somewhere (maybe not seriously) that people shouldn’t be allowed to run for Westminster until they were 50. He thought it would stop political careerism, dampen extremism and ensure people had some idea of outside life.

    The SDLP seem to have decided that the only way to get some optimism and freshness into their party is to cull the over 40’s. Oldies like Alisdair and Margaret Ritchie weren’t getting them anywhere and.seemed a bit hard done by and unsure of what direction they were meant to be pointing their party.

    Shiny happy international socialist pluralist types like Claire Hanna, Cliona McCarney, maybe Nicola Mallon, don’t make me wonder why we need the SDLP and Sinn Fein though. They make me wonder why we need the SDLP and Alliance.

    Maybe Fianna Fail’s needed up here to represent the the Hibernian old folk but the most natural wrapper for some of these more metropolitan types looks more like an all-island Irish Labour Party that gives northern members dual membership with the UK Labour Party – something like the local Green Party’s status.

    Basically I can’t see what people like Claire Hanna are doing in a different party from people like Naomi Long or Nuala McAllister. They all sound the same clear headed, forward looking, sort of sensible to me.

  3. michael c April 25, 2016 at 11:37 am #

    Forward looking,sensible and unionist.Pluralist my arse,the SDLP are the political wing of the bishops.

    • BYC April 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      I wasn’t including all the SDLP Michael. I said Fianna Fail might suit the Hibernian element better. I was agreeing with Jude that there seems to be two sorts of SDLP – the ones you’ve mentioned and some other QUB/PES types that seem more progressive. So I gave three people as examples – Claire Hanna, Nicola Mallon and Cliona McCarney. You think I’m wrong about them? Here’s another example – Andrew Muir left the SDLP when they were discussing merger with Fianna Fail some years ago. Now he’s running for a second Alliance seat in North Down. Do you think he was unique?

  4. RJC April 25, 2016 at 12:04 pm #

    Not only are the SDLP opposed to extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to NI, they also actively oppose abortion reform for fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crimes. ‘Clear headed, forward looking, sort of sensible’? Hmmm…

    I don’t know of any SDLP candidates who are openly pro-choice, and I think the party underestimate how much of an issue this is for the young voters they appear to be trying to attract. An injection of youth into northern politics is to be welcomed, but I’m not sure the SDLP can claim to be a sister party to British Labour when their abortion policy is about 40 years behind that of Labour.

    I’ve no idea where Alliance stand on the matter. As far as I can tell, they appear to have no policy on abortion, and leave it up to individual MLAs to vote with their conscience on the matter. Sort of sensible perhaps, given how much of an emotive issue it can be but still far from forward looking. Though I guess what constitutes ‘forward looking’ in politics here is somewhat different to that which constitutes forward looking elsewhere.

    • Byc April 25, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

      That seems about it although David Ford did try to bring in some reform as Minister of Justice. So I think my point about the more progressive members of the SDLP being in about the same place as the typical Alliance type still stands – even if neither are quite as “forward looking” as the Labour Representation Committee vanguard.

  5. Ciaran Mc April 25, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    Jude, for my final year University dissertation, 13 years ago – I examined the rise of the radical parties, DUP and SF against that of the moderates, the SDLP and UUP. The last chapter examined the future of the SDLP and even at that time, I was confident enough to predict their eventual death. The death of the SDLP has been slow and drawn out – Any loses in the Assembly Election will only allow this slow death to continue. They often remind me of the Irish Party, under Redmond and we all know how that went.

    For one, I genuinely do not know what the party stands for – Can anyone explain to me, what makes the SDLP a Nationalist party? What is the point of the SDLP? Colum Eastwood, I recall stated he would aim to make the party greener as well as more relevant. After he became the leader, I asked a number of questions, which are as relevant today, as they were in November:

    The problem for Colum and the SDLP is their irrelevance and insignificance – in consecutive elections, their vote has declined and sitting somewhere around 13.9% in the 2015 general election. Ok, they retained their 3 MPs, but lost 11,000 voters. Next time around, will they manage this? Since their peak vote in 1997, the SDLP have lost the guts of 90,000 voters!! That’s a startling statistic. In the next Assembly elections, whenever they are, this could add another nail to their coffin – I can’t see how they can regain lost territory as they are not offering anything to challenge the mindset of the electorate. I can’t see how the Nationalist electorate can be won over by a party that is more concerned with survival than expanding and leading. A party whose daily diet consists of attacking SF, yet can’t provide credible alternatives. As the Nationalist vote declines, their political influence, once fundamental to the north, is merely dead. The SDLP are in a worse position now that they have ever been – but, who’s fault is this? The party is still having issues that Alasdair McDonnell faced – who really wants to vote for a divided party, with no vision, direction or leadership?

  6. Perkin Warbeck April 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    One has always thought that SDLP, Esteemed Blogmeister , could well be the text for Saddle Up. Well, ‘always’ might be stretching it a bit but at least since the mobile phone succeeded in clearing the static hurdle .

    Oddly enough, one was reminded of this as recently as last Saturday when the latest guest on the Dame Dosh Finucane show on RTE Radio 1 to do a proxy job on knocking the socks off the Shinners was a former big wig of the Southern version of the SDLP.

    That would be the ultra orthodoxy Dermot Ahern, a Fianna Failure, but now no longer practising, after a fashion, which may or may not mean he still has the moxie to do a number on the Shinners.

    Nonetheless when asked his opinion of the party which now dominates his old constituency of Louth he responded in much the manner of, say, Mother Mary Aikenhead who has just discovered a dead rat in the ornamental pond of the convent grounds.

    -There are those in that party who if you dig down into the past you’ll find were involved in very nefarious deeds indeed.

    Moving on to less nefarious matters like the gregarious grand assembly of the United Nations the modest Mr. Ahern mentioned how proud his parents were of him when he got to address the same august assembly. That was during his distinguished stint as Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Free Southern Stateen.

    Oddly enough, the globally acclaimed radio hostess did not get round to mentioning a predecessor of Mr. Dermot ‘Read’ Ahern (so nicknamed for the number of times he has read the Shinners off the altar of, erm, orthodox Republicanism). A predecessor on two fronts, at least: as FF TD of the same constituency and as minister of the same princely department, formerly known as the Department of External Affairs.

    That would have been the formidable Frank Aiken (no relation, see above). Who, on the 14th of an august month of 1922, led a force of 300-400 IRA men into Dundalk, blew a few holes in the walls of the army barracks and took over the town in jig time. A sort of Lugh Lamhlaidir Lu na linne sin.

    Did some hombre mention El Paso ?

    Fascinating fellow Frank Aiken, by any bench marks. For starters, he was the spitting image of his contemporary, Anastas Mikoyen who was the Boss of the USSR in 1964. Though this may not be as remarkable as it may appear at first glance. In South Armagh, of which Frank A. was a native, there has always been a tradition of the paterfamilias having a snaking regard for Nikita Krushchev.

    It’s the way they, erm, Makem.

    Frank A. was also a creative individual, an amateur inventor who took out patents for a turf stove, a beehive, an air-raid shelter, an electric cooker, and (gasp) a spring heel for a shoe.

    Perhaps, it was the hostess’s undoubted familiarity with that inventiveness of her guest’s predecessor that prevented her from raising his name and his derring-do deeds in days of yore in Dundalk. Perhaps, she feared the her guest might have spring heeled out of the studio on the spot, leaving her with a lot of dead air time on her hands.

    Shucks, did Dame Dosh Finucane suspect that the former FF TD for Louth was divided on the topic of the former former FF TD for Louth ???

    In the absence of the Aiken-patented spring heels maybe the distinguished guest’s inner handsome young cowboy might even have borrowed a phrase from the big, twenty gallon hit of Marty Robbins:

    -Out through the back door of Rosa’s* I ran
    Out where the horses were tied
    I caught a good one
    It looked like good run
    Up on its back and away I did ride
    Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso’.

    (*Known as Roisin Dubh’s in the North Louth town of El Paso).

    To conclude, where one came in: SDLP could well be text for Saddle UP.

  7. Belfastdan April 25, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

    The problem with the SDLP is that they are no longer a nationalist party only they haven’t got around to telling anybody yet.

    Cliona McCarney as BYC alluded would not be out of place in the Alliance party seeing as she is already a member of the US sponsored UK Young Leaders programme.

    Just as an endnote I fail to see how abortion can be considered to be a sign of a progressive society. After all for many years we were held to be backward due to political violence yet to be considered truly civilised we have to consent to the killing of unborn babies?

    Its a funny old world that we live in.

    • billy April 25, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

      its a funny old world we live in…
      it is indeed when a party that claims to be born out of civil rights marches denies the civil rights of women to do as they please regarding abortion.

      • fiosrach April 25, 2016 at 5:15 pm #

        Is inconvenience a good enough reason for abortion,billy?

        • angela April 25, 2016 at 7:42 pm #


        • gendjinn April 25, 2016 at 10:26 pm #


  8. BYC April 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

    “There are those in that party who if you dig down into the past you’ll find were involved in very nefarious deeds indeed.”

    Are you inviting us to include Altnaveigh in Frank’s legacy for ourselves there Perkin?

    • Perkin Warbeck April 25, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

      In fairness, going backwards, BYC, a chara, one is glad you asked one that question.

      For, as a card carrying member of Amnesia Ireland, one is precluded from answering it. That estimable organisation’s terms and conditions of disremembership prevents one form doing so.

      Or is it, Amnesty Ireland, one is a member of ?

      Whatever, one knows that D. Ahern is a member of one or the other of them, so perhaps the q. might be best directed in that direction.

      Or, is it B. Ahern one is thinking of? One can just about recall that there was more than duine no beirt of the Clan Ahern who soldiered with one in one or other of those a.o’s. In fact, unless one is greatly mistaken, there was a whole shoal of the Silver Darlings involved.

      That’s possibly why they were also members of the Southern equivalent of the whatewanmay MacCollems, the , Silver Darlings LP.

      Beir bua., from the Dirty Old Town.

  9. fiosrach April 25, 2016 at 1:13 pm #


  10. Donal Kennedy April 25, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

    The idea that the injection of youth into politics will advance the cause of Abortion is too
    grotesque to be funny.

    • giordanobruno April 26, 2016 at 10:33 am #

      Yes Donal
      Better to go back to the 60s, with Dev kissing the archbishop’s ring.

  11. Argenta April 26, 2016 at 10:54 pm #

    Interesting headline on blog of 26thApril—“Respect is a one way street”.Doesn’t seem to be a lot of that on this blog for the S D L P.How unreasonable of them not to lie down and let Sinn Fein walk all over them!!

    • Jude Collins April 27, 2016 at 7:57 am #

      Specifics, please, Argie?

      • Argenta April 27, 2016 at 10:27 pm #

        An extract from your blog of 22nd April neatly sums up your lack of respect for the S D L P.
        “In short,I think the S D L P (and U U P) are a waste of space and should quietly fade into the ether”.

        • Jude Collins April 28, 2016 at 8:39 am #

          No, argie – that’s a considered judgement.