Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: The SDLP by Sean FarrenPutting

Four Courts Press, €40.95, Hardback

At a time when the history of the Northern peace process is being shamelessly rewritten, it is fitting that the role of the SDLP should be told, and by one of their own who was centrally involved.

It is the story of a small group of steadfast people who sustained the vision that the problem could be resolved by patient dialogue and mutual respect, and who totally rejected the use of violence. They held to this for three decades, in bad times and worse, through killing and mayhem, through the murder of one of their members and attacks on others, assailed on all sides and personally vilified.

When politics carries such risks, involvement is not for the dilettante. It took courage, as much as persistence and resourcefulness, to provide leadership for the Catholic and nationalist population in pursuit of a settlement that could be achieved by the patient building of relationships, and which utterly rejected the brutal alternative.

Sean Farren's is the account that of an insider. It presents a fairly linear narrative of events, with a greater sense of order and coherence than was often apparent at the time.

The approach of the SDLP from the start was to find an equitable role for the Catholic/nationalist minority in the North, which would respect their Irishness and allow them to play a full part in public life, while accepting the need to secure the consent of the unionist population for any constitutional change, and rejecting the use of violence.

The principle of consent became an essential element in the settlement that finally emerged, as did the other SDLP concepts of a variable geometry of relationships involving those within the North as well as the North/South and inter-island dimensions, and the need for changes in policing.

Farren presents a very Hume-centred account -- but then so many of the seminal ideas came from him, and were reiterated with endless patience over the years in what was gently mocked as the "single transferable speech".

But in a party where there were so many strong personalities, all of whom contributed, not a few feathers will be ruffled by this version of the gospel according to John.

What one misses in the book is anything more than a hint of the interplay of personalities. It is clear that there were tensions between Hume and Seamus Mallon, another towering figure, and that Hume tended to internalise much of the policymaking, and to keep his colleagues less than fully informed about the extent of his contacts and discussions.

Nevertheless, with his standing in the community, his position in Europe, his connections, carefully cultivated in America, his electoral success, and latterly his Nobel Prize, he was clearly the dominant figure.

The loss of Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin is minimised, but not analysed. Fitt was never a party man (unless it were to be a one-man party) and Devlin was a difficult colleague, but each had a spark of individuality that a party could ill-afford to lose, and deep roots in Belfast working-class politics that complemented the rural and middle-class base of the party.

The book closes with the Good Friday Agreement as the full achievement of the goals for which the SDLP had striven over the years.

It scarcely notices that they, and the Ulster Unionists who with them bore the burden of the negotiations, have been denied the fruits of victory. The top posts in the structure of government they largely conceived and fought so hard for, are occupied by those who obstructed and vilified, and who have now stolen their policies.

Did Hume's decision to bring Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein into the political arena (without which no lasting settlement could have been achieved) inevitably weaken the position of his own party as the main voice of Northern nationalism?

As an insider's story, this an invaluable guide, and a tribute to the leadership role of his party. They deserve more; it should be an epitaph.

Irish Independent

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