Sunday 17 February 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Never a greater need for the SDLP - with a little help from their friends'

Fianna Fail's link-up with the SDLP could not have come at a more propitious time, writes Willie Kealy

Colum Eastwood and Micheal Martin. Photo: PA
Colum Eastwood and Micheal Martin. Photo: PA

Willie Kealy

The SDLP used to be a power in the land. The party represented the Northern Ireland Catholic population and, in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, won 24 Assembly seats, compared to 18 for Sinn Fein, and had three MPs who actually took their seats in Westminster, compared to Sinn Fein's two who abstained but still took the money.

The party was led by two political giants, John Hume and Seamus Mallon, and as the voice of constitutional nationalism, they were listened to in London and Dublin and in Brussels and Washington. Hume, in particular, made sacrifices and took risks in the hope of ending the 30 years of murder and mayhem that had been inflicted on the people of Northern Ireland by the IRA. His gamble paid off with a peace dividend, but in political terms, he and his party paid a high price.

When the dust had settled, the nationalist population abandoned Hume, Mallon and the SDLP and turned instead to Sinn Fein, a party led by two militants, Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness.

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When Hume stepped down, he was replaced by a fellow Derry man, Mark Durkan, and today the party is led by Colum Eastwood. In between, there have been other leaders but it is telling that few outside party circles could name them. In last year's Assembly elections, the reverse of fortunes was clear with the SDLP winning just 12 seats, while Sinn Fein won 27. In Westminster, Sinn Fein has seven seats, the SDLP has none.

So what happened? The fact that the nationalist population of the North made an inexplicable choice when offered a constitutional nationalist party that had brought them peace or Sinn Fein, which turned to politics in a totally opportunistic and cynical manner without ever fully breaking the link with those who had been most active in the killing years, was a factor.

But there is more to it than that. The SDLP has declined as a political force over the past 20 years and has found itself unable to compete. When the gunmen turned to politics, they brought to it the same fanaticism they had employed during their armed campaign, and with it a level of organisation and a unique funding model which the SDLP was unable to match. It was ladies and gentlemen facing thugs. It was amateurs against professionals. It was nice guys and gals against gurriers. And the nice guys and gals began to come last consistently.

So just as it is good news that Fianna Fail and the SDLP seem to have shelved their rumoured plan to merge into a single entity - if that really is what has happened - it is equally good news that they are forging a new working alliance.

There were those in both parties who were enthusiastic about a full merger. But in the SDLP such an approach seems defeatist and a betrayal of the best of what has gone before. Plus, a merger would eventually have meant the end of the SDLP with neither party getting anything worthwhile out of the deal.

In Fianna Fail there are those who envy Sinn Fein's ability to call itself the only all-Ireland party, though it is doubtful that translates into votes in either jurisdiction. And some of those of a greener hue in Fianna Fail feel having an all-Ireland dimension might facilitate a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein coalition after some future election - a prospect now made less likely by the new SDLP/Fianna Fail connection. But Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, is right not to be distracted by such musings.

He will be better rewarded for focusing on what he calls the "dead end" into which Sinn Fein and the DUP have turned the Northern Assembly over the past two years. In doing so, they have created a chance for the SDLP to reinvigorate itself as a party which is actually willing to govern on behalf of those who elect them, and represent the people of the North who voted by majority against Brexit - some moderate unionists included - in all relevant political fora.

So Fianna Fail could not have ridden to the rescue at a more propitious time. Now the SDLP will have the help and co-operation and the "extra capacity" of hard-nosed professionals whom no one has ever accused of naivety or of being nice guys. They know about organisation, about getting the vote out, and the importance of boots on the ground and putting the message across to maximum effect. And they are not bad at fund-raising.

There is another reason why the SDLP/Fianna Fail hook-up is timely right now. It was easy to dismiss Sinn Fein during much of the Adams leadership because of their economic policies which were, in the main, pretty bonkers, and because of the continuing smell of cordite that hung around the party. But in more recent years, some of their spokespeople, such as Pearse Doherty and the now-departed Peadar Toibin, began to sound a little less loony and even reasonable on occasion.

There were suggestions this trend would continue and even pick up pace under Mary Lou McDonald when she took over as party leader. But, in fact, the opposite has happened as we have seen elected representatives in the North having to seek the approval of unelected senior republicans before making decisions.

We have seen, too, the party leader sending Assembly member Conor Murphy and party general secretary Dawn Doyle to Venezuela to celebrate the election of Nicolas Maduro. He has continued the work of the late Hugo Chavez in destroying Venezuela's economy to such an extent that large swathes of the population have had to seek refuge in neighbouring states or starve. Admiration for that kind of economic management does not inspire confidence.

And at a time when all other political parties are focusing on possible solutions to the Brexit conundrum, Sinn Fein's main interest seems to be to snatch some political advantage with unhelpful suggestions of a Border poll on a united Ireland.

For the nationalist people of Northern Ireland, and others, there was never a greater need for a party like the SDLP to represent them; and for the SDLP, there was never a greater need nor a better time to receive the help of the experienced and capable entity that is the Fianna Fail party.

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