Friday, September 28, 2007


The Dreaming Arm's Belfast correspondent Phil Larkin is back with another piece of insightful political analysis. This time Phil turns his attention to the SDLP and ponders the implications of a possible merger with Fianna Fáil.

“Everything is in flux: one cannot step in the same river twice.”

In July this author wrote a piece for the blog analysing the effects which Sinn Féin’s poor election performance in the Irish Republic may have on the political scene in Northern Ireland. A number of conclusions were reached, the most significant being that SF’s advance in Southern Irish politics has been checked, and perhaps ended permanently. The Republic’s political establishment is, to say the least, unenthusiastic about accepting SF as equals, and really do not wish to suffer any sizeable militant Republican presence in the Dail.
This still leaves SF with a powerful electoral mandate in the North, as the leading nationalist party, currently holding the key ministries of Deputy First Minister, Agriculture, and Education.

So what of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (henceforth SDLP) of whom those of us interested in Irish politics, north and south, hear so little about? One key theme over the past decade has been the relative decline of the SDLP as a political force in relation to SF, falling from their position as the leading nationalist party at the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. At the last Assembly elections, the SDLP had elected 16 MLAs to the NI Assembly, in comparison with SF’s 28, and three Westminster MPs in comparison with SF’s 5. The SDLP presently holds only the social development portfolio in the form of the very able and feisty Margaret Ritchie. Some commentators have gone so far as to predict the complete demise of the SDLP as a political party, given its electoral decline, and its current political pusillanimity. It is sometimes referred to as a “dead man walking.” Yet it is surely premature to make such speculation.

It will be a central argument in this article that such an apocalyptic outcome is by no means inevitable, and that the SDLP can rise again from its present position to become a real and lasting force in Irish politics. To achieve such a feat, as I will argue below, will mean the SDLP having to garner the necessary courage and energy to confront a number of demons both inside and outside its own Party confines, and offer real choice and constructive policy commitments to the Northern Ireland electorate, unionist and nationalist. It must also be prepared to open a number of battlefronts with SF ranging from the historical to the economic, and challenge the latter on these grounds. This is a matter of some urgency for the Party in the coming years, as is the need for it to resolve its current crisis of identity. All of this is quite separate from the relations which the SDLP must forge with the unionist community and electorate. This author also contends that the controversial discussions with Fianna Fail, which will be conducted over the next decade or so and may lead to a merger between the two parties is also a firm step in the right direction. These themes will be developed below.

A Crisis of Identity
It is instructive sometimes to have a look at party websites, paying very careful attention to their manifesto commitments and policy statements. These reveal the political character of the organization in stark black and white form. A cursory glance at the SDLP website and the on-line manifesto reveals more of a lack of political character than a proper programme for government. This may appear to be a harsh judgment, but what they offer, at basic level, is little more than a homeopathic version of the SF manifesto, served up with a lot less gusto and certainty than the latter are able to manage. One is left with the overall impression that the SDLP does not have a political destination or aim in mind, is unsure of what identity it should adopt, and is vacillating about the message which it should give to the nationalist electorate.
For example, relative primacy of place is given in the manifesto to the message that the SDLP should be a “persuader” for the benefits of a “united Ireland”, a message which they intend to sell to the unionist community. What they mean exactly by a united Ireland is not elaborated upon. Does it entail the goal of a “32 county Irish Republic”, the crudest and most dated form of nationalist dogma, which will never gain the approval or respect of the unionist community? Is it regression to the nauseating and folorn hope often expressed by nationalist commentators in the past that demographic changes will render unionism insignificant in Ireland? Or, on the other hand, does it mean working hard to build tangible and beneficial links with the unionist population, the southern political establishment and Westminster to achieve the economic prosperity necessary to ensure a bright, shared future for all the peoples of Ireland?

It’s true that the SDLP manifesto does mention a commitment to economic growth, strengthening North/South economic and financial links and lobbying the Labour Government to cut corporation tax rate in Northern Ireland to a level comparable with the Republic’s. But much of this talk is vague, and buried among policy statements on the protecting human rights and opposing MI5 adopting responsibility for anti-paramilitary security. Other clues as to the SDLP’s political complexion are contained on the website: one flyer invites delegates to a seminar entitled “Civil Rights in the 21st Century”; the “news and events” section has photos of John Hume receiving an honorary doctorate in some US College, even though he has not been party leader for many years. This speaks volumes.

Civil Rights and the Legacy of Hume
It is not the intention of this article to advance the thesis that questions of human and minority rights and civil rights are in any way unimportant, and irrelevant to the north’s future. They certainly are, and will always remain so. However, it must be stated that the overemphasis on community and group rights in the SDLP’s manifesto reveals certain unpalatable realities about the nature of the Party’s policies, and demonstrates the reasons for the Party’s current weaknesses. It will certainly be strong medicine for SDLP activists to swallow, but accept it they must, if the Party is to extricate itself from the languor in which it wallows.
The first truth is that the constant emphasis on individual and group rights indulged in by both communities in Northern Ireland is essentially a hangover from the decades of “zero-sum” politics from which the province suffered. Any advantage gained (or, more usually, perceived to be gained) by one community was seen as gained at the expense of the other, who, in return, demanded the same “rights” off London, or else lobbied Dublin to secure them. This bred a pernicious legacy. Most importantly, it led both unionists and nationalists seeing themselves as victims, and obscured the reality that all groups could work together for a shared and prosperous future. Overemphasis on “rights” by political groupings is not symptomatic of a politically confident and economically advanced society: just witness how far Gerry Adams’ plaintive cry that “people have rights”, when talking about the southern economy, advanced him and his party with Irish voters during the May election.

Secondly, there is one obvious point which is frequently missed in regarding all discussions on human rights. That a civil, social, or economic right has been recognised and yielded does not necessarily mean that the matching need or desire (or perceived need or desire) will be met and satiated. It is often forgotten that “rights” to certain services, such as health care, university education, and social services, come at a high price, and often must be earned by individuals in society: one has the “right” to drive a Jaguar and live in a country mansion, but without the financial wherewithal to bring this to reality, it remains just that, a “right.” Too often both unionists and especially nationalists have talked about “rights” as a form of magic touchstone, and expected (and continue to expect) the UK and Irish Governments to indulge their communities’ needs, without facing up to the hard grind of creating a strong, cohesive and wealthy society on which the preservation of such rights depend, or reaching out in a meaningful way to each other. It also helps preserve the inter-communal antipathy which political leaders should be striving vigorously to overcome.

Thirdly, one brief point is that human rights of any description should in reality be taken as accepted as a bare minimum; to be constantly invoking rights should not be an activity which encouraged in any political community, whose members surely have aspirations to bigger and better things: greater affluence, higher education, better cars and houses.

Finally, as far as the SDLP is concerned, the premium placed on “rights” may be a symptom of the early days of the Party and the experiences of its leaders, above all John Hume, who made his name during the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s. Historically, the SDLP was founded on a coalition of different personalities, and not on any decided ideological programme. It was comprised of individuals from an essentially nationalist background, such as Hume, as well as civil rights activists such as Ivan Cooper, and Labour socialists like Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, none of whom necessarily had much in common. Hume’s influence remains strong within the Party, and perhaps this is understandable, since he remained such a towering figure during much of the 30 years of the troubles and the succeeding “peace process.” He also did much for his native Derry. But his elevation in many quarters to secular sainthood and supreme political strategist, and the fact that much of what has been written about him tends to be hagiographic (bordering on mawkish), prevents any real evaluation of his legacy both within the SDLP and the wider field of Irish political history. The uncomfortable truths that he did little to consolidate a cohesive political party, neglected party structures and organisation, and was often reluctant to initiate open debate on key constitutional issues within the Party are obfuscated more often than not. Hume, at base, disliked taking the views of others, even fellow constitutional nationalists, into account. His political utterances tended to be somewhat bland and predictable (“spilling our sweat and not our blood”, etc) and as the historian John A. Murphy has pointed out, the analogies he made comparing the harmony between France and Germany engendered by the European Union, and what relations among unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland could be like, were naïve, simplistic, and inappropriate. Equally fatally, for all his purported willingness to engage with anyone who could bring a lasting solution to the troubles, he did not understand unionists and made no real effort to accommodate their political aspirations in his plans. As a result, as Murphy has also stated, unionists disliked and distrusted him. In the end, it was left to Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail to reassure unionists that their rights and identity were not under threat, thus paving the way for the present constitutional settlement in the north. The fact that the SDLP leadership continues to be based in Derry and not Belfast is also testament to Hume’s influence.

Whither the SDLP?
The discussion above will no doubt make unhappy reading for SDLP members. It should do, since it is designed with this aim in mind. However, all is not lost by any means for the Party, and it should not be written off for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, as outlined above, any long-term upturn in Party fortunes will involve a great deal of soul searching, ruthless policy changes, diligence, the strength to front the nationalist community in the north with some hard truths, and, above all, the willingness to come to close quarters with their main rivals, SF, on a variety of policy issues. These themes must be developed further.
Perhaps the most fundamental message that the SDLP needs to emphasise is that constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland, together with the North/South and East/West links, have now been settled to the satisfaction of the UK and Irish Governments, and are the most that the nationalist community in the north can hope for. SDLP efforts should be concentrated on strengthening the integrity of the present settlement, and on working for constructive relations with unionists. This much ought to receive primacy of place in the Party manifesto. Propounding the notion that in some way the unionist population will ever be persuaded to sign up to any form of a 32 county republic governed from Dublin, or even suggesting this, is to perpetuate a myth, as well as being unsettling to the unionists, and profoundly irritating to the Irish political establishment. Vagaries about one community “out-breeding” another should also be struck firmly on the head. If SF wishes to continue pursuing either or both of these lines, then that should be their prerogative alone.
This leads on to a wider point: the SDLP simply can never outperform SF in the purely nationalist stakes. The latter will always be “dyed in a deeper green” than the former, and the present SDLP strategy of attempting to don the SF mantle and trailing lamely in their wake should be jettisoned, along with much of Hume’s legacy. It is the same with the “rights” game. SF has made itself master in this field, and the SDLP should know better than to try to challenge them on this ground. Clausewitz wrote almost two centuries ago that in war the strategy of one side largely determines the strategy of another. The SDLP is allowing SF to determine its own political strategy, on a battlefield of SF’s choosing. Thus statements from journalists of an SDLP background, such as Brian Feeney, complaining about “stickies” in the Irish senate, or making vituperative and derogatory comments about unionist politics and politicians is something that the Party should distance itself from.

So on what policy issues can the SDLP come into its own? One clue lies in the Party name. It is only by drawing SF onto the grounds of moderate social democracy, and modern economic theory and reality can the SDLP make any real headway. Barring any unforeseen developments, and despite the dire predictions of the doom-mongers, the Irish economy looks set not only to grow, but to flourish well into the twenty-first century. This will require recruitment of ever greater numbers of skilled and educated workers, many of whom will inevitably come from the north, something which should sustain the SDLP argument in favour of strengthening transport and business links between the two jurisdictions, engendering a benign and constructive form of Irish unity, one which does not threaten the rights of anyone.

It is perfectly possible in a European context for one economy to complement another: just observe the Scandinavian situation, where thousands of Swedish professionals and skilled workers cross the border into oil-rich Norway every week to take advantage of the higher wages there, and return home in the evening or at weekends. The national identities and political affiliations of neither Norwegians nor Swedes are compromised in any way. No sensible unionist should feel frightened by these potential changes (in fact they should be welcomed), and the SDLP will have the task of putting any misunderstandings to rest. It is likely that a large proportion of these workers will opt to continue living in the north, a potentially beneficial development for us. With deft political management, NI can also grow greatly in affluence, mainly by using the example of the RoI as a blueprint, making it an attractive venue for inward investment. This can be achieved even with the present high rate of corporation tax. It is heartening that Unionists such as Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson have recognised the need for sustained economic growth and investment and a strengthening of economic links with the south. These are developments that the SDLP should be just as anxious to surmount as the DUP.
What the SDLP greatly requires at the moment is not another Hume, but an articulate, intellectual bruiser on economic policy in the Brian Cowen or Gordon Brown mould, and a political strategist on the level of Tony Blair or Bertie Ahern, who can formulate a real programme for government. The nationalist and unionist populations must be given a simple and direct message from their political leaders: “enrich yourselves, enjoy it, and for God’s sake get to know and respect one another!” If such an outcome is to materialise, the SDLP leadership has to convey to certain sections of the nationalist population in the north the message that their salvation is not necessarily to be found on the inside of a community day care centre, or in the rhetoric of professional “community activists”, and that group rights must be matched with individual endeavour. The age of the technocrat is dawning in NI, and this will require SDLP leaders and activists to be able to talk knowledgeably on matters as diverse as inflation levels, global economic cycles, world commodity prices, and global markets. It will also mean the Party having to bang the drum loudly and confidently on behalf of both north and south in international trade fairs. This, one suspects, is a game in which they can easily surpass SF.
Again importing a Scandinavian analogy into the picture, a thriving free market must be matched, as in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a first rate public sector, and a firm commitment to law and order. This last area is certainly one in which the SDLP has a head start over SF, since the Party courageously signed up to the Policing settlement long before Republicans. Northern Ireland society appears at present to be going through a spate of extreme lawlessness in certain areas, with fatal stabbings, robberies, and drug dealing proliferating. If it is to be an attractive venue for tourists and investors alike, civic order is a matter of grave concern.
A final and crucial battlefield on which the SDLP must confront SF is in the emotionally charged area of Irish history. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Gerry Adams seemed to suggest that the aim of the 25 year IRA campaign was to achieve a “unity among the peoples of Ireland”, and that all the deaths caused by that organization were really aimed at securing “rights” for the nationalist people in the north. Put bluntly, this is no more than eyewash, and SF should not be allowed to wriggle off the hook of its own past and thereby escape the harsh judgment of history. Neither should the SDLP stand by and indulge them in this disingenuous exercise. The IRA campaign was, in fact, about securing a “utopian” 32 county Irish Socialist republic, possibly in the mould of a Celtic Cuba, and what SF has settled for is very much less than this. The cold reality is that the troubles, and the IRA role in these, set back considerably the prospect of any form of unity among the peoples of Ireland, turned Northern Ireland’s economy into a basket-case, and caused untold human suffering.

Merger with Fianna Fáil?
At the moment there is much fevered speculation that the SDLP is set to merge with Fianna Fail in an all-Ireland Party. Such a development seems to be positively welcomed by the SDLP itself, is being played down by FF, and has caused consternation among normally level-headed figures such as Sir Reg Empey of the UUP, who believes that it would “throw a hand grenade” into the political settlement in the north.
It is important to keep a sense of proportion about the present discussions between the SDLP and FF. On a practical level they are exactly that - discussions, which may eventually develop into negotiations, but they will be conducted over a period of about a decade, and no-one can be certain in any way what the eventual outcome. This much was admitted by Fianna Fail’s Eamon O’Cuiv on RTE’s Questions and Answers of September 24.
It is unlikely that a wily and sophisticated political operator like Bertie Ahern will wish his party to become directly involved in the unfamiliar and tricky territory of northern electoral politics in the future, and it is more probable that some form loose and flexible compact will emerge between the two parties. Certainly the SDLP can learn a much from FF party management and organization, and an agreement between them will ensure that SDLP electioneers can operate under the protection of a more powerful political institution, which should prevent any potential intimidation at election time by republican supporters.

So why has FF really initiated these discussions with the SDLP, if not to stand its own candidates for election in the north? The answer to this question is threefold. First, and most obviously, FF wishes to challenge SF’s boasts about being the only credible all-Ireland party and seeks to provide northern nationalists with an alternative. Secondly, enhanced relations with the SDLP will enable FF to acquire a more direct role in the daily management and evolution of the NI constitutional settlement. Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, by stiffening the SDLP’s fighting resolve, SF will be forced to concentrate its efforts in the arena of Northern Ireland, reducing further their designs on power in the south. SF can scarcely complain about these developments: after all, wasn’t it them who have been advocating for years political structures and organizations which encompass all of Ireland? SF themselves have been ominously silent about the discussions between Fianna Fail and the SDLP, suggesting that they are uneasily aware of where they may lead.
Where will this leave SF in the Republic? Outclassed, outgunned, and outmanoeuvred, as they usually are when they come up against Ahern and FF.

This article began with a quote from Heraclitus which is perhaps applicable to the political situation here in the north: politics is in a state of great flux. There is no reason why the SDLP should not be able to capitalise on this. The Party is not short of talent or intellectual ability, and its leader, Mark Durkan, is an engaging and likeable personality. The fact that the Party is not abstentionist, and can make its voice heard on the floor of House of Commons and on Parliamentary Committees should also be seen as an advantage. Can any political party mutate into another form? Of course it can. The British Labour Party in its present incarnation is a very different animal than the Labour Party of Keir Hardie in 1900. It is unlikely that Eamonn de Valera would recognise the Fianna Fail of today. What gives the need for action added urgency for the SDLP is that quite soon Gordon Brown will wish to win a personal mandate for Labour policies and call a general election. The SDLP must be able to meet this challenge. The question is, will they?

Dr Phil Larkin


CW said...

I was driving home from work yesterday evening, having just read your article, Phil, when I came across a sign saying “SLIP ROAD CLOSED”. Just for a split second I thought it read “SDLP ROAD CLOSED”! Quite appropriate given their recent fortunes. However they’re far from a spent force and the talks with Fianna Fail can only be to their long term benefit. They’ve however had their small successes, particularly Alistair McDonnell gaining the South Belfast seat in the last Westminster elections. Their identity crisis stems partly from the fact that they were effectively the party of the educated Catholic middle class during the last 30 years, but lacked genuine ideological credentials despite their socialist pretences. What they desperately need to do is regain the middle class Catholic vote they’ve lost to SF. In West Tyrone where they stood little chance against SF during the last general election, for example they could have done a deal with the UUP to stand aside to pave the way for the independent candidate, local GP Kieran Deeney whose championing of the save Omagh hospital campaign had won him the highest number of votes in the previous Assembly elections. This way the DUP and SF would have been left to fight it out, pushing their own narrow tribal agendas - and a candidate with the support of both communities campaigning on real and important issues being returned to Westminster rather than the abstentionist Pat Doherty. Such a deal would not of course have returned an SDLP MP, but could however have initiated further co-operation between the two “middle ground” parties to their mutual benefit.

The SDLP’s futile attempts to “outgreen” the Shinners are as you’ve said, a waste of time. Given that the current political set-up of the fully functioning Stormont Assembly with north/south bodies fully in place is the nearest nationalists will get to a united Ireland. The SDLP should therefore think about dropping their pro-UI stance and focus more on cross-community economic and social issues with the possible aim of attracting more moderate unionist voters in constituencies with nationalist majorities such as Mid-Ulster, West Tyrone, Fermanagh/South Tyrone ad Newry & Armagh where SF currently rule the roost.

Phil said...

A pertinent comment Ciaran, but I would not go so far as to say that the SDLP should drop its commitment to Irish unity. What, in my view, they need to do is to redefine what they mean by Irish unity, and move it away from the old, tired out concept of territorial unity in one 32 county sovereign state. This worn-out notion could be replaced by a resolve to work for a vibrant "unity of the peoples of Ireland", be they Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter, Jew or Muslim, and whether they live in Northern Ireland, or the Republic.

I believe that as far as national identity is concerned, we have now reached the stage (or almost) where it is perfectly possible for nationalists and unionists alike in NI to have both a wholly British and wholly Irish identity.

A gaelic football player may also be a fan of Irish rugby and an English soccer team. This much is not new. A unionist professional from the north may be able to work south of the border for the higher wages than in NI, pay his/her taxes there, and still have the north as his/her primary place of residence, and carry a UK passport. Yes, it is possible for unionism to be as Irish as it is British, and this is being rediscovered, I suspect, by contemorary unionism in the north.

This is a more practical and enduring form of unity than the old nostrum of a "32 county sovereign Irish Republic" which does not take into account the British identity side of Ulster Unionism."

Andrew Charles said...

Brilliant article Phil!

Very informative and insightful.

I'd agree with you that the SDLP are in crisis and have lost there way. Particularly as Sinn Fein has stolen their colors.

Whilst what John Hume did in the late 80's, in his discussions with Adams and Co. appears to have brought the Shinners to the political table he shot himself and his party at the same time.

Sinn Fein are an effective political machine and much better oiled than the SDLP.

The problem with the SDLP is that they have a narrow appeal. They are far too 'middle-class', after having leaders like Gerry Fitt, Hume and Mallon. People don't trust them either.

However aside from that Sinn Fein have offered Nationalists a clear way to a UI - apparently.

If the SDLP do not get their act together they will be written out of Ulster and indeed Irish history.