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The SDLP – The struggle for agreement in Northern Ireland, 1970-2000 by Sean Farren

Reviewer: Barry Desmond*

Seán Farren, former party chairman, councillor and assembly member in the decades 1970-2000, has diligently compiled this invaluable chronology of the role of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and its contribution to politics in Northern Ireland. Seán was a member of many SDLP delegations and negotiating teams during these turbulent years and he has used his archive of SDLP documentation to good effect.

I, and all of my parliamentary Labour colleagues, warmly welcomed the foundation of the SDLP in 1970. The new party was a breath of political fresh air in Ireland, North and South. It was so different from the situation when, in 1962, I first campaigned for Steve McGonagle, Independent Labour, in Foyle against Eddie McAteer of the Nationalist Party. With Gerry Fitt as leader and founder members John Hume, Austin Currie, Paddy Devlin, Paddy O’Hanlon, Ivan Cooper and Paddy Wilson the future of a non-violent, non-sectarian, social democratic and labour oriented political force in Northern Ireland politics seemed bright.

Despite the IRA and loyalist violence and the traumatic internment all went well for the first seven years of the SDLP marriage but the fault lines clearly alluded to by Sean Farren were evident. Hume, Fitt and Devlin were everything except team players, all wishing to be team captain on the day. Hostile forces were doing their utmost to derail the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 - Provisional Sinn Féin (the Provos) and the Rev. Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland, former ministers Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney in the Republic. Sean Farren calmly records the extent to which the SDLP leadership, and particularly John Hume, became wedded to the chimera of an overarching Council of Ireland as their stepping stone to ‘a united Ireland’. By 1979 the tempestuous socialist Paddy Devlin - increasingly under the influence of the ITGWU and its ultra-republican general secretary Michael Mullen in Liberty Hall in Dublin - was expelled from the SDLP. Gerry Fitt, frustrated by the open leadership ambitions of John Hume and the vicious campaigns by the Belfast Provos against him and his family, resigned in November 1979.

As a direct contributor to SDLP policies during these decades Sean Farren is reluctant, in his comprehensive account, to concede that Hume and Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin had, in essence, an identical strategic goal of ultimately achieving a ‘united Ireland’, built by Hume on UK ‘persuasion’ of the Unionist population and by Adams on paramilitary terrorism. It could be said that, once Hume began to covertly consort with Adams, he bestowed legitimacy on the Provos. By 1983, with Adams firmly installed as president of Sinn Féin, Hume had diminished the democratic mandate of the SDLP. Why vote for the SDLP when you can vote for the real thing?

The leadership of the SDLP was also under enormous pressure from Fianna Fáil and particularly from Jack Lynch and Charles Haughey on those fundamental questions. I vividly recall that in January 1978 Jack Lynch as Taoiseach and Tomás Ó Fiaich, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Armagh, called for a British statement of intent to withdraw from Ireland. Haughey was determined, in revenge and in a grab for power; to destroy Lynch while Ó Fiaich was, as ever, a spiritual enunciator of ultra-republican canards. Adams and Martin McGuinness paid no heed whatsoever to the ritualistic condemnations of violence from the Cardinal from Crosmaglen. We must never forget that, between 1969 and 2000, the Provos were directly responsible for 1768 deaths1 .

Sean Farren records, in authoritative detail, the negotiations leading to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Haughey brought great pressure on the SDLP and particularly on Seamus Mallon to stand apart from support for the 1985 Agreement. Dáil Éireann supported it by 88 votes to 75 in the teeth of opposition from Fianna Fáil, with one of its leading members, Deputy Ray MacSharry, once again calling for British withdrawal. Following the 2011 general election in the Republic there is a Sinn Féin deputy in Mr. MacSharry’s former constituency (now Sligo North-Leitrim) to advance that demand! Let us recall that, in declaring his opposition to the Agreement, Haughey said: “The abandonment of unity by the Irish Government will not bring peace and stability but will serve to prolong violence and strife”.

John Hume arrived at the leadership of the SDLP in 1979 equipped with an education in theology and also having charisma, oratorical skills, a loyal constituency (Foyle) and SDLP support groups in Dublin, Continental Europe and the United States of America. As soon as Adams and members of his Army Council exited from jail they exploited Hume’s hubris for international statesmanship and drew him into their net of the armalite under the ballot box. The serious fault line of the SDLP was that it failed to broaden its cadre of senior leaders and that it allowed Hume’s solo negotiations. I vividly recall Hume’s frantic shuttles from Derry to Belfast, Dublin, London, Brussels, Strasbourg and Washington.

Meanwhile Adams and his cohort made hay on the domestic front, slowly building Sinn Féin’s electoral organisation and finances. By then they had drawn Hume into secret negotiating sessions. By then the IRA, despite the bombings at the Grand Hotel, Enniskillen, Downing Street, the Baltic Exchange etc. were riddled with informers, sleepers and high-tech surveillance. Adams had publicly conceded that a military solution was not possible. However he was a virtuoso of IRA speak, and despite Joe Hendron (SDLP) labelling Sinn Féin a ‘fascist organisation’ and Mark Durkan (SDLP) pointing out that Gerry Adams had been “on more roads to Damascus than a Syrian bus driver”, the Provos sought the comfort of parliamentary expenses from the Crown as members of the Stormont and Westminster parliaments. From then until 2001 when Hume resigned as party leader the SDLP struggled to control the high political ground.

The SDLP’s policies had been built on two pillars, an internal power-sharing executive and a North-South Council of Ireland which, in effect, would be the ultimate parliamentary apparatus for the unitary state of a united Ireland. The latter pillar has long since been demolished and the parties now have a forced marriage of unhappy convenience in the Northern Assembly and Executive. Sinn Féin is now purporting to occupy the high moral ground! The leader of the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie, and her colleagues will have to make serious efforts to recover. Meanwhile the proportion of ‘unqualified’ people’ within the working age population in Northern Ireland is still the highest in the United Kingdom2. As a respected doyen of the University of Ulster Sean Farren knows well the work yet to be done in this area.

His comprehensive reference notes in this volume are a goldmine for historians of the period. The book can be highly recommended.