Belfast Telegraph

Can SDLP live up to legacy left by Hume?

There is a four-way battle for the soul of northern nationalism but the SDLP's glory days are far behind it, says David McKittrick

Heir to the throne: John Hume (right) chats with Gerry Adams whose party would eventually overtake the SDLP at the polls; (inset) Hume in Derry, August 1971; (below) Conall McDevitt hopes to be the new leader

The search is under way within the SDLP for a new leader who will inherit the formidable task of reversing the decline in party fortunes which first Mark Durkan and then Margaret Ritchie did not manage to halt.

One of the four candidates who put their names forward - Alex Attwood, Conall McDevitt, Alasdair McDonnell and Patsy McGlone - will be elected, vowing to raise morale and make a new start. In a sense, that will be the easy part, for this is clearly a party in trouble.

A new approach is clearly needed, but neither the activists nor the theorists have been able to map out a viable new tack.

The SDLP's primary principle was that of opposing violence. It also believed in creating new relationships with unionism and with Britain and securing equality for the nationalist population.

All three of these aims have largely been achieved - a feat recognised by the award of John Hume's 1998 Nobel peace prize. The question then arises: where does it go from here?

With Sinn Fein taking roughly double as many votes as the SDLP, its new leader will instantly be plunged into a desperate search for relevance.

This is all a far cry from the decades when the SDLP dominated northern nationalism. The big beasts of the political jungle used to include Hume, Seamus Mallon, Gerry Fitt, Paddy Devlin and Austin Currie.

Unlike the Sinn Fein of today, which is generally highly-organised and disciplined, these were highly individualistic personalities.

Hume was the deep thinker, re-defining nationalism in terms of relationships, rather than territory, and harnessing the might of Irish-America. Mallon and Currie were superb on TV, regularly wiping the floor with unionist opponents.

Devlin had a big heart, but a volatile personality. He called his autobiography Straight Left, a title that was doubly appropriate. First, he was adamant that he was a socialist rather than a nationalist. Second, over the years, stories abounded of him lunging forward at party meetings in an effort to punch colleagues he disagreed with.

Fitt, too, emphasised socialism rather than nationalism, a stance coloured by his many years at Westminster in the company of Labour MPs such as Kevin McNamara.

Before the SDLP came into being he was pretty much a lone operator in Belfast politics and was uncomfortable as new members and new structures appeared. "I'm up to me arse in country schoolteachers," he would complain.

He would sometimes disconcert colleagues by publicly departing from party policy. I remember once seeing Hume watching Fitt on TV as he went off on one of his solo runs. "No, no, no," said Hume, shaking his head in dismay as he listened. "No, no, no."

It was a hectic time of huge events, such as the fall of Stormont in 1972. There were also highly dangerous times: one SDLP representative, Senator Paddy Wilson, was stabbed to death by UDA members.

But it was also a time of great conviviality: as another SDLP man, Paddy O'Hanlon put it, "We laughed our way through it."

Not everyone laughed, however. Some senior politicians in Dublin greatly resented the fact that Hume and the SDLP were calling the shots.

Charles Haughey, in particular, made serious efforts to undermine the party: he believed there was room for only one overall nationalist leader and that leader should be him.

This largely explained why he opposed the landmark 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which helped pave the way for the peace process.

Hume, who made strenuous, but unsuccessful efforts to bring Haughey onboard, afterwards shrugged and said privately, "He had his chance."

In those days, the SDLP was always the number one northern nationalist party.

Until the early-1980s, Sinn Fein did not contest elections - sometimes, indeed, the IRA would fire shots at polling stations.

Even when republicans did begin to stand, the SDLP scored well ahead of them, until the beginnings of the peace process gave Sinn Fein a series of major boosts which have since taken it to the top in nationalist politics.

Many in the party had huge reservations when Hume opened his dialogue with Gerry Adams because, back then, with the IRA campaign raging, it seemed scarcely conceivable that the republican movement would ever abandon violence.

But he persevered, in spite of a tide of condemnation: one Dublin newspaper caricatured him as having blood on his hands. The criticism took a toll of his health so that, at one stage, he was under treatment in Derry's Altnagelvin Hospital.

By the late-1990s, when the moment for negotiations on a new dispensation arrived, he was no longer the dominant figure he once had been.

By that stage, however, Sinn Fein as well as London, Dublin and Washington were all onboard for the type of inclusive settlement which has since come into being.

All this was bittersweet for the SDLP, which had helped bring about peace, but in doing so lost its leader.

In his absence, Sinn Fein flourished and eventually displaced the SDLP at the head of northern nationalism.

Voters move on and live for the moment, so that today Sinn Fein is amply rewarded for operating the new politics; the SDLP, however, has received steadily diminishing electoral credit for its part in bringing it into being.

Today the big beasts are Adams and McGuinness, whose movement is thriving so much that it is now eyeing the presidency of Ireland.

The SDLP is, meanwhile, concerned with damage-control: politics is indeed a cruel trade.

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