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How IRA's return to violence silenced the SDLP

By Henry McDonald

Published 25/08/2015

The SDLP has been slow to denounce the IRA’s role in the murder of Kevin McGuigan
The SDLP has been slow to denounce the IRA’s role in the murder of Kevin McGuigan

During the latter stages of the peace process, an SDLP figure who wished to remain anonymous expressed his frustration over the way the party was providing cover for Sinn Fein.

"We really have to stop being Sinn Fein's advertising agency," the SDLP veteran groaned as he looked on as the party's high command appeared to support their republican rivals' demand that they enter the power-sharing government without a gun or bullet being decommissioned.

The SDLP may have stopped passively supporting the Sinn Fein line through those tortuous post-Good Friday Agreement negotiations, and the party is no longer perhaps the Shinners' advert-adjuncts, but its inaction over what happened to Kevin McGuigan is evidence that it remains strategically frozen in the peace process past.

There were good reasons why the SDLP laid off criticising their electoral opponents within northern nationalism during the early, fragile period of the peace process. There was genuine motivation behind the policy of bending over backwards to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold and solidify the IRA's ceasefire back in the mid to late 1990s.

Yet, once the process bedded down, the IRA threat to go back to war receded, devolution was restored and, crucially, Sinn Fein signed up to support the policing and justice system, you would have imagined that SDLP strategists would have seen we were living in new times.

However, judging by the SDLP's inability thus far to react robustly to the McGuigan murder, the party remains wedded to the old ways of thinking that benefited Sinn Fein to their own electoral detriment.

While party leader Alasdair McDonnell firmly condemned the murder in the Short Strand, the SDLP has shied away from even discussing the political consequences of the fatal shooting.

They might be right in their assumption that not even the unionist parties want to bring down the power-sharing institutions due to what was in effect the outworking of a bloody vendetta between two ex-IRA assassins, McGuigan and Gerard 'Jock' Davison.

But in effectively admitting that nothing can or should be done politically over what the PSNI say was a murder carried out by Provisional IRA members, the SDLP are demonstrating their own political weakness.

They are like flies trapped in the amber of the peace process afterglow.

They fear that if they break the pan-nationalist consensus about the necessity of all-party participation in the Executive, they will alienate nationalist voters in Northern Ireland.

Such diffidence paralyses them to the extent that they won't countenance walking out of the five-party coalition and forming an effective, numerically strong opposition that could hold that Executive to account.

Across the border, the likes of Fianna Fail must surely look on at the atrophying corpus of the once-dominant northern nationalist force as it twists in the wind and Fianna Fail wonders about its own future.

That is why Micheal Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, has been much more forthright over the last 24 hours than Alasdair McDonnell and even Enda Kenny when it comes to the implications of PIRA personnel and PIRA guns being brought back onto Belfast's streets.

Martin realises that in the struggle for survival, and to ward off eclipse by Sinn Fein, he at least has to speak out without an uncertain trumpet.

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