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SDLP should get on Fianna Fail train before it's too late

Nationalist party must drop pretence of social democracy and merge with centre-Right allies, says Connal Parr


Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood


Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

It was ironic to see Seamus Mallon emerge at the end of September to caution against the proposed merger between his party, the SDLP, and Fianna Fail. As one of his party's last real heavyweights, Mallon was close to Fianna Fail and was nominated to the Irish Senate by crooked Fianna Fail premier Charles Haughey in 1982.

Former SDLP leader John Hume, on the other hand, frowned on Haughey's misdeeds and much preferred Fine Gael's Garrett FitzGerald as figurehead of the Republic of Ireland.

The Fianna Fail/SDLP hook-up has frequently resurfaced and was regularly rebuffed by Conall McDevitt, once aligned with Irish Labour, but who later became SDLP director of communications (and SDLP MLA for South Belfast from 2010 until 2013).

Though McDevitt dismissed the possibility in the pages of the departed Fortnight magazine in 2004 and 2008, back then things were different for the SDLP. It had some representation at Westminster and still had notions of competing with Sinn Fein for the Catholic vote.

Back then, a merger seemed not only unlikely, but also counterproductive, especially when Fianna Fail presided over the collapse of the Irish economy and the loss of sovereignty to the EU/ECB/IMF Troika following the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

Now the SDLP, as most people know deep down, is at heart a pale imitation of Sinn Fein: a lighter "green" version, albeit minus the bloody history.

Its mirroring of Sinn Fein's line on an Irish Language Act and call for a border poll finalises the parallel, even if things had been heading this way anyway since John Hume stepped down as leader in 2001.

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The SDLP has simply taken too many wrong turns on the road it finds itself on now, appearing as the timid, slightly daft older brother of Sinn Fein, who wasn't involved in any trouble when he was younger.

It is no longer salvageable and should get on the Fianna Fail train before it leaves.

At the very least, the SDLP needs to change its name. Since the departure of Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin in the late-1970s, it has shed its Labour element, built into the party's foundation in 1970 by those two strong, if mercurial, Belfast personalities.

With Devlin and then Fitt both gone by 1979, the SDLP no longer had any claim to Labour: the "L" in the party's title becoming, in Edna Longley's phrase, "a dead letter".

It would be wise for the SDLP to stop pretending it is something it is patently not, either jettisoning the "L" to become the SDP, or, preferably, taking the Fianna Fail baton and pooling its resources with other conservative Irish nationalists.

Fianna Fail are also the only Irish party with the stomach to fight Sinn Fein by way of the dark arts of Irish politics (Fianna Fail will never be stormed in the south the same way Irish Labour were by Sinn Fein).

As part of Fianna Fail, SDLP politicians can then challenge Sinn Fein's taunts that they are the only "all-Ireland" party, at the same time opening up space for a real Labour, or centre-Left, party to emerge across sectarian lines in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP's anti-integrated education and opposition to a woman's right to choose if she has an abortion clearly put them at odds with a progressive agenda, as do the vast business and property-owning schemes of some of its representatives.

It is certainly a world away from what Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is doing and talking about in England and Scotland.

Next year, the SDLP - in whatever form it takes - will fight one last battle for control of the narrative of the civil rights movement on the 50th anniversary of 1968.

Indeed, its original leaders, chieftains of aggression, articulacy and grit - Ivan Cooper, Hume, Fitt, Devlin, Austin Currie and Paddy O'Hanlon - were major players in that struggle when the Provisional IRA were nowhere on the scene.

It has to be repeated time and again that the Provisional IRA only came into existence in December 1969, by which time most of the civil rights demands had been won, invalidating Sinn Fein's claims to have fought the 'war' for civil rights.

At least the SDLP might go down fighting for something its founders were genuinely involved in.

However, the original leaders only highlight how far the SDLP has come since those days, with its present positions consistently putting the modern party at odds with certain civil rights values.

At a local hustings event at the Lansdowne Hotel in north Belfast in 2013, councillor Patrick Convery lashed the President of the United States, Barack Obama, for criticising Northern Ireland's segregated school system.

Though no longer attached to the party, Convery's defence of the Catholic Church's control of schooling is the mindset of most SDLP current representatives - even if the abilities of at least two of its leading female MLAs, most especially Claire Hanna, might suggest a different future than is on the cards.

All of the aforementioned SDLP founders would have dismissed an Irish Language Act when they fought for devolved power-sharing in the mid-1970s against the backdrop of paramilitary violence (from both sides) and unionist intransigency.

They knew there were more pressing things to be won in the departments of health, education and commerce (Hume's portfolio in the 1974 Sunningdale Executive).

Hume's famous quote about not being able to "eat a flag" and his involvement in Derry's Credit Union movement reflected this.

Hume always said that the key to the unity of Ireland lay with Europe.

In some roundabout way, this is still developing and never once did he hoist the Irish language as a key issue, unlike the present SDLP, which is copying Sinn Fein's focus to try and keep hold of a constituency they have already lost.

It must now move boldly into the arms of a party that shares its European focus and centre-Right Irish nationalism: Fianna Fail.

Dr Connal Parr is Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in the Humanities at Northumbria University. His new book, Inventing the Myth: Political Passions and the Ulster Protestant Imagination, has just been published by Oxford University Press

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