| 9°C Belfast

The SDLP has a proud history of achieving change - and a crucial role to play in future

The party's conference showed that reports of the SDLP's demise are exaggerated, writes Alban Maginness


SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood delivers his speech at Saturday night's annual conference at Titanic Belfast

SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood delivers his speech at Saturday night's annual conference at Titanic Belfast

Photo by Declan Roughan / Press

SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood delivers his speech at Saturday night's annual conference at Titanic Belfast

Over the weekend the SDLP held their annual party conference and there was mischievous media speculation about its future. But, in his closing speech, party leader Colum Eastwood ignored that nonsense and instead talked about the challenge of "breaking the cycle of failure" in our current political deadlock.

Breaking the cycle of failure has long been the particular role of the SDLP. If any party is politically equipped and experienced in doing that, it is the SDLP.

The SDLP is unique to Irish politics. Its historic political role has not only changed the face of politics here, but also in the rest of Ireland.

The SDLP's historic mission has been to achieve reconciliation among the people of Ireland. Until that is achieved, its role will never be completed.

As Dr Joe Hendron (former SDLP MP for West Belfast) memorably stated, the SDLP is a catalyst for change.

A catalyst, he pointed out, is a chemical agent that increases a chemical change without itself being destroyed.

So it is with the SDLP, and it should continue to act as a catalyst for change in our society.

The SDLP has had an incomparable record in Irish politics. Since its foundation in 1970, it has steered the history of the North, and the island.

It been the most successful party in the history of Ireland since partition in transforming the politics of this island. Its success was down to rejecting the failed traditional versions of nationalism and republicanism, in particular the futile and destructive use of violence.

Although the party roots are clearly within northern nationalism, it has never constricted its vision to thinking solely within the boundaries of Northern Ireland. It always regarded the resolution of our problematic divisions within a wider Irish and Anglo-Irish context.

To the SDLP, politics did not end at a border, which it regarded as being permeable. There could be no solution based within the narrow ground of the North.

The ultimate aim of the SDLP to achieve Irish unity was always based on democratic consent and agreement. It was unity of the Irish people, not the territorial unity of Ireland.

While this may now seem the natural order of things, it was extraordinary when first articulated by the SDLP. It was only later accepted by all other parties of all traditions.

The SDLP's influence and impact has been radical and disproportionate to its northern geopolitical centre and its size. It has led, shaped and formed real change in our politics from its earliest days.

Sunningdale and the short-lived but radical power-sharing Executive in 1974 would not have happened without the SDLP. Sunningdale was, as we now know, a dress rehearsal for the Good Friday Agreement.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 would never have happened had the SDLP not led the way in bringing about a joint approach between the British and Irish governments. The major inspiration behind it was John Hume, the SDLP's long time leader.

In the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the proposed joint action by the two governments was both a formal and practical recognition that the problems of the North transcended the confines of the six counties and that the fractured political relationships that made up "the totality of relationships", were not just Northern Irish, but Irish and British as well.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement was a revolutionary process that changed the nature of the way in which our problem was addressed. It created a new dynamic that led to the ground-breaking Good Friday Agreement. Without it, it is likely the agreement would never have happened.

The Good Friday Agreement, made possible after the IRA (and loyalist) ceasefires, largely brought about by the intervention of John Hume, was an SDLP template and has provided the essential way forward for the peaceful, democratic development of our politics.

The SDLP saw the Good Friday Agreement not as an end in itself, but as a means towards reconciliation, between our two traditions. In other words, through partnership we can achieve greater understanding and goodwill, leading to lasting reconciliation. The Good Friday Agreement is essentially a conflict resolution process delivering sustainable peace.

All three of the aforementioned transformative political achievements are encoded with the SDLP's political DNA, but there is more to be achieved through this new generation.

Any independent observer attending the SDLP conference in Belfast couldn't fail to be impressed by the enthusiasm of the conference and, in particular, the youthful SDLP Assembly team.

It is hard to see this talented team of imaginative politicians exit the political stage.

As Mark Twain famously said about his own misreported death: "Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

The same is true of the SDLP. Its demise is greatly exaggerated.

Belfast Telegraph