Joining, Leaving and Re-Joining SDLP

I was thinking about how I joined the SDLP in June 1973, how I left it in 1981-82 and about the circumstances in which I might re-join it in 2011, SDLP has “lost” a lot of members …good members over the years.

To some extent I believe that 90% of people who join political parties eventually leave them. And further that most people who leave a Party feel a sense of political or personal betrayal. People join with too much enthusiasm. Eventually there is a sense of fatigue.

There were actually two elections in 1973, one of our most troubled years. SDLP like the Alliance were newly created and had never actually fought an election before. Sinn Féin was little more than a protest movement backing the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and it was abstentionist. It did not believe in standing for or sitting in a “British Parliament” at Stormont. On the pro-British side, the monolithic Unionist Party was divided between hardliners and moderates. And there were also “new” Parties (Vanguard led by William Craig an ex Unionist Minister and the Democratic Unionist Party of Rev Ian Paisley).

To some extent the Elections for 26 District Councils in May 1973 and a 78 member Stormont Assembly in June 1973 were to address a “democratic deficit”, a phrase that took hold in the late 1970s . Stormont had been abolished by the British Government in 1972, following on the violence that had broken out in 1969 and the (failed) introduction of Internment without Trial, to deal with the IRA in August 1971.

The Elections were therefore set against a new and violent reality. As always in Norn Iron Catholics vote nationalist (or abstain from voting). Protestants vote unionist. And for many the emergence of a Party (the Alliance Party) which sought to speak for both Catholics and Protestants was a significant development.

My family were moderate nationalist. I had first voted as a 18 year old in 1970……for Gerry Fitt in a Westminster Election. Within a year Fitt would be the Leader of the newly formed SDLP.

The problem on the Nationalist side in 1973 was that Internment was a major issue. As was the behaviour of the police and British military, at least as much a problem as the IRAs military campaign.

In May 1973, a prominent “Civil Rights” priest (Father Dennis Faul) urged Catholics not to vote in the Council Elections as a protest against Internment. I did not vote. The consequence was that the Ulster Unionist Party took the lions share of unionist votes. And the “middle of the road” Alliance Party came second (94,000 votes), actually outvoting the moderate nationalist SDLP (92,000 votes).

The consequence of this was that I realised abstention was folly. It merely handed council seats to the Alliance Party which for all their high minded piety were actually enemies of nationalism. I actually joined the SDLP within days and was canvassing enthusiastically in West Belfast for SDLP for the more important Assembly Elections just a month later. A few days before that election, Paddy Wilson a SDLP member of the Belfast Council was stabbed to death by loyalists. Paddy was a good friend of my father and a regular visitor to our home.

I suspect many nationalists had made the same abstentionist mistake. Less than a month after the Council Elections, the Alliance Party vote fell to 67,000 and the SDLP vote rose to 160,000. As I recall being a SDLP member and (later) officer in West Belfast was not very difficult. The Provos were of course hypocrites. Publicly denouncing the SDLP, they privately sought SDLP help on many issues, including of course their “prisoners of war”.

I left West Belfast to move to Dungannon, in County Tyrone in February 1979. I retained SDLP membership but there was little “politics” at this time. The Provos entered politics almost by accident. The death of Frank Maguire MP (1981) and the election of Bobby Sands……was (for them) a major boost. After much debate, the SDLP decided not to field a candidate against Sands in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. It was a decision I opposed in Dungannon and I did not vote for Bobby Sands.

By 1982, I had left the SDLP. I am not exactly sure why. No local Government as an outlet for Politics, my upcoming marriage, the fact that Dungannon was not a place in which I was ever at home were all factors. Or maybe just boredom. Since 1982 I have lived in a third constituency. I voted SDLP until 1993, and since then I have voted Sinn Féin. In 2009 European Elections, 2010 Westminster Elections and 2011 Stormont Elections…..I have gone back to voting SDLP. I think that my prime reason is that I am a pan-nationalist and (without violence/peace differentiating them) SDLP and Sinn Féin are in reality constitutional nationalists…….effectively I voted Sinn Féin when they were the minority nationalist party or at most in parity with SDLP. Now that SF are the market leader, I have reverted to voting SDLP..they need the boost. Nationalism NEEDS two Parties.

Yet SDLP under Margaret Ritchie are a disaster. I attended SDLP Conference in November 2010 and found myself bemused by SDLPs obsession with outreaching to the “unionist” and “lets get alongerist communities”. All very noble but many if not all of the guests at SDLP Conference might “like” SDLP but not enough to vote for them.

Over the past few months I have become friendly with several SDLP folks and I almost joined the Party in the Spring.But I remain opposed to the direction that Margaret Ritchie has taken the SDLP and remain uncertain as to the direction it will go. I have blogged in support of Patsy McGlones Leadership campaign.

Now perhaps is…..the time for all to rally to the support of the Party……..but SDLP seem at times hell bent on self-destruction.

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