SDLP and Sinn Fein: How It Was

One of the books on the Troubles, it might even be Brian Feeney’s book on SDLP and Sinn Fein describes the early 1970s Sinn Fein manifestation as non combatants…the parents and wives of the activists in the Irish Republican Army.

Search the archives of The Irish News or example and look at the “Letters Page” and you will see letters from the SF Cumann in the New Lodge Road (they wrote a lot of stuff) and indeed other parts of Belfast but they really only existed on paper.

I joined SDLP in West Belfast and never had a cross word with any Sinn Fein person…largely because they were not actively involved in electoral politics and (whisper it gently to SF supporters) but they actually NEEDED the SDLP. The Falls Branch of the SDLP operated out of a small terraced house in the same row as Andersonstown RUC station. In the nature of these things, arrests….many of innocent people picked up in scoops were a worry to local people. It fell to people like local SDLP Assemblymen such as Paddy Devlin, Desmond Gillespie and Vincent McCloskey to advocate for some very distressed families. For the families, including those non combatants close to the Provisionals, it as the only option.

Is there a parallel today? Yes. Dissident Republicans and their families have …in my view correctly have been reprsented by SDLP MLAs. SDLP people took a lot of flak from unionists in the 1970s as they have in 2013 for advocating for say Marion Price. Simply put in 1973 there was no other option.

I have often spoke of nights when I accompanied Desmond Gillespie to Andersonstown and Springfield Road RUC stations for a distressed mother.

Where they grateful? Well ….publicly no and privately yes. Although on one occasion sitting in Desmond’ s house, I saw people he had helped holding a protest outside. No big deal. Its how it was. The real point is that at no time did I as a SDLP member feel any kind of animosity to or from Sinn Fein. I canvassed houses that had posters supporting internees and had a bit of banter but never a cross word and even on occasions the promise of a vote because theres nobody else.

I did experience animosity from Republican Clubs and subsequent manifestations of the Stickies. They were after all electoral rivals.

Important here to stress that I left Belfast in 1979 and left the SDLP in 1981/82 and took no further active interests in politics until a few years ago. Of course this period co-incides with the Hunger Strikes and the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral politics. So really the rivalry and animosity dates from that time.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a pan- nationalist with SDLP gene pool leanings. At this precise moment in time, I am not a member of the Party….largely because I am too lazy to hand over £10 membership fee.

In the 1980s I voted 1 SDLP and 2 SF. From 1993 I voted 1 SF and 2 SDLP. Now I am primarily voting SDLP and SF is my secondary choice. Re-engaging with SDLP in 2010/11, it annoys me when people talk of “Shinners”. Of course I also dislike talk of “Stoops”.

Of course for three decades now SDLP and SF have been canvassing across the road from each other in Ballycolman in Strabane, the Creggan in Derry and Ballymurphy in Belfast. A lot of rivalry and a lot of animosity has built up.

I suspect the average SDLP member would not five a second preference vote to a Shinner and I suspect the average SF member would not give a second preference to a Stoop. It has little to do with policy and much to do with personal history.

Of course SDLP and SF MEMBERS are not representative of the feeling within nationalism. Inter party tranfers ar the norm.

There may be 28 Sinn Fein members in the Assembly. There may be 14 SDLP members but the key statistic for the vast majority of the nationalist voters is that there are 42 of “us”.

To be frank there are many people in SDLP who would accept 40 nationalist MLAs if 21 were SDLP. And there are many people in SF who would be happy with 40 nationalist MLAs if 32 were SF.

I firmly believe that nationalism NEEDs two Parties. For me…at this point in time the balance is wrong but nationalists NEED choice. The disappearance of Sinn Fein would lead to a growth in abstentionism. And the disappearance of SDLP would only benefit LetsGetALongerism.

I dont like electoral pacts. I dont like coalitions. People are wise enough to make their #1 and #2 choices.

On two recent occasions…Derry and Rostrevor …I have heard Conall McDevitt speak about nationalism needing a conversation with itself….Sinn Fein must be part of that.

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19 Responses to SDLP and Sinn Fein: How It Was

  1. factual says:

    An interesting contribution FJH.
    What do you/Conal think that conversations between SF and SDLP would deliver?

    • I cant speak for Conall.
      for myself I dont see any real benefit beyond a bit of mutual respect.
      Both need to learn who the enemy is…the false god of letsgetalongeism.
      There is for example no Dublin Department working on Irish unity. But there had been a West German ministry working actively on German unification for years.

      • factual says:

        As SF and SDLP compete for votes it would be a bit like Labour and SF in Dublin sitting down for a chat – won’t happen.

  2. Political Tourist says:

    This SDLP/Provo thing is starting to look like two bald men arguing over a comb.
    A Provo in the six counties without a gun is just another nationalist.
    Might as well be the Irish Independence Party for all it matters.
    Come to think of it, i wonder where the IIP vote ended up.

  3. boondock says:

    Good post. I understand historically nationalists having trouble giving a preference to the other nationalist party but surely to god the nationalist voter needs to be a bit cuter because at the end of the day poor transfers is costing nationalism many seats eg a SF supporter wont give SDLP a 2 because of the spad outcome and whats the result an extra DUP candidate to sneak in who wont support any SF policy – its madness!!!

    • You know Boondock, I have to disagree with you in this instance though I would like to agree with you.

      My vote is always up for grabs, always has been and always will be. I believe pragmatism always trumps dogmatism and hence why most of my family would be SF voters I would be something of a devil’s advocate in the house. I too believe we need two Nat parties and the more voices we have on our side the better and likewise I agree that whilst SF and SDLP members hate one another this is not the case among the vast majority of Nat voters. However, I cannot give a preference or vote to the SDLP any more because I am pragmatic and they simply don’t deserve my vote.

      The party itself has shown nothing by way of vision or action that assists Nationalism since 1998 and has basically become the anti-SF party in Nationalism. I’m sure there are votes in that position and good on them for picking these head stuck in the sand votes but as we’ve seen recently, SF voters are getting younger and younger and chances are they will keep the habit of voting SF like their forefathers kept the habit of voting SDLP up until something better comes along.

      I do not believe we should be voting for just ANY Nat pol in an election, I think we need to send a message to parties that certain people who are unwilling to do what we want will not be tolerated. When I get in a voting booth and I have to make a choice, this simple and incredibly selfish question always crosses my mind ‘What have you done for me lately?’. By me I mean Irish Nationalism. The simple question is, they’ve done absolutely nothing and for that I am not going to vote for something akin to walking a donkey with lipstick on with a cover on it saying it’s an Irish Nat, that’s not good enough any more, hence why the SDLP lost ground to SF over the 90s and is now 2nd in the pecking order, they did not represent the wishes of Northern Nats effectively then in many ways and today they still don’t.

      • boondock says:

        True but they will represent your wishes more than someone from TUV, UUP DUP, PUP, Alliance, Green, pup, NI21 and anyone else I have left out. Look we all want real politics here but for the time being its still going to be the donkey with the right flag attitude and although your intentions are noble I cant for the life of me see how it helps nationalism for example not to transfer to someone like O’Loan in North Antrim allowing Big Jim in instead!

  4. Very good point about the lack of a Dept. of Northern Affairs in Dublin. Having northern matters handled entirely through the DoFA is a mistake though we now have the addition of inter-government and north-south “bodies” (more like “skeletons”). One is reminded of Helmut Kohl’s famous ten-point plan for German reunification. Could never imagine Kenny or Martin making a speech like that.

    I know from Fermanagh and Tyrone that SDLP and SF rivalry is all but non-existent in some areas. Its more a case of complimentary politics. I suspect there are similar political cultures in other Nationalist areas. However I would favour a maximisation of Nationalist representation which could only come via an agreement on candidates etc. in some constituencies. The political (and PR) difficulties though are enormous especially for the SDLP.

    • This German point was made at therecent Rostrevor conference by I think SEamus MAllon.

    • factual says:

      SF attempted to get SDLP to stand aside – and even were good enough to unilaterally stand aside in South Belfast – but the SDLP were very fixed on the idea of splitting the vote.

    • mekonged says:

      I’d concur, for the general nationalist population in Fermanagh and Tyrone the SDLP and SF are now two sides of the same coin with the only real animosity existing in the circle around Gildernew. What is interesting is that outside of the cliffhanger Westminister election in FerST that nationalist turnouts have dropped to 65%. Many in my own family felt no motivation to vote in recent elections, disillusionment that momentum to a United Ireland had stalled. In Tyrone there is also a high percentage of the SF vote that is genepool SDLP; a habit now but a grouping who initially started voting SF to cement the peace process.

    • I think Seamas Mallon said enough at that conference to cause the current crop of SDLP members a ton of sleepless nights 🙂

      I do wonder though about the SDLP. The party is (from my experiences any way) made up of a lot of people from the professions, a lot of lawyers (at least 2 I know, one for South Belfast SDLP Youth and the other for Doire SDLP Youth) and people who you would consider to be ‘management’ in any organisation whilst SF members are a lot of the time working class but fairly fired up by the Shinner organisation.

      For guys who are in traditional management or senior positions in their organisations where they have to solve problems and try and push an organisation forward or solve pretty tough problems I am amazed at how they are getting rings run around them by the guys who would be on the shop floor. I also get the impression that there is something a long the lines of a kind of born to rule atmosphere among the SDLP members. I know that last sentence is a bit harsh but that feeling exuded from SDLP members when they come to my door asking for a vote once every 4 years and then running away when I try to ask them a few questions on their policies in Craigavon is one that if I’m picking it up I wonder how many others who would be a lot less sympathetic to the cause are also?

      • factual says:

        As the Catholic middle class grow and its working class shrinks SDLP should be on a growth curve?

      • factual says:

        SF are great at getting low income people out to vote; in NI it is the middle classes who don’t turnout, whereas here in the South it is the other way around.

      • Middle class growth? Have you been looking at what’s been happening since 2008? relying on people becoming middle class to get votes is awful in the short term and it kind of is a recipe for continued stasis and it also shows that you’re not thinking of growing your vote.

      • factual says:

        but FC the size of working classes everywhere is shrinking as fewer and fewer people do manual jobs.and a higher share have university degrees – good demographic change for the SDLP surely. That middle class growth has paid dividends for the SDLP in South Belfast and is potentially a growth area for them. A danger for nationalism is that these sort of folks turn to other parties or stop voting if the SDLP does not float their boats so to speak.

  5. factual says:

    SF activists…..


  6. Lurkio says:

    Interesting reflection. Different from the usual narrative but I believe you.

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