Back to the Future.?
It is the 1960s again.
Every nationalist could be called a “mainstream nationalist”.
I am pretty sure my family was.
Catholic…we had the “Irish News” delivered from Albert Street, while the Protestant neighbours had the “News Letter” delivered from the Grosvenor Road. We went to Catholic schools and joined the Legion of Mary, while the Protestant boys went to state schools and joined the Boys Brigade. We thought Dennis Tuohy read the local news better than Maurice Shillington, Michael Baguely and Walter Love.
My parents voted for Harry Diamond at Stormont. He won Falls constituency easily enough and was a member of the permenant nationalist minority on the Stormont benches.
Of course that same divided Opposition and abstentionist element could not deliver West Belfast at Stormont.
In the mid-1960s, I think I actually had two lives.
Born and living in West Belfast, I had no cousins at all on the FitzjamesHorse side of my family. I never really felt part of a great extended family on the Falls Road. I always felt kinda envious of other Catholic boys in West Belfast but I think this lack of family “connexion” saved me a lot of grief in the 1970s.
There was no role model to get me “into trouble” by following into the IRA.
Nor was there a funeral to attend of a cousin “killed in action” or the tortured victim of the Shankill Butchers.
And yet I had that “second life” in the 1960s. For every summer, I was a Fitzjames Horse…who could have been a Murphy, a McGuinness, a Quinn, a Donaghy or a Brady….for this was my mothers Brady family in Armagh and East and South Tyrone. Indeed for a month every summer, i would be staying with my Auntie Jennie and her family in Coalisland, the small overwhelmingly Catholic town in County Tyrone. And during the summer I got to meet that extended Brady cousins.
For Auntie Jennie (the second eldest) and my mother (youngest) were siblings. One of ELEVEN Brady children. My mother was almost 40 when I was born. And there was a big generation gap between my Brady cousins and me.
They were adults when I was a child.
Indeed their own children are closer in age to me.
And they were mainstream nationalists too…different from a dazzling urbanite like myself of course.
Indeed in the summer of 1964, I was sitting on the shoulders of my cousin Anthony when newly elected Stormont MP, Austin Currie, stepped out on to the flat roof of the newly built Catholic Parochial Centre in Coalisland.
Yet Austin Currie would go on to a founder member of SDLP.
And Anthony would be a Sinn Fein supporter.
What exactly is “mainstream nationalism”?
Well it believes in a United Ireland…and is I think ambiguous about Physical Force and Constitutionalism.
After all we honour a History,where Physical Force was used to advance Irish nationalism.
And we respect OUR State, established by Physical Force.
And we have this Aquinas thing going…”the just war” and that bigger Catholic (Christian) thing that killing people is not very nice.
And we have that whole “Law and Order Good Citizen” thing.
I have been asked is “mainstream nationalists” support the IRA?
Well we always had those ridiculous British Army types like Brigadier Farrar Hockley, claiming that 99% of Catholics supported the Brits and their methods.
Nonsense of course.
But I think there are different approaches to individual actions.
Hard to find a mainstream nationalist who would not have supported the actions of the IRA defending St Mathews and Short Strand in the summer of 1970. Hard to find a mainstream nationalist who would have supported the IRA Bombings on Bloody Friday …or Claudy, or Kingsmills, or Jean McConvile…and so much more.
Yet…look at the explosions in which twenty or so British paratroopers were killed at Warrenpoint and well the condemnations would be limited.
Sinn Fein (the IRA) were not involved in mainstream politics in the 1970s. Absolute abstentionists from the British electoral system and committed to the Conflict…it left mainstream nationalism in the hands of SDLP.
To a certain extent this would still be the case if Sinn Fein withdrew from Politics and the IRA returned to violence.
SDLP would still hold South Belfast, Foyle and South Down at Westminster.
SDLP would gain Newry-Armagh and West Belfast…from Sinn Fein.
Other current Sinn Fein seats like Mid Ulster would be problematic.
West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone would likely go to unionists because abstentionism would be a major factor.
So there has been a series of events which brought SF into the mainstream of nationalism.
I was actually living in Fermanagh-South Tyrone (Dungannon)) when the Hunger Strikes were ongoing.
I did not vote in the election that elected Bobby Sands.
Yet this was clearly an endorsement that the prisoners certainly and the IRA effectively could themselves be seen as victims by mainstream nationalism.
Sinn Fein has never looked back and now fully involved in the electoral process…in the Republic and at Stormont where they take seats and cabinet posts…and at Westminster where they refuse to take an oath of allegiance and do not take seats.
And of course the ceasefires, de-commissioning of weapons and nearly two decades of Peace …have all made SF more “mainstream”.
Arguably SF has been boosted by the British and Irish Governments publicly praising SDLP while undermining them in favour of SF.
Certainly from 1998 to 2009, I would have regarded both SDLP and SF as mainstream and SF were more trustworthy as SDLP seemed to be giving too much concessions.
As a Strabane delegate put it to SDLP Conference in November 2012, the message SDLp were getting on the doorsteps was that “we had not left the SDLP…the SDLP left us”.
In 2014, I find it intriguing that Sinn Fein can go to Windsor Castle to chat to Mrs Windsor but have a problem with SDLP sitting in Wrstminster.
How exactly does a “mainstream nationalist” respond?
Clearly there is a dissident or un-reconstructed republican community, who are beyond the reach of Sinn Feins canvassers.
But is there a “floating nationalist voter”?
Is there a group of people who largely go with Sinn Fein incumbency in Newry-Armagh and for SDLP incumbency in South Down?
What does the mainstream nationalist think of Martin McGuinness meeting Mrs Windsor?
What does the mainstream nationalist think of the OTRs?
Does it not inhibit SFs in pursuing justice for (say) victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre when they have a nod and a wink…or more from the British Government that they themselves cannot be prosecuted. Dont they know that the same deal must have been extended to the Ballymurphy Paras?
Are mainstream nationalists at ease with the idea that the Brits turned a blind eye to the importation of “clean guns” into Ireland, so that the Nice IRA could deal with dissident voices as a “house-keeping”.
So..isnt there just too much doubt about Sinn Fein over the last few uears.
Irish Language Rights.
Girdwood Housing in North Belast.
Is Sinn Feins performance as much an issue in 2014 as it was for SDLP a decade ago?
While some suggest that Sinn Féin has thrown all its weight into Dublin and the national vote at the expense of Belfast and the north-east the vibe I get from SF is of a party in a “holding” position when it comes to regional government. It seems that some at least in SF are waiting for when SF have the upper hand in Stormont before they will govern properly. Others seem to regard the Stormont government as just a transitional arrangement and the only objective is to keep things ticking over until a reunification vote with a minimal rocking of the boat therefore there is no requirement to administer. It is simply tend the till until the rocky waters of reunification are navigated.
Hard to say whether they are wrong or right to pursue such a path.
And to some extent thats what SDLP were accused of doing.
I think its high risk…not least because they have to be two parties.
Nice Sinn Fein ( McGuinness O’Muilleoir) to Media
Bad Sinn Fein (Adams Murphy) to Media.
And they have to satisfy their core voters and activists.