As splits and mergers (aka Nationalist Re-Alignment) is all fashion in 2019, I thought I would reach back into the memory bank and point out that this has happened before…crucially at the 1969 “Crossroads Election”…which reached some kinda conclusion (for a while at least) at the first Assembly election in 1973.
So September 1968…and I have just gone back to school after O levels, a fancy new campus on Glen Road and I have chosen three A level subjects, one of which is new-fangled “Economics and Political Studies” (which would now be simply “Politics”).
So I was 16 year old and the whole Civil Rights movement had got off the ground and I marched for the first time on Monday 7th October 1968.
I think there was already a belief that Politics had moved out of Stormont and on to the streets. There were just 52 seats in Stormont and only 13 or 14, depending on the definition could be classed as non-unionist. To be clear, the two “Labour” seats were unionist but certainly Vivian Simpson, a decent man, who held Oldpark with Catholic/nationalist support was too much of a fence-sitter. NILP were never going to be serious about Civil Rights.
So who were the “nationalists”? Well the Nationalist Party (nine seats) were rural-based…country men (it was always men) while Republican Labour (2 seats) and the single National Democrat (1 seat) were based in Belfast.
I discount Shelagh Murnaghan (the sole Liberal Party member) MP for Queens University (four seats were voted by graduates of Queens) as a “nationalist” but I would include Charles Stewart, elected as an Independent for Queens but who resigned sometime between 1965 and 1969. Stewart became a Magistrate in Belfast and I was a regular attendee at his court. To be clear, I was in the public gallery. I was not in the “dock”. It was good craic as Charlie did not like the RUC or solicitors very much.
There were of course nationalists outside Stormont. The Civil Righters on the streets and “Republican Clubs” which the Unionist government saw as a front for the (then Marxist) Irish Republican Army. Arguably there was a third faction of “physical force” republicans who were outside the system. Modern Sinn Féin like to re-write the history of the period, showing themselves to be civil righters but really the majority were disengaged.
The “Crossroads Election” was called by so-called liberal unionist Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, to get backing for his modest reforms. He failed of course. But it brought some of the people from the streets into Stormont.
In retrospect, the Civil Rights movement was as much a rebellion against the complacency and ineffectiveness of the Nationalist Party as it was against the Unionist government. After 1965, the Nationalists had agreed to be the official Opposition at Stormont.
The extent to which Norn Iron was not a democracy is under-scored by the fact that so many seats , unionist and nationalist were not contested.
This distorts the percentages. The Nationalist Party won nine seats with just 9% of the votes cast and the Norn Iron Labour Party won two seats with 20% of the votes cast. Furthermore, the Nationalists only stood candidates in nine seats that they knew that they would win. Thus whole areas of Norn Iron with significant nationalist populations …North Armagh, North Tyrone and North Antrim did not even have a nationalist or republican on the ballot paper.
While the 1969 Election is best remembered as causing O’Neill’s resignation, it actually marked the end of Nationalist Party dominance on the Opposition benches.
The Nationalist Party held six of its nine seats. They lost Eddie McAteer (the leader), Paddy Gormley and Eddie Richardson to Civil Righters John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Paddy O’Hanlon.
James O’Reilly and Roderick O’Connor held their seats as the civil righters feared losing seats on split votes. Maxie Keogh narrowly held on against a Peoples Democracy candidate and John Carron held more comfortably. At least two of them (Keogh and O’Reilly) refused to join SDLP when it was formed in 1970.
Austin Currie (East Tyrone) became a founder member of the SDLP in 1970 and Tom Gormley (Mid Tyrone) joined the Alliance Party and the Nationalist Party soldiered on, increasingly marginalised by the effectiveness of the SDLP and they seemed out of touch.
But SDLP was not just about the collapse of the Nationalist Party. Paddy Devlin (NILP) had taken the Falls seat from out of touch Harry Diamond (Republican Labour) and Gerry Fitt (Rep Labour) held Dock. Senators Paddy Wilson (Rep Labour) and Claude Wilton a Derry member of the Ulster Liberals also signed up.
Paddy Kennedy (Rep Labour) took Central from John Brennan (National Democrats) and Kennedy did not join SDLP. Arguably the NDP were the actual winners as they threw their party organisation behind the new SDLP.
While the 1969 Re-Alignment was against a background of Civil Rights, the 1973 (the first to the new Stormont Assembly) Re-Alignment was against the background of violence.
The re-Alignment of 2019 is against the background of BREXIT as well as a Stormont Assembly that has been suspended for two years and a declining SDLP vote, They lost all three of their Westminster seats in 2017.
SDLP has tried to reach out to unreceptive unionists and “middle” ground in Norn Iron. All they have succeeded doing is losing votes.
Norn Iron does not work. It is time that SDLP re-discovered its roots.
Yes, John Hume said “you cant eat a flag”. True of course but there are SDLP politicians who would eat the European flag for dinner and eat the LGBT flag for dessert. All good of course…but uniquely, the National Flag of Ireland gives them indigestion.
It is time that nonsense stopped. There is no shame in being Irish and the “letsgetalongerist” tail that wags the SDLP dog, needs to understand that.
Earlier today, in Newry, SDLP voted by 70% to 30% to form a partnership with Fianna Fáil. Thus all-Ireland politics has been embraced.
This 70-30 split just about mirrors my own views. Within the 70%, there are people who are enthusiastic and there are people like myself who would have misgivings. I don’t worry too much that SDLP is “centre-left” and Fianna Fáil are “centre right”. After all the Alliance Party is “centre right” and my own view about Socialism is that “socialism is what socialism does”.
Within the 30% who voted against the merger, there are people who will accept that it was a democratic decision of the Party and go along with it. And there are people who will find it hard to take and maybe leave the Party.
Maybe the SDLP needs to take a step back before moving forward. But there are council elections in May. Many candidates have been chosen already. This includes people who would have voted against the merger. As things stand, they will be on the ballot paper alongside the SDLP logo.
I sincerely hope that those who cannot accept this decision, stand down as SDLP candidates NOW. We could have the ridiculous decision that some get elected as SDLP councillors and maybe later in the year have a very public, teary-eyed twinge of conscience and they will leave SDLP….but not the council chamber.