SDLP at 50

Happy Birthday SDLP.

I remember the day the SDLP was formed. I vividly recall the founding members and a handful of journalists outside the venue.

A journo asked “will the SDLP be non sectarian?” and Paddy Devlin replied “we are anti-sectarian”. I was 18 years old. It had a profound effect on me.

If the SDLP was born in 1970, it was conceived in the Civil Rights movement and on the Opposition benches in Stormont after the 1969 Crossroads Election, The founders were from different political parties. Gerry Fitt (Republican Labour), Austin Currie (Nationalist), Paddy Devlin (Norn Iron Labour) and three Independents with a Civil Rights background, John Hume, Ivan Cooper and Paddy O’Hanlon. Most textbooks write out Senators Paddy Wilson (Republican Labour) and Claude Wilton (Liberal) and I always include them as they should not be airbrushed from History.

Of course the Nationalist and Republican Labour “parties” were nothing more than semi-organised individuals and Paddy Devlin was totally unrepresentative of NILP, a unionist party.

Things should have been different. Vivian Simpson the NILP man in Oldpark could not bring himself to join a nationalist party. Paddy Kennedy (Republican Labour, Central) was too republican and the handful of Nationalist Party members could not bring themselves to join with people who had opposed them at the Crossroads Election. Realistically only Maxie Keogh in Newry was useful. He took the view that his constituents had elected him as a Nationalist.

In late 1969 and early 1970 it was a phoney war. Occasional rioting. And the occasional appearance of men who had a whiff of cordite about them. And in the summer of 1970, it got more real with the Battle of St Matthews and the Falls Curfew.

It was “make your mind up time” and certainly the formation of SDLP in August 1970 was a strand in that. But if you look at the old news footage from the civil rights era, you will see men (it was always men…except of course for Bernadette Devlin) who stood arm in arm who joined SDLP or Republican Clubs/Official IRA or the Provisionals. Importantly the NDP which had been formed a few years earlier threw its organisation into SDLP.

Other alternatives? Well NILP went AWOL. And ambitious “Castle Catholics” showed their supposed respectability by joining the Alliance Party. And as for “liberal unionists”….well they also eased their conscience by joining Alliance. The Civil Rights movement in USA had white “freedom riders” …there was no such people in the unionist community.

As I have said before, my political journey was around the arc of events…Ballymurphy Massacre/Internment and McGurks Bar in 1971 and Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday and the Claudy Bombing in 1972.

I certainly leaned towards SDLP. The only political alternative was the Republican Clubs, the alias of the Official IRA and they had no appeal for me. They were political and paramilitary cowards and bullies.

Shortly before SDLPs first electoral test (local council elections in 1973) , Paddy Wilson was in our home. He was a friend of my father. He was trying to persuade me to vote SDLP. And I told him that I was boycotting the election. It seems curious now that the Dungannon priest Fr Dennis Faul was calling on Catholics/nationalists not to vote as a gesture of support for the internees (Internment without Trial was still in operation).

That was the last time I saw Paddy Wilson He was brutally murdered within weeks and just before the Assembly Election. I suppose I only joined the SDLP as some kinda belated apology to Paddy Wilson.

At the Assembly Election, we did well (19 seats of 78) but not so well in West Belfast (2 from 6). Paddy Devlin had over-estimated his popularity with protestant voters.

I tend to see SDLP thru my own experiences in West Belfast from 1973 thru 1979. There was “one and a half” branches in West Belfast….the Falls Branch of which I was a member and two years as Secretary or Press Officer and the Larkfield Branch from the Upper Andersonstown area which was partly in the (then) South Antrim constituency. There was always a cetain amount of tension between the branches. As an occasional officer, there was some networking with other branches, coming across other MLAs, other officers. But mainly SDLP in Falls was about a handful of teachers, small shopkeepers and what I might call Paddy Devlin supporters, who seemed more connected to Paddy than the SDLP itself. There were certainly people like Desmond Gillespie MLA and Dr Joe Hendron and others who never became public figures who were SDLP to the core.

Gerry Fitt? well he was also an individualist and while MP for West Belfast, he lived in and was MLA for North Belfast. I think I only saw him once at a meeting in West Belfast, a selection convention where he was opposed by North Belfast solicitor, Paschal O’Hare.  I really just remember him chain smoking Gallahers Blues. He was, I think seduced by Westminster and distant.

Indeed with only three MLAs in Belfsast, two in West Belfast and one in North Belfast….and two of them being in the short-lived post-Sunningdale Executive, a disproportionate amount of constituency work was done by Desmond Gillespie.

For the record, Falls Branch SDLP met (before my time) in a terraced house at Mulholland Terrace on Falls Road. And in my time, it met over a chip shop at the corner of Glen Road and (I think) Norglen Park. Later we moved to a house near to Andytown RUC Station.

Of course the Executive of 1974 fell and as politics is all about optimism, it all fell apart in the late 1970s. Fitt and Devlin went off and did their independent thing and we struggled to really survive as a Party in West Belfast.

I was a member of SDLP in Dungannon (Fermanagh-South Tyrone) but with the whole democratic deficit, the Bobby Sands election (1981) and my move out of Dungannon (1982), I just fell away from Politics. My wife, initially apolitical and now very SDLP did not want me involved. Involvement was dangerous.

But I think in less than a decade, I had seen too many people leave SDLP…Fitt, Devlin, Paddy Duffy, John Turnley, Paschal O’Hare.  The history of SDLP is marked by people who were hurt by their involvement.



In 2010, I rediscovered SDLP. As an occasional “commenter” on Slugger O’Toole, I was at a fringe meeting at the Party Conference. I asked a question, identifying myself as a blogger. In the bar, a SDLP member (one of the bright young things) asked me about my screen name and I identified myself as “Fitzjames Horse” and he extended his hand “we love your stuff…well most of it” he said. As I later found out, SDLP had been spending a lot of effort guessing the identity of FJH…suspicion often falling on an entirely innocent individual.

In 2011, a senior MLA approached me and asked me to get involved with young folk who knew their way around a computer but were political amateurs. Much was promised….an instant rebuttal unit ahead of the 2011 Assembly Election. Of course it was all pie in the sky. But the vague promise of being an “insider” of sorts effectively neutralised me as an occasional critic of SDLP on “Slugger”.

It was clever. But as they say….”fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me”. So to my eternal shame, SDLP managed to fool me again, 2012, 2013, 2014 and finally in 2015. Two job applications. No interviews. Am I bitter and twisted? Yes of course I am.

It is the casual indifference that gets me. It is sitting in the bar at a Conference in the Ramada or walking down a corridor in Armagh City Hotel….and watch the real players lower their eyes or dive into the nearest toilet.

It is talking to senior figures in Belfast SDLP who have never heard of meeting in Mulholland Terrace, the chippy on Glen Road…and most shamefully never heard of people like Desmond Gillespie.

For a Party that MADE History, SDLP is very bad at knowing its own History.

Indeed I dont think I could bring myself to blog about a SDLP event at St Marys University College on Falls Road a few years ago. A Tribute to Paddy Devlin. Many SDLP people there. Many Belfast “socialists”. A panelist, Seamus Lynch told the audience that as a Republican Clubs councillor, he knew what was happening in SDLP, because of discussions with Fitt and Devlin  in the tea room at Belfast City Hall. Now of course the Falls membership knew this. So what Lynch said is no surprise. What did annoy me was that so many SDLP members…Devlin admirers…found it all hilarious. Just looking from face to face told a story.

Which brings me to the SDLP leadership calling on people to join the fight for the next 50 years. It is seductive an I am even tempted myself.

But people have been hurt thru involvement with SDLP. Sometimes there is no fault. Sometimes it is about being de-selected as a candidate or being overlooked for a job in a constituency office. Sometimes its about personal relationships. Sometimes it is about policy…an attitude to Abortion that cannot be squared with conscience or a link up with another political party…Fianna Fáil for example.

And the other side of this might be that people have “used” the SDLP.

Anyone tempted to join SDLP in 2020 will so doing on the basis of where SDLP is in 2020. A “nationalist” political party that says “you cant eat a flag” but some of the membership would have the European flag as a main course and the LGBT flag as a dessert.

Where it is in 2020…is Colum and Nichola. It is mainstream. It would be unlikely to be attracted to a “wing” of the party or a nuance of policy or personality. Those differences only emerge over years.

And back in 1973, I was 21 and joining Falls Branch. And a few years later…really too young …was Secretary of the Branch.

So a 21 year old in 2020 might answer the call. And join a branch in Waterside or Omagh or South Armagh or Ormeau…….and rise thru the ranks. And nearly five decades later, attend a “tribute” where it is confirmed that senior party members had more in common with (say) Alliance, Greens, Fianna Fáil or Norn Iron Labour than SDLP.


I dont think it works like that. I am more than content to walk down the street and vote SDLP. But no……SDLP wont ever listen to its members.



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2 Responses to SDLP at 50

  1. benmadigan says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of, and dissatisfaction with, the SDLP.
    Strange you said you joined out of respect for family friend, the late Mr Paddy Wilson, and a distaste of the Republican Clubs, rather than any conviction about SDLP policies.

    • Ben, It might have come across that way. But I knew it would be a long post. The key really is in the phoney war and that taking sides often based on personal feelings.
      I have always felt a guilt/shame at Paddy Wilsons last visit. He said something like “theres a young lad that will give us a vote” and I was 21 and saying no to a man who had helped us witha housing issue a few years before.
      I think watching the actual results of the council elections was an eye opener. In many cases it was losing out by a few votes here or there. And while Fr Faul might have persuaded me to have a principle of sorts, watching unionists and Alliance take seats was hard to watch.
      Republican Clubs…well again its that phoney war period. The leading lights McMillan and Sullivan lived near us in 1969. McMillan was really tainted by Divis Street and vote splitting. And the Official IRA was tainted by the failures of 1969.
      I remember somebody saying a Provo was someone who went to Mass once a week and a Sticky was someone who went to Mass once a month.
      Not true of course but there was a strong element of Catholicism in the Provos and a lot of anti Catholicism in the Stickies.
      Certainly my distaste for the Stickies only developed into absolute animosity after 1973. The Provos were NOT political. They needed SDLP politicians to go to RUC stations to get them out or whatever. But aided by being sinister, Stickies were real rivals.
      It was in late 1974 that a Sticky shoved a gun in my mouth. So I am not a fan.

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