SDLP Youth…47 Years Ago (My Part in Their Success)

Best wishes to SDLP Youth who are holding their annual conference today.

It is a little known fact that in early 1974, Paddy Devlin drove my friend Mary and me to a SDLP meeting at the Dunowen Inn, in Dungannon.

We made a presentation on forming a SDLP Youth Section. We made the presentation to the Organisation sub-Committee who included Murtagh Dynan from North Belfast and John Turnley from North Antrim. John was later murdered by loyalists.

Frankly in 1974, SDLP were not very interested in a Youth movement. Dan McAreavey, then the Deputy General Secretary gave me some space in the first issue of the “Social Democrat”, the short-lived party newspaper.

We did have one meeting, attended by maybe ten or twelve people. One of the attendees was Alban Magennis, later to be first nationalist/republican mayor of Belfast.

We also got a letter from a 16 year old girl in South Down. But I did not even have the manners to reply cos ….well I was 21 and mature and well 16 year olds.

I often agonised if I had discouraged her from a career in politics. But actually she went on to be SDLP Leader (hooray). I could add she left the party and became a member of the “House of Lords”. But we will gloss over that.

The point is that attempts to form SDLP Youth in 1974 failed miserably. You won’t find a copy of the first issue of “Social Democrat” in SDLP Headquarters and you wont even find a reference to the 1974 attempt in SDLP Youth’s wikipedia entry.

I edited the wikipedia entry once to include 1974 but my edit was deleted.

The thing I find most strange about SDLP is that it has made some wonderful history but is very careless about its own history. I am not bothered by lack of reference to myself but I actually DO care that the first wave of SDLP people from the 1970s are often forgotten, even by senior figures in the party.

Few acknowledge the contribution of Desmond Gillespie, Vincent McCloskey, Hugh News, Paddy O’Hanlon, John O’Hagan, Paddy O’Donoghue, Hugh Logue, Michael Canavan and many many others.

It was heartbreaking to attend a tribute to Paddy Devlin …maybe two years ago in St Marys University on Falls Road. Sitting there listening to Seamus Lynch, Republican Clubs/Workers Party boast that thanks to Devlin and Gerry Fitt, he knew more about what was going on in SDLP than its members did.

Sheesh after 40 odd years, the Truth came out. At the time I was the Secretary of the Falls Branch of SDLP. If I felt quiet anger at this, it was sadly a cause of great amusement to senior (modern) SDLP figures there.

It is good SDLP recognises that in the 21st century, “youth politics” is so important. The neglect in the 1970s meant that the 1980s and 1990s, few promising young people came thru the ranks and SDLP was stigmatised as “a party for old men”.

Of course the 21st century brought Colum Eastwood, Daniel McCrossan, Cara Hunter and others into the Assembly and there is a second wave in councils. And a third wave working their way thru constituency offices, local branches, the Youth SEction and the Womens Section, Disability Section and LGBT Section.

A Youth Section in Politics is a bit like a Youth Team in Sport.

A successful minor Camogie team is often (but not always) an indicator that there will be a good senior team in a few years. A good GAA football team that wins an all Ireland minor title will often have players who pick up the Sam Maguire in a few years.

About ten years ago, I started blogging and attended a few SDLP Youth events. To some extent they were students influenced by Conall McDevitt. Some were really outstanding. Seamus de Faoite and Malachy Quinn are among those who made it into council chambers i Belfast and Mid Ulster.

But others did not make it. That is the nature of Youth Politics and Youth Sport. There is a high rate of attrition. The SDLP lost some good younger thru the connexion to Fianna Fáil. THere is always a high risk of disilulusionment and of course, it is perfectly feasible to serve outside politics…the legal profession, journalism, public relations, whatever. There are also too many young talented people who were treated very badly by SDLP.

SDLP will need people who hold SDLP values in broader “civic society”.

The worst day for SDLP Youth was the annual (senior) SDLP Conference where they succeeded in taking about half the positions on the Part Executive. They over-reached themselves.

But that is the whole nature of Youth Politics. You get to make mistakes. And the more mistakes you make, the more you learn.

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