It is somewhat inevitable that an event organised by SDLP to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will focus on the fact that the opportunies presented by the Agreement have been wasted. The Agreement is an article of SDLP faith and the Party looks on it as its greatest achievement. Other Parties will claim that their input was just as important but to the impartial observer the Agreement has the fingerprints of John Hume and Seamus Mallon (the chief negotiator).
So a ticket-only event in Rostrevor, County Down last night.
Hosted by local councillor Connaire McGreevy and Q & A session, chaired by Margaret Ritchie the former Party Leader and currently MP for South Down.
The first speaker was John McCallister, the McUnionist MLA for South Down. John voted YES to the Agreement. He was 25 years old at the time. The biggest failing is that there is no provision for an Opposition and he will be introducing a private members bill in the Assembly to allow for Opposition. The absence of astrong Opposition was bad for the “old” Stormont. He would not try to influence any internal debate that the SDLP might be having but encouraged that it was taking place. When the Electorate goes to vote in the next Assembly election in 2016, it will include some people were not even born when the Agreement was signed.
Speaking about the new unionist party which he will jointly launch next month,John said that being in the “centre” did not mean the McUnionists would be fence-fsitters. The Alliance Party placed between DUP and Sinn Fein had lost its ability to be radical. What was most interesting about John McCallister was the genuine affection with which he is held in SDLP circles.
Conall McDevitt was more reflective in his style. There had since 1998 been no real attempt at Reconciliation and hesaid that it was the task of the next generation to build Reconciliation. He castigated the Sinn Fein stance voiced by Mitchel McLaughlin in Stomont that Truth and Reconciliation could be seperated andthat Truth was not central to the new North. That,Conall said would belike Marriage without Love. Not a particuarly apt metaphor as in my view, the Good Friday Agreement is at best, an arranged marriage and at worst it is a forced marriage.
A better phrase from Conall. The SDLP are the radicals in the Irish Nationalist room. The SDLP was/is a Party of imagination. And it was timeto re-imagine a new Ireland. The flaw in the Agreementnwas not so much a lack of Opposition. Rather it was lacking Accountablity.
Seamus Kirk is TD for Louth. Fianna Fail. A member of the Irish Parliament is almost compulsory at SDLP events. It underscores the “Irishness” of the Party. Too often the Irish parliamentarians are too patronising to the SDLP. Much of what Seamus Kirk said was totally irrelevant but perhaps the one interesting thing he said was that the American and European funding is drying up.
Seamus Mallon is a class act. The Good Friday Agreement is not the end of the SDLPs vision. It has its faults. It is CONTRIVED. But Norn Iron itself is CONTRIVED. Unionist Domination for fifty years was CONTRIVED. Sunningdale was CONTRIVED. And whatever comes after the Good Friday Agreement will be CONTRIVED. Seamus is no fan of Opposition because apart from the brief period, he served in the Power-Sharing Executive as one half of the Odd Couple (David Trimble)….he has been in Opposition all his life.
People forget how bad the conditions were immediately after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Drumcree. The arson attack that killed the Quinn children in Ballymoney. The Omagh Bomb. No Decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. It was immediately obvious that the British and Irish Governments, the guarantors of the Agreement were having “some mighty chats” with the DUP and Sinn Fein. And the talks were being facilitated thru the American Consulate in Belfast. To thunderous applause Seamus said that he believed “then and now that this was an act of Treachery” and that “to buy in the Extremes, the Middle was sold out”.
The nature of DUP and Sinn Fein “does not lean towards Benevolence”. Every generation has the right to write its own History. But the worst thing about Turmoil is to refuse to recognise that your in turmoil. When is the last time there has been aserious discussion about the North of Ireland….in Westminster, Dublin or Europe.
Seamus Mallon has had a fantasy for years …that the unionists will simply “catch themselves on” and realise that Britain has no time for them. But that wont happen. And even if it did, the southern political parties, Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour “our Party” would run away.
But what WILL happen is that BRITAIN WILL LEAVE. Unionists should prepare for it and recognise their own latent radicalism. But nobody has made a considered speech either in the Dail or Stormont. Paying tribute to the many SDLP Youth members in the audience, Seamus said that he hears a lot about the Young Turks but challenged them that they wont really be “Turks” until they are elbowing older people out of the way.
The Q & A session was chaired by Margaret Ritchie MP.
In 1998, how did the Panel see the Good Friday Agreement fifteen years ahead?
Conall had hoped that the SDLP would be shaping the political agenda. John had hoped for politics based on Issues rather than Tribalism. Seamus Kirk felt anything he had hoped had been de-railed by the economic collapse and Eurozone crisis.
Seamus Mallon recalled three specific Troubles deaths. He said that the SDLP must never lose the capacity to be angry. The SDLP must never be bland. And should not be a “boutique party for intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals who like to hang about in South Belfast”.
On cue the next question was asked by a Professor from QUB. I will not identify him.but he introuced himself as “an intellectual from South Belfast” who noted that there had been much talk about radicalism but the SDLP was historically radical….and asked about wondered could the Panel elaborate.
For Conall the SDLP needed to be radical on IDENTITY, RECONCILIATION and IDEOLOGY.
John McCallister talked about clearing up the absurdity that Alex Attwood was implementing District Council Reforms which as a member of SDLP he actually opposes. And equally absurd that Danny Kennedy, the sole UUP Minister is implementing a policy on the A5 Road which is the exact opposite of a manifesto pledge.
For Seamus, it was much more practical. The District Councils will be given more powers next year qnd the Elections will be fought against a background where there is a crisis in Housing and a “deep deep deep crisis” in Education. SDLP needs to get its act together.
One final question. Frank Feely, former MLA for South Down asked Seamus why he was not a member of the “House of Lords”. It was of course “banter” but Seamus Mallon did confirm that he had been offered a peerage but had refused it on the grounds that it would “be arch hypocrisy to accept a peerage in a realm I want to dismantle. I call no man SIR and I call no man MY LORD”.
AND SO SAY ALL OF US SEAMUS.