Good Friday Agreement…Fifteen Years On (SDLP Conference)

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.

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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.

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12 Responses to Good Friday Agreement…Fifteen Years On (SDLP Conference)

  1. Political Tourist says:

    Did anybody at any point during the meeting mention the small matter of a referendum being held next year across the North Channel?

  2. How did it feel to you then FJH, some preaching to the converted? An attempt to get the ‘team’ going after a few years of not having too many great results? An introspective event? All of the above or a bit from each of those columns and a few others I’ve not mentioned?

    • A mixed bag.
      There was the provision…indeed encouragement to go online rom the Conference and go on Twitter and do that hashtaggy thing. Unfortunately the number of people going online overloaded the system.
      So I feel ok reporting what I heard.
      Although I say it myself, I wrote 1,200 odd pretty good words on the Conference …or to put it aother way, I have written much much worse. And still managed to have it picked up by Slugger O’Toole. Will you read this piece on Slugger. Is the subject serious enough? If Mick is scanning Tinternet for relevant stuff, does my blog on this qualify? Or am I such a bad writer, that it does not pass quality control with Mick, Sheldon, Alan and the boys? Or would it not fit the Slugger analysis of the SDLP in terminal decline as the Alliance Party rises ever upward?
      But coming to the substance of your question/questions I think my answers would be all over the place.
      In the car on the way down, I thought that there might be anelement of navel-gazing or wallowing in the past and that was largely missing.
      It was a tour-de-force by Seamus Mallon and there are no problems in SDLP that a SIXTY YEAR OLD Seamus Mallon could not sort out. He is THAT good!
      But as Ive said in earlier replies there just isnt enough of that key generation….45 upwards.
      What I would say is that Seamus is unashamedly Nationalist and Republican and so at heart is the SDLP. While the Slugger line is that recently SDLP have been trying to out-green Sinn Fein, the reality is that SDLP have been trying to be even more yellow than the Alliance Party.
      So back to the roots. Indeed at one point Seamus said SDLP could lose touch with the community.
      But Seamus had hard words to say about the Successive Irish governments….TREACHERY and although Bertie Ahernes Fianna Fail was not named, it must have been uncomfortable listening for Seamus Kirk, who had come accross as a harmless and boring old bluffer.
      And the candid assertion that BRITAIN WILL LEAVE must have been uncomfortable for John McCallister, who had been pushing the new unionist line. Incidently, the McUnionist Party will be good for nationalists as it will definitely open up a war within the “centre”.
      Of course Seamus did have a good go at Sinn Fein and their pre-1998 friends.
      And in praising SDLP young folks, there was thechallenge that it was time to push the deadwood out of the way. He didnt put it in those blunt terms…but understandably the Youth can get side-tracked into sterile debate with Youth factions from other parties or socialise in the Holyland.
      But perhaps it was ironic that Conall was on the platform to hear a fairly robust put-down of South Belfast intellectuals. Conall having effectively been the warm-up man for Seamus, it was NOT an attack on Conall but rather the Metrotextuals as I call them….that vague Overclass of academics, journalists, Sluggerites and Golden Halo …the usual suspects that the SDLP has spent far too long wooing.
      And there was the warning that the SDLP had to get its act together before next years Council elections.

      • The lad Seamus looks like he’s causing more trouble than his worth tbh.

        I loved his quip that when you’re explaining in politics you’re losing (the GFA anyone?) or that this is a bad law but… I find that amazing that the SDLP isn’t being dragged over the hot coals for that last one especially and I’ll be doing a piece on this sorry episode tbh, a topic I’d hope would be nailed down by now. But how will this pay out for them? Awful I think. What pay back does the SDLP get for this law? None I think. Supporting victims? Nah, the Proposed law is cute, it in effect bans all CONVICTED murderers from being SPADS which in effect means republicans only unless of course the PUP becomes relevant (never going to happen) or the Brits start dragging their own thru the courts (how’s that coming along for the Bloody Sunday families). In essence, the SDLP have confirmed there is, in fact, a hierarchy of victims and for that reason they’ve lost even a preference from me for the foreseeable future, I’m actually disgusted with them and if it wasn’t for my run earlier this post may have been slightly crueller and less considered.

      • I broadly agree. It is something which should not have happened.
        Totally avoidable.

      • You’re a man in the SDLP or affiliated to it FJH, how’s this panning out inside the party? I’m guessing the likes of Carmel Hanna loves this legislation whilePatsy McGlone sees thru it and the cheap shot it is or am I completely off the mark here?

        Here’s the point I think Seamus overlooked, the SDLP is now going to have to EXPLAIN to its constituency why it passed this legislation, or will it forever go with the motto ‘explaining is losing’? A stupider saying I’ve never heard in my life tbh.

      • I think EVENTS have the capacity to de-rail things.
        At this precise moment in time, I am not a SDLP member. I might be next week. Its just a matter of handing over a tenner to the Party.But the precise moment that I hand over the tenner is the moment they stop listening to me.
        Ive said this a million times. So at this moment in time, I have the freedom to say that SDLP was hi-jacked by Ann Travers. The thing all politicians fear is an ARTICULATE victim….like Alan McBride or the McCartney sisters who have previously de-railed Unionists and Republicans.
        Despite the lip service paid to victims, all politicians would like them to go away. Nobody can argue with a “victim”.
        Ive never met Carmel Hanna although I “get” what you are saying but youd be making a mistake to attribute any division between LetsGetAlongerists and Republicans within SDLP.
        Out in the housing estates in Dungannon, Omagh, Newry….there is a lot of animosity between SDLP and SF.
        And as a pan-nationalist voter, this is not something I like to see.
        As far as I am concerned we are on the same side, which is a thought that a lot of senior SDLP people would find repulsive.
        And there are SF people who are nasty towards SDLP.
        This is not a view shared by voters.
        For the most part, SF voters give the #2 vote to SDLP….and vice versa.
        This is an unecessary controversy.
        In my view SF have the right to appoint their own advisors.
        But it was crass of them to appoint Mary McArdle.
        This law is a bad law and will for example rule out some MLAS who resign as being re-employed as advisors.
        What has happened is that this is a victory for Jim Allister.
        He can claim credit for unpicking a part of the Good Friday Agreement.
        Faced with the decision, the most important thing for SDLP to do was vote or not vote as 14 people.
        Thus say keeping two or three from voting for PoC and risking opponents glee at a split is something positive…IN POLITICAL TERMS.
        I dont think they will gain or lose a single vote as a result of the decision.
        Or indeed they would not have won or lost anything by voting Yes, No or Abstaining.
        But Ive argued for two years now that there are soft nationalist votes out there.
        People like myself who voted SF for 15 years.
        I remember saying this to a SDLP colleague and she told me that she wouldnt even talk to someone like me. And she BLANKS me everytime she sees me.
        Now of course I dont know that persons experiences during Troubles. But what I DO know is that SDLP has to be more than just shoring up its vote.
        It needs to go after SF votes.
        Getting at me because I have nothing against SF wont work.
        On a more positive note, I was takking to a few members at the weekend and the buzz was pretty optimistic.
        But like I said Ann Travers de-railed all that to an extent.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    FJH,

    You think Britain will leave.
    Why do you think that.
    Outside of Britain ceasing to exist due to Scottish voters in enough numbers voting YES, which is a possibility at this moment, don’t see any other reason for them walking away.
    I doubt London would walk away because BangorDubs stats prove correct in the coming decades.
    Would a non unionist majority in the North be the end of the world for, well anybody.
    Unless you want to start paying 20 euros to see the doctor.

  4. Any discussions on how the SDLP is going to handle the distinct possibility of facing a United Unionist Front in several constituencies at the next Stormont/Westminster elections? Any chance of SDLP and SF fielding agreed candidates in the marginals?

    • No..I still think a lot will happen innext two years.
      The Council Elections were mentioned.
      And the need for SDLP to get its act together. Talking to some activists from one area, it seemedthat they are on top of things. Not so sure that it is typical.

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