One of the books on the Troubles, it might even be Brian Feeney’s book on SDLP and Sinn Fein describes the early 1970s Sinn Fein manifestation as non combatants…the parents and wives of the activists in the Irish Republican Army.
Search the archives of The Irish News or example and look at the “Letters Page” and you will see letters from the SF Cumann in the New Lodge Road (they wrote a lot of stuff) and indeed other parts of Belfast but they really only existed on paper.
I joined SDLP in West Belfast and never had a cross word with any Sinn Fein person…largely because they were not actively involved in electoral politics and (whisper it gently to SF supporters) but they actually NEEDED the SDLP. The Falls Branch of the SDLP operated out of a small terraced house in the same row as Andersonstown RUC station. In the nature of these things, arrests….many of innocent people picked up in scoops were a worry to local people. It fell to people like local SDLP Assemblymen such as Paddy Devlin, Desmond Gillespie and Vincent McCloskey to advocate for some very distressed families. For the families, including those non combatants close to the Provisionals, it as the only option.
Is there a parallel today? Yes. Dissident Republicans and their families have …in my view correctly have been reprsented by SDLP MLAs. SDLP people took a lot of flak from unionists in the 1970s as they have in 2013 for advocating for say Marion Price. Simply put in 1973 there was no other option.
I have often spoke of nights when I accompanied Desmond Gillespie to Andersonstown and Springfield Road RUC stations for a distressed mother.
Where they grateful? Well ….publicly no and privately yes. Although on one occasion sitting in Desmond’ s house, I saw people he had helped holding a protest outside. No big deal. Its how it was. The real point is that at no time did I as a SDLP member feel any kind of animosity to or from Sinn Fein. I canvassed houses that had posters supporting internees and had a bit of banter but never a cross word and even on occasions the promise of a vote because theres nobody else.
I did experience animosity from Republican Clubs and subsequent manifestations of the Stickies. They were after all electoral rivals.
Important here to stress that I left Belfast in 1979 and left the SDLP in 1981/82 and took no further active interests in politics until a few years ago. Of course this period co-incides with the Hunger Strikes and the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral politics. So really the rivalry and animosity dates from that time.
I make no secret of the fact that I am a pan- nationalist with SDLP gene pool leanings. At this precise moment in time, I am not a member of the Party….largely because I am too lazy to hand over £10 membership fee.
In the 1980s I voted 1 SDLP and 2 SF. From 1993 I voted 1 SF and 2 SDLP. Now I am primarily voting SDLP and SF is my secondary choice. Re-engaging with SDLP in 2010/11, it annoys me when people talk of “Shinners”. Of course I also dislike talk of “Stoops”.
Of course for three decades now SDLP and SF have been canvassing across the road from each other in Ballycolman in Strabane, the Creggan in Derry and Ballymurphy in Belfast. A lot of rivalry and a lot of animosity has built up.
I suspect the average SDLP member would not five a second preference vote to a Shinner and I suspect the average SF member would not give a second preference to a Stoop. It has little to do with policy and much to do with personal history.
Of course SDLP and SF MEMBERS are not representative of the feeling within nationalism. Inter party tranfers ar the norm.
There may be 28 Sinn Fein members in the Assembly. There may be 14 SDLP members but the key statistic for the vast majority of the nationalist voters is that there are 42 of “us”.
To be frank there are many people in SDLP who would accept 40 nationalist MLAs if 21 were SDLP. And there are many people in SF who would be happy with 40 nationalist MLAs if 32 were SF.
I firmly believe that nationalism NEEDs two Parties. For me…at this point in time the balance is wrong but nationalists NEED choice. The disappearance of Sinn Fein would lead to a growth in abstentionism. And the disappearance of SDLP would only benefit LetsGetALongerism.
I dont like electoral pacts. I dont like coalitions. People are wise enough to make their #1 and #2 choices.
On two recent occasions…Derry and Rostrevor …I have heard Conall McDevitt speak about nationalism needing a conversation with itself….Sinn Fein must be part of that.