SDLP…Not Good With Its Own History

I really do wish I had been born in a different place and time.

In 1952 of course, I did not know I was being born into a “second class” life in termsof housing and jobs…in West Belfast.

In 1963, I was glad that I had passed the “eleven-plus” which as my parents knew that Education was the best way out of the ghetto. On a more personal level, it was the start ofthe Beatles Years, which finished in 1970, my A Level year. It seems almost unique that my high school years run exactly parallel to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Whatever I did…had a familiar soundtrack from “She Loves You”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” all the way thru “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” to “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be”.

We feared nothing…except of course nuclear war. Because we were on “The Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire) and the answers were “Blowin In the Wind”.

The thought of going to San Francisco with Flowers in our hair made us more optimistic in 1967 as our hair grew longer and the world became more colourful.

August 1969 ….same weekend….and I always find it ironic….Woodstock in USA and the Troubles breaking out in the streets of West Belfast. And within a few years, I learned I had nothing to fear from Russians dropping the bomb and much more to fear from being abducted and tortured to death in a romper room on the Shankill Road.

1970….the Battle of St Matthews and the Falls Curfew and the quick slide into Chaos and Conflict. And voting for the first time…for Gerry Fitt…as an 18 year old.

Each day brought something new…a roller-coaster. Like all young folks, my political thoughts were unsettled. I do not like some of the things I thought back then. It was a time of turmoil. People made decisions that would affect their own and others lives for generations.

I have written before about the arc of events in 1971/72 which shaped who I am….Ballymurphy Massacre (August 1971), McGurks Bar (December 1971) and Bloody Sunday(January 1972) …..and the LIES….the fucking lies….and the Fall of Stormont (March 1972) and the IRA massacres on Bloody Friday and at Claudy.

Arguably, Bloody Friday was the worst. I was a junior civil servant, working in a multi-storey building in the Stormont Estate in East Belfast. From the seventh floor we saw and heard the bombs go off across Belfast.

Sam McAughtry (the writer) was my boss. He had to negotiate with a very unwilling co-worker to give me a loft down the Newtownards Road into central Belfast. Clearly that man did not want the likes of me in his car. Neither he or his regular passenger acknowledged me in any way, not even when I thanked them as they left me in the City Centre.

The Conflict SHOULD have ended with the Fall of Stormont. It should have been a game-changer. The door was already open and the IRA kept pushing. It got worse…and worse.

Part of the post-Stormont deal was new elections. Council Elections in April 1973 and Assembly Elections in May 1973. The Mandate from the O’Neill Crossroads Election (late 1968 or early 1969)  was long out of date….new political parties…DUP, Vanguard, Alliance, SDLP had been founded in the years since.

So before the Council Elections, a friend of my father, Paddy Wilson , a former Senator who would win a council seat…visited our home and was encouraging me to vote SDLP and there I was ….20 going on 21 ….and telling Paddy that Id be boycotting the Election…because Fr Dennis Faul, the Dungannon priest said it would help the men in Long Kesh. And that is one of just two occasions I have not voted. …I spoiled my vote rather than vote for Bobby Sands when I lived briefly in Dungannon  in 1981.

Anyway Paddy Wilson won his council seat and  almost immediately I regretted not voting SDLP. Indeed I was so guilty that I actually joined the party and canvassed in the Assembly Elections, a few weeks later.

One regret…Paddy Wilson never knew that I had joined his Party because a few days before the Assembly Elections, he was murdered …tortured and had his throat cut by loyalists at Cavehill.

But that was SDLPs breakthru.Nineteen seats in a 78-person Assembly which would lead to Sunningdale.

The six founder MPs were all elected…Fitt, Devlin, Hume, Currie, O’Hanlon and Cooper….supplemented by political rookies and local politicians like Eddie McGrady. But surprisingly some were recruited to stand for election just days before nominations closed.

Really only McGrady and Seamus Mallon became well known outside their immediate locality. In part thats a testimony to inability of SDLP to bring on new faces but also to the absence of a local Assembly thru the late 1970s to the late 1990s.

Who were those nineteen?

North Belfast (Gerry Fitt MP at Westminster for West Belfast and SDLP Leader). i saw him for first time in 1967 on the back of a coal lorry in a parade celebrating Celtic winning the European Cup. Only ever saw him once at a Falls Branch meeting. He had been “Republican Labour” and was pretty much semi-detached and really saw himself as clubbable at Westminster. I think he “went native” at Westminster…clearly becoming detached from the Party and people who had elected him. Not helped by the intimidation that he and his family suffered in his home.

West Belfast (Paddy Devlin former Norn Iron Labour Party), who himself had been interned in an earlier generation. And a victim of Sinn Féin intimidation which would later cause him to move home to North Belfast). Falls Branch meetings were…lively. Desmond Gillespie, a dapper local publican never intended to be elected in 1973 (he was the sweeper) ….was a publican who later retired to Bangor. As Fitt and Devlin were ministers in the first Executive , all the constituency work fell on Desmond. I mentioned him to a senior SDLP figure in West Belfast…shamefully he had never even heard of him.

South Antrim. (Vincent McCloskey…the Silver Fox)….died some months after being elected. Vincent lived in Andytown…in those days South Antrim stretched from Andytown to Lough Neagh.

North Antrim (John O’Hagan lived in the Glens and was only recruited at the last minute).

Derry (John Hume, Michael Canavan, Hugh Logue). Never really knew any of them but as far as I know Hugh Logue is still a Party Member.

Mid Ulster (Ivan Cooper, Paddy Duffy, Aidan Larkin). Ivan still attends SDLP Conferences. Paddy was a solicitor in Cookstown and Dungannon. Aidan Larkin was from the Loup in South Derry. I think he was also a solicitor who went to work in European Union. (EDIT….a senior SDLP person tells me that Aidan worked in Brussells but later became a priest).

Armagh (Paddy O’Hanlon, Seamus Mallon, Hugh News). Paddy was a founder member who lost his seat at Convention Election but had a successful Law Career in Dublin. Hugh News was still a Party member when he died a few years ago.

South Down (Eddie McGrady, Paddy O’Donoghue, Frank Feely). McGrady went on to be MP for South Down. A photograph of Education Spokesman, O’Donoghue has a place of honour in the Newcastle SDLP Office. Frank was a veteran councillor in Newry and still an active member.

Fermanagh-South Tyrone (Austin Currie, Tom Daly)….I knew Austin Currie briefly in Dungannon before he went on to join Fine Gael in Dublin. Tom Daly was a brother of Fr (later Bishop) Edward Daly.

So why is it that these names are largely unknown, even within SDLP? Why is it that the 1970s are written out of SDLP History? How can a Party that made History be so callous about its own?

I can only answer in three anecdotes.

1….in 2008/09 ….my Dissertation at QUB was about Electoral Politics in West Belfast from 1964. In conversation with my sons, it was really the first time they became aware I was a member of SDLP in 1970s. And I told them about writing an article in the very first issue of the Social Democrat, the Party newspaper. As I thought it would be fun to show it to them, I called at the SDLP HQ and asked if I could photocopy it…or even if they had a spare copy. Alas the Party holds nothing like that. All sent to the Linenhall Library.

2….in 2013, I read an article on Wikipedia about “SDLP Youth” and I edited to show that there were attempts (following the article in the SDLP newspaper) to form a SDLP and I went with a colleague to Dungannon to present my case. And the Party showed no interest…..later the wikipedia entry was edited again and all reference to me was deleted….I was airbrushed out of SDLP History…which is near enough the only worthwhile contribution I ever made to Anything in my life.

3….just a few months ago, I was at a meeting in Party HQ attended by about sixteen people including some councillors from across Norn Iron. I pointed to the portraits…and asked if anyone knew the man in the picture. Some did. Some did not….it was Paddy Wilson, murdered in 1973. Nor did some people including councillors know the circumstances of the murder (or the name of the murderer).

Now let me be clear. The fact that some councillors had never heard of Paddy Wilson is not a reflection on the councillors. They were appalled at not knowing. But this is an indictment of the way SDLP deals with …or doesnt accept its own History. Can you imagine Sinn Féin treating its “heroes” like this?

Needless to say, people thought that these people….the original nineteen should be honoured by SDLP. Perhaps a small exhibition at SDLP Conference or referencing them at the launch of the 2016 Election Manifesto Launch. Would it be instructive to all those young members…and hot-shot whiz kid staffers at Stormont to know this stuff?

The SDLP cant lose its heart and replace it with a load of kids with degrees in Politics and Media.

Of course, all of this wont happen but wouldnt it be better to see this at a SDLP Conference than Quintin Oliver’s Coffee Club and Manifesto Mash Up (Jesus wept!!!!).

SDLP is a Party which wonders why nobody loves it….but plainly has not learned to love itself….which is always the first step.

Why do people vote SDLP? I am inclined to think that Decency is the unique selling point. But at the end of the day a lot of people are voting SDLP IN SPITE OF Policy rather than BECAUSE of Policy.

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9 Responses to SDLP…Not Good With Its Own History

  1. Political Tourist says:

    So the nickname could have been the So Decent Labour Party.
    And it had a wee paper called the Social Democrat!!!
    The first thing i do in company when somebody mentions XY or Z being in the SDLP is think, do they have any fecking politics?

  2. Cork sf supporter says:

    Was Sean farren one of the founding members? He was very much on the social democrat wing i believe. Surprised you left him off.

    • The founding members of SDLP (who were already in Stormont) were Gerry Fitt, jOhn Hume, Paddy Devlin, Ivan Cooper, Paddy O’Hanlon and Austin Currie, who were MPs and Paddy Wilson and Claude Wilton (senators).
      The bulk of the organisation was from the NDP and Ben Caraher who was my O Level History teacher was the main “organiser”
      The first sdlp MLA from North Antrim was John O’ Hagan and the second was John Turnley who defected to Irish Independence Party….he was later murdered.
      According to my records, the first major election that Sean Farren fought was 1979 Westminster..
      Although I was a member of SDLP thru 1970s, I dont actually recall him so he was certainly not a major figure.
      He was born in Dublin.I dont know when he came north but he certainly taught in Africa in his early days.
      I cant say when he joined SDLP but never a major figure in 1970s.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    In theory had the Provos not told people to boycott elections there could have been more than 19 SDLP elected.
    The left in general have a poor record when it comes to their own history.

    • Not really.
      A lot depended on number of candidates etc. And the fact that there is always a republican element that wont vote anyway.
      If SF called for boycott now, the SDLP vote would increase but there would still be abstention.
      Remember then there were only 12 constituencies.
      East Belfast and North Down were never in play.
      So FST 2 out of 5….hard to see room for improvement.
      Derry….3 of 7…was ok
      mId Ulster 3 of 6
      nOrth Antrim 1 of 7..South Antrim 1 of 7
      Armagh 3 of 7…
      South Down 3 of 7
      North bElfast 1 of 6 (problematic)
      South Belfast 0 of 6 (but two Alliance and no Nationalist tradition…it took years for A breakthru.
      But West Belfast 2 of 6 was the only real disappointment.
      So at best ….2 extra seats.

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