The SDLP always reminded me of that line at the end of the seminal film Easy Rider, uttered by those fuelled by the spirit of the 1960s shortly before being murdered on their bikes by rednecks: ‘We blew it.’ That most considerable set of men who brought the SDLP into existence in 1970 were long gone, as if the embodiment of the optimism which accompanied the party’s early life had been chased through woodlands somewhere in Downpatrick and shot in the back by unreconstructed farmers. When I heard Gerry Adams once taunt that ‘the SDLP aren’t coming back’ on the BBC’s flagship Hearts and Minds programme I thought it merely the latest example of the kind of warped humour with which he denies he ever had anything to do with the Provisional IRA. But more and more I’ve started to think that he might, unfortunately, be right. Not only are the SDLP no longer big news – as the fourth largest party in the small state of Northern Ireland, itself in some ways mercifully diminishing in the international consciousness – the party has an enormous capacity for self–destruction.
I attended the SDLP’s last leadership contest during the February 2010 conference at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down, where the party chose Margaret Ritchie. It was abundantly clear to all that defeated candidate Alasdair McDonnell was intellectually and politically well in advance of her; abundantly clear to everyone but the SDLP themselves. As far as I could gather Ritchie’s biggest claim to the title seemed to be that she had in 2007 stood up to the UDA as Minister for Social Development, threatening to withdraw funding from the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) project initiated by the political wing of the Loyalist paramilitary group to plough money into deprived Protestant working class areas. While she proved a perfectly reasonable minister, I did not hold this as some great achievement: most people in Northern Ireland have at some point in their lives expressed disenchantment towards the UDA. Though Ritchie made an abysmal leader – lasting less time in the top job than Ian Duncan–Smith in the British Conservative Party – there is no question in my mind that the SDLP is highly capable of finding someone with even worse leadership qualities than her and making that person their leader this weekend.
Here’s why: ever since John Hume stood aside in 2001 the SDLP has made a catalogue of errors in both its choice of leaders and candidates. Most notably in 2004 the party chose the now–forgotten Martin Morgan to contest for Hume’s seat in the European parliament. Morgan made his name offering dubious support to the nascent PSNI and jumped ship to Fianna Fáil just months after failing to be elected. In an interview a senior SDLP MLA described this decision to me as ‘a moment of madness’. But these have not been isolated moments: they have become part of a pattern. In almost every crucial choice of personnel the party has had to make the SDLP has shown that, given the chance, they will almost always shoot themselves in the foot. With this in mind I go into this weekend fully expecting the SDLP to elect Patsy McGlone as its leader. To invoke another declining Northern Irish political organisation, if Ritchie was the SDLP’s Reg Empey – an honourable human being but an inept figurehead – then McGlone would be the Party’s Tom Elliott: the sound of a party talking only to itself and slowly dying.
Friday 4 November, The Ramada Hotel – We arrive for the start of the conference on a chilly evening in South Belfast. The location is important. In February 2010 we were in Ritchie’s back yard, Down, the scene set for nothing less than the coronation of Queen Margaret. Now of course we’re in McDonnell’s patch. I see all four candidates flitting around the second floor lobby where voting for the leader is taking place. I speak to all aside from McGlone who eludes me. Alex Attwood approaches and advises me to remove the Conall McDevitt sticker one of his supporters has just slapped on me (‘you should take it off’). I refrain from telling him I don’t have a vote and am here to observe all this. I say he appears to have run the most effective campaign and question if this is this connected to the fact he is the SDLP’s man in the current Executive (as Minister for Social Development) and must therefore be particularly attuned to the rough–and–tumble of the debates. He rejects this and says the most turbulent and rewarding time of his career were the discussions on policing which took place in the run–up to the Good Friday Agreement, securing reform and the Patten Report (we can’t forget Attwood is in West Belfast). He talks about the importance of loyalty in a party and how ‘short–sighted’ attacking any leader is; how this kind of infighting has damaged the SDLP historically.
I then speak with McDevitt. He tells me about his great–grandfather Danny and his Belfast roots. I tell him I think there’s something positive about his candidacy; that in the future politics here won’t be defined by your accent or where you’re from. I also congratulate him on the energisation of the party’s younger members. I’m disappointed that he’s distanced himself from the concept of taking the party into opposition, which a few months ago he thought should be ‘seriously talked about’ (Belfast Telegraph, 3 September 2011), but we agree that many of the same debates which characterised – and plagued – his great–grandfather’s time are still prevalent. He’s also keen on getting my vote, which of course doesn’t exist, so I have to level with him that I’m not involved in the party. Finally I see McDonnell who tells me he thinks he’s in with a good shot of winning. But he seems dazed, as if all this has taken him on the hoof. By all accounts McDonnell has not been at his best this campaign. He has lacked his usual bulldozing vim and seemed in the words on one member ‘like a man who already knew he wasn’t going to win’. He has an amusing habit of only referring to Sinn Féin as ‘the Provos’ (‘It can’t be a Provo Ireland, it can’t be a Patrick Pearse Ireland’ he said during the Belfast hustings last month), reflective of his qualities as an old–fashioned bruiser. That kind of combativeness is now rare in the SDLP but he has also involved himself down the years in various Unionist outreach programmes (‘We’re in the business of demolishing barriers’ he said during the aforementioned hustings), and once praised the late Loyalist leader Gusty Spence for his cooperation developing Phoenix Trust projects on both the Falls and the Shankill Road. Despite his fatigue, McDonnell seems aware of the gravity of the party’s predicament, remarking later on ‘whether the SDLP survives as a party of influence. We can change the way we work, or die.’ He picks up the pace this evening. On at least one other occasion as I’m walking round the lobby he almost walks straight into me while working the room.
I sit down in the hall in preparation for the final hustings which begin at 9 and find myself next to John Dallat, MLA for East Derry, who bellows ‘Go on ya Patsy, yeeooo!’ when McGlone walks through the door. After various introductions and presentations, the final session gets underway. Attwood and McDevitt are solid but the person who really pulls it out of the bag, finally, is McDonnell. He raises the level and volume of his performances so far, as if he’s been waiting for this one. Bullish again he talks about going ‘toe to toe’ with Sinn Fein, even ‘headbutting them, politically’. McDonnell’s new killer line, which nails the Stormont arrangement, is ‘They’re like Afghan warlords, tribal chiefs, haggling over the spoils’. I also watch with interest McGlone’s speech, which refers to ‘coming to a new arrangement in the North’ by somehow drawing on the ‘constitutional republicanism’ of Tone, Parnell and Hume. Strangely he suggests the SDLP are ‘again facing difficult and discriminatory times’ (are we really in the old gerrymandered Northern Ireland state?), but that ‘we will work to unify our island’. Commendably he’s determined not to let ‘the Provies monopolise the memory of Easter 1916’ but I’m struck by how much he refers to something ‘in the blood’. There are numerous intravenous references; always something ‘running and surging though our veins’. He finishes by declaring, ‘We are there to bring about the unity of our people and, ultimately, the unity of our island’. I can see why McGlone has risen. He certainly has the gift of the gab and reminds me of how Gerry Fitt might have turned out had he been raised on a farm.
At the end, when everyone has finished speaking, John Hume comes in and receives a standing ovation. There’s something apt about this to go with the expressions of sadness on the faces of many SDLP supporters looking on. In truth, the party has never managed to replace him. Outside I have a big chat with one of those who attempted to fill Hume’s shoes and also came up short, Mark Durkan. He’s very clued–in to the whole Westminster village and finds the current coalition arrangement disorientating. While he’s annoyed at the last Labour government for allowing the Tories to ‘justify what they’re doing’, he sees hopeful signs after a slow start in the Commons performances of Ed Miliband. Durkan was never a leader – that ill–judged pattern in the SDLP again – and I always thought of him as someone who got involved in the wrong game. But he’s also clearly a thoroughly decent man, and I’m reminded that in its most simple, brutal form you need to be hard and ruthless to enter politics. The same was probably true of Ritchie; how it’s not enough just to be a decent person.
In the bar afterwards I talk with Attwood about Joe Hendron, who took on the electorally invincible Gerry Adams in the epicentre of modern Sinn Féin in 1992 and won. Part of me thinks the SDLP has never learned from his example. Attwood reminds me he was Hendron’s campaign manager when Sinn Féin regained the seat following boundary changes in 1997, also against that Sinn Féin constituency as sketched by Brendan Hughes: ‘dead people…babies who weren’t born, babies who were in the graveyard; they all voted. And that’s how we got to the position that we’re in now’ (Quoted in Ed Moloney, Voices From the Grave, 2010: 274). The names Attwood has evoked in this campaign have been Bobby Kennedy and Paddy Devlin, but as a West Belfast politician he’s clearly delighted that Sinn Féin’s Presidential Candidate failed to come anywhere near to eventual victor Michael D. Higgins. Speaking with other members there’s a tacit acceptance that McGlone is likely to win tomorrow, a prospect unsatisfying to many. Younger delegates talk about the party being at 10 to midnight.
Saturday 5 November – Amid the day–to–day business and ongoing machinery of a modern political party at conference – motions, speeches, nominations – there are intriguing fringe events today such as a presentation by the Pat Finucane Centre on cases of Collusion in the mid–Ulster region during the 1970s. Things heat up when Margaret Ritchie arrives on the platform to give her outgoing address. She seems upbeat to be leaving it all behind but slates what she calls a ‘candyfloss media’ and can’t resist a final dig at her critics, especially McGlone. Defending the impressive ministerial performance of Attwood, whom of course she famously chose over McGlone to fill the SDLP’s Executive slot, Ritchie quips ‘to think – some questioned why I gave him the job’. And with that the curtain falls on her 21 month leadership of the SDLP.
For my money the best speech of the conference follows – superior even to McDonnell’s blitz last night – from the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) David Begg as part of a discussion on supporting people during the recession. Talking about jobs as well as fuel poverty and the soaring costs of heating and electricity, Begg lashes both the Westminster Government and the IMF/EU/ECD troika for applying the screws to the poorest in the current climate. He notes the way unemployment ‘has become structural’ whereby a generation of men and women have become ‘detached from the Labour market’ – he could of course be referring to all parts of the UK and Ireland: ‘People don’t live in markets, they live in communities. The economy serves the people’. He praises the SDLP for the way in which it has resisted ‘a narrow nationalism making itself felt. It is to the SDLP’s great credit that it has always sought to locate its nationalism within the wider European project’. Halfway through Begg’s contribution I see SDLP doyen Seamus Mallon get up to leave, I’d imagine to cast his leadership vote if hadn’t already for Patsy McGlone (old–style Nationalists like Mallon always were more interested in flags and whether you called it ‘Northern Ireland’ or the ‘North of Ireland’ than in real politics like whether people are in work or not).
At 5pm it’s time for the big announcement and the four candidates re–enter the hall to nervous applause for the result. McGlone’s grinning like the guy who’s got this. The three Belfast representatives seem on edge, all with faces of thunder. To my great surprise they prove me wrong and elect Alasdair McDonnell the new leader; he finishes just over 30 votes ahead of McDevitt, who pushes him close and has polled considerably better than many predicted (rumours already circulate that McDevitt will likely be the SDLPs next European nominee in the next 2014 election). Remarkably McGlone is a poor third and Attwood a distant last place. The leadership of the SDLP is back in the capital for the first time since 1979. What to explain this? McGlone was the bookies’ favourite and I concurred the SDLP would be consistent with its appetite for self-destruction by choosing the candidate most likely to lead them into oblivion.
The evening is a more relaxed affair. The Co–operative party, over from London, has sponsored the drinks reception and I run into veterans of the Northern Ireland Labour Party who dearly wish the NILP had the close relationship the SDLP enjoys with the British Labour Party today. Ex–MLA Dawn Purvis is there though I hear her assuring Attwood’s brother Tim she won’t be joining the SDLP under any circumstances. I chat with John Dallat properly, who actually turns out to be very affable guy. He reveals when he was starting out in the SDLP ‘we were told whatever you do you don’t say a bad word about the Catholic Church or the GAA’. In between discussions with fraternal Irish Labour delegates I find myself talking to Fine Gael’s Frank Feighan, TD for Roscommon/South Leitrim. When I mention the late Garret FitzGerald he says he wishes his party had done even more to play up the link between his party and the SDLP which is why he’s there. Naturally he’s down in the mouth about Fine Gael’s candidate in the presidential election but I suggest Sinn Féin’s real target over the next few years are Fianna Fáil, both considered to be vying for the same republican vote. With younger members and superior organisation I predict Sinn Féin will in time gradually overwhelm them, but Feighan is adamant ‘We haven’t seen the last of Fianna Fáil’. He finishes with a story about the Republic of Ireland football team who have an important play-off coming up. Following the Republic during qualification for the Euro 1988 championships, Feighan describes how the vast majority of fans, something like 5,000 of the 7,000 who travelled to the game in Brussels came off the boats from England, not Ireland. He considers this a great tribute to the Diaspora and likens it to the SDLP’s capacious concept of Irish identity.
I finally meet McGlone, on a break – apparently – from the dancefloor. I’ve been told he’s a teetotaller, perhaps not so much like Gerry Fitt in that way. There was a flicker with him earlier in the campaign; I put aside remarks on his website where he lambasts Peter Robinson for wanting to end segregated schooling and focus instead on something he wrote in an article announcing his candidacy: ‘To paraphrase the famous poet John Hewitt, I am proud of my Derry roots, my Ulster identity, and, like many Protestants and Unionists I know, to call myself Irish. We have more in common than which divides us’ (News Letter, 22 August 2011). In Out of my Time, the same great Ulster poet referred to ‘the savage complications of our past’ and I get the feeling this line is not understood by the strongly Nationalist McGlone; that the Hewitt reference was only skin–deep, a kind of political move. I ask him about it anyway and, maybe the time’s not right, but he doesn’t seem to know what on earth I’m referring to.
Sunday 6 November – After the presentation of a few last amendments and reports everyone gathers in the hall for McDonnell’s final address. Much of the audience are hungover from socialising the night before and I get the feeling the speeches made just after the count yesterday are the only ones we needed (McDonnell himself even has a go at the brightness of the lights, sure to raise many a gibe among the party’s opponents). But something which catches me is when he says, ‘we’re going to look to our friends, for help, wherever we have friends and we have lots of friends across the political spectrum. We’re part of the European Socialist grouping, the social democratic grouping…We have friends in Dublin, we have friends in London, and I will be looking to all of those to give us some advice and some ideas. But ultimately those are only advice and ideas. The real task comes back to us here.’
While this is certainly true, at its best what I experienced this weekend, something which distinguishes it from other parties here, is the scope and strength of the SDLP’s contacts and the range of its allies in Ireland, the UK and Europe. Whoever won this leadership election was going to find it tough over the next few years. But as a DUP–Sinn Féin Executive administers further cuts from the UK government, even their most hardened followers will have a hard time forcing the medicine – what McDonnell called in his closing statement ‘Tory orthodoxy’ – on their most deprived constituents. The question is whether the SDLP is even going to be in touching distance to pick up the spoils when that time arrives, if it’ll all be too late. But as the crowd disperses there’s a resounding sense of relief that maybe for the first time in many years the party didn’t blow it and can navigate with steadiness, composure and a little less foreboding the troubled waters ahead.
Connal Parr has published academically on constitutional nationalism and currently lectures in Irish politics at Queen’s University Belfast