Jude Collins

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Being an SDLP leader - Lord, you know it ain't easy.

The SDLP must think they’re living under a curse. It started around the turn of the century, when Sinn Féin moved out and passed them on the electoral road, and varoomed off into the middle distance. More immediately they must feel particularly jinxed. They were arguing over their leadership as Sinn Féin rolled into Belfast and held its first ring-a-ding Ard Fheis in the north, in the nice new Waterfront Hall. Then the prospects of the SDLP leadership candidates were forgotten as Martin McGuinnness  grabbed the headlines by joining the race for the Aras. That went on for weeks, and the fact that McGuinness didn’t win was small enough consolation.  Now the SDLP are holding their annual conference, not in the Waterfront Hall but the Ramada Hotel in Belfast. Not quite stage centre, really. And yes, the air this weekeend is filled with excited cries and interviews and TV cameras, but  they’re not for Patsy McGlone or Alex Attwood, they’re for Justin Bieber and Lady Ga-ga. That massive stage in front of Belfast City hall has been constructed, not for Conall McDevitt but for MTV performers.

So you bet it’s tough when you’ve been No 1 and now you’re a distant No 2.  A bit like being in a game where you know, no matter how hard you sweat or how much you urge your men forward, you’re going to be beaten. Discouraging.  Makes you want to tear off your jersey, puncture the ball and head for the changing rooms with a shouted “Aw, fuck the lot of yis!” over your shoulder.  But there must be a small corner in the heart of the SDLP candidates that is comforted, that feels warmth. Because the SDLP does have its die-hard supporters. They still elect MLAs.

That’s because there are those nationalist voters who have always identified with the SDLP. Like the candidates for SDLP leadership, they’re, getting on a bit in years, but that doesn’t mean their opinions have softened. In fact, as their arteries have hardened, so have their opinions. Not so much in favour of the wreckage they see when they look at the SDLP as in the contempt they feel when they think of Sinn Féin.

There’s the violence thing of course. Some of these people have, directly or indirectly, been damaged by IRA violence, and they lay responsibility for that solely at the feet of Sinn Féin. They subscribe to the thesis, successfully propagated south of the border, that the IRA were the initiatiors and the continuers of violence for more than two decades. This despite the fact that early black-and-white TV images show civil rights marchers being beaten off the streets,
and later images show bodies bleeding from bullet wounds inflicted by the British Army.  None of that counts – the IRA was the cause of it all, start, middle and finish.

Then there’s the class thing. You want to vote for political leaders you look up to, and when the SDLP faithful look at  Sinn Féin they see people who’ve had limited schooling, people who say ‘Done’ instead of ‘Did’ and ‘have went’ instead of ‘have gone’, and their middle-class sensibilities recoil. How could you vote for somebody like that, with their awful English and their equally awful jail-Irish?  It’s no accident that of the four SDLP leadership candidates, one is  a doctor and one a lawyer, and all four would rather rip out their own tongue, toast it and eat it in small forkfuls than say ‘infer’ when they mean ‘imply’.

So the SDLP gathered at the Ramada have that small consolation, that there are those in the northern population who remain faithful to the “dignified protest” days, and will go on being faithful until their dying day. For a small pool of the northern population,  Patsy McGlone, Conall McDevitt,  Alastair McDonnell and Alex Attwood are still big fish. The trouble is, the pool keeps getting smaller every year and even the bravest fish struggle to breathe as the pool dries up.  


  1. And the winner is Doctor Alasdair McDonnell.

  2. And the loser is Jude Collins.

  3. Jude
    There is a gap between the idea that the IRA were the "cause of it all" and people being "damaged" by IRA violence. You don't seem too keen on exploring that area.
    That morally pusillanimous attitude from Sinn Fein acolytes is why many people will choose the SDLP over Sinn Fein, despite their many shortcomings.

  4. Alasdair hard at work in Westminster.


  5. Thanks, Anon 23:24 - I have passed on your link.
    giordanobruno - you'd need to tell me what 'gap' you see. I'd have thought the absence of gap was pretty obvious.

  6. Jude
    Maybe I expressed it poorly.
    You acknowledge that some people have been damaged by IRA violence, but clearly are unhappy with the idea that they were the sole cause of our troubles. I agree.
    But where does the responsibility lie for IRA actions? Is it all the Brits/Unionists fault? Did big boys make them do it? Or did they in fact inflict terrible suffering on their own community of their own volition?
    I believe IRA violence achieved nothing that could not have been won through peaceful means, in a shorter time. An idea I would be interested in seeing you explore.

  7. Thanks, gia. I think two things led to the 70s/80s incarnation of the IRA: the brutal clarity with which the British army made it clear they weren't here to peace-keep but to suppress; and the centuries-old anger that the British government laid and lays claim to jurisdiction over this part of Ireland. Toxic mix. Some people responded with continued peaceful protest, some concluded peaceful protest would never effect real change and did nothing, some concluded change could come only through violence. But then that's pretty much the way it was 1916 and after, and in most struggles for independence.

  8. Jude
    And you? Did you conclude that change could come only through violence?

  9. Jude,any hope of Gio getting an answer to his query?I think he at least deserves to be told hes not !

  10. Gio,doesnt look as if Jude is going to favour you with an answer.It would have been interesting to read his response on what seemed to me,a very reasonable question.

  11. Anonymous
    Yes I was not really expecting an answer but it would have been interesting to know.

  12. Sorry, gio - I'm just coming back to your question now (contrary to popular opinion, I do have a life). I look at the history of the world and the stance taken by countries in military terms. It seems to me pretty well all countries have an army of some kind, which suggests they believe in violence, if only as a last resort. The people who vote them in presumably support this view. So it really is very silly of you to ask me or Johnny Maloney or Maggie up the road what our views on violence are. Check the government voted in and you'll know what most people think. Check ceremonies tomorrow and Sunday, and you'll see how the official world regards the dead who went out gun in hand and died in conflict. Personally, I'm a pacifist by instinct if not in principle ( aka a coward). But that doesn't mean I don't believe violence effects political change. Ask Saddam Hussein, ask Muammar Gaddafi.

  13. Jude
    Thanks for taking the time to reply.
    Of course most people, myself included will accept that violence may be necessary as a last resort.
    What I was trying to ascertain, as I am very sure you realise, is if you believe the violent campaign by the IRA was justified as the last resort here. Not what they may have thought, not what Nationalists/Republicans as a whole may believe, but what you believe about that that specific situation.

  14. Gio, Judes bonhomie didnt last long!You are now apparently very silly for daring to ask him a very pertinent question.Your response[12 03]again poses the appropriate question but any further clarification seems unlikely.