The origins of the SDLP

Contributed by Sarah Campbell

The 40th anniversary of the party that once spoke for the minority in Northern Ireland failed to inspire any editorials or features in the Irish national press in recent weeks.* A party in decline, it appears it has already been resigned to the scrapheap of history. Born exactly 40 years ago and sired by the 1968 generation of Northern Catholics who put rights before the republic, the SDLP’s conception can be traced to the early 1960s, when the idea of setting up a party like it began germinating in the Northern nationalist consciousness.

By 1964 there was an agreement in principle and a year later, the National Democratic Party was formed and was holding annual conferences. Shortly after, the civil rights movement (NICRA) revolutionised Northern Catholics and it was in civil rights issues that many of the founding members of the SDLP cut their teeth in politics. But was the SDLP, as it claimed, a party of civil rights?

By 1969 the civil rights movement had wrung a series of small reforms out of a reluctant Unionist government through its strategy of peaceful, public, mass protests. The civil rights movement, by putting equal right ahead of national unity, had changed the dynamics of ‘the Northern Ireland question’.

The 1969 general election, which formalised a split in Unionism between the party liberals and those who believed it was all part of a plot to overthrow Stormont, proved also to be the demise of the old Nationalist Party and the springboard for a new crop of nationalist MPs. Three Independents, Paddy O’Hanlon, Ivan Cooper and John Hume, replaced members of the Nationalist Party and found allies in Stormont in fellow civil rights activists Gerry Fitt (Republican Labour), Paddy Devlin (Labour) and Austin Currie (Nationalist).
Politics was being taken off the streets where civil rights agitators had brought it just a year earlier. This was a crucial decision that, it could be argued, hamstrung the SDLP before it ever started running.
Austin Currie remarked after the 1969 election there was ‘…the nucleus of a political movement which would transform politics in the Six Counties, not only at parliamentary level, but in local government and at the grass roots as well…’ He was essentially proposing the setting up of a new ‘united’ Nationalist party – something Hume had also proposed during his election campaign.

Yet it took 18 months before the SDLP came on the scene. While most historians and political commentators argue that the SDLP arrived too late to be able to halt the drift towards extremism and violence, allowing a policy vacuum on the side of the minority after the reform programme in August and October 1969, they fail to see the crucial weakness of the civil rights movement, and subsequently the SDLP – that the civil rights movement merely acted as a scab; the constitutional question was still very much alive in Northern Ireland. Because of this, the SDLP was always in competition with the IRA and therefore needed to rely more solidly on its traditional Catholic support base than it wished. Consequently, it failed to create the cross-community, socialist party that it had hoped in August 1970.
It was less than ten years since the IRA had called off their military operation and yet that seemed to have been largely forgotten by those who claimed that the civil rights movement was not about a ‘United Ireland’. There was a naïve hope, essentially among those who opted to bring politics back to the Stormont chamber, that once reforms were achieved and the minority in Northern Ireland saw the advantages of having a voice in Stormont, then the IRA would just die away.

There was a lack of debate and questioning of what the consequences would be after having once calling people onto the streets, of calling them off again. In that situation, a vacuum was left behind on the streets, and that vacuum was left open for the IRA to fill. With the history of militant republicanism that existed in Northern Ireland, it was inevitable that the IRA would step into the vacuum left on the streets once the political leaders of NICRA turned to Stormont.

As the compound name suggests, the SDLP was an amalgamation of disparate groups. The accounts of SDLP thinking, which have appeared to date, hint at on-going tension within the party over its identity. Although the ‘civil righters’ [Hume, Cooper and O’Hanlon] found a shared political vision with Fitt, Currie and Devlin, Fitt admitted they were ‘a varied and diverse bunch’.

It is suggested that Fitt was the reason for the delay in the formation of the party. Indeed, Fitt
noted that while there was much common ground in their viewpoints, he had reservations about moving beyond an informal alliance, claiming ‘…I had deep reservations about the different ideological strands…I quite expected my frequent absences at Westminster might lead to new alignments between the others.’
Fitt claimed in later years that he was in an ‘unhappy minority of one over many issues’ and at times the relationship between himself and the party was ‘very uneasy’. The Sunningdale negotiations particularly highlighted these differences, with Fitt pushing for the power-sharing aspect of the agreement while Hume pushed the Irish dimension aspect. It was Hume’s view that essentially won out in the end and the party lost any vestiges of socialism it may have had in the early 1970s and became more and more an ethnically aligned nationalist party.

The formation of the SDLP was undoubtedly an important development in Northern nationalism, with its twin aims of socialism and nationalism, which was very much in keeping with the language of the civil rights movement. Yet, did the party simply prosper off the goodwill generated in the nationalist community because of civil rights? In a party memo in the early 1970s, it was noted that theirs was a ‘problem of a reconciliation of different points of view. Unity had been painfully won’. Perhaps it is essentially that problem that dogs the 40-year-old SDLP today.

*The party, however, organised the 3rd annual McCluskey Summer School in Carlingford, Co. Louth on 28 August to celebrate the civil rights movement and thereby staking the party’s claim as the natural inheritors of the civil rights legacy.

Sarah Campbell has recently completed and passed a PhD thesis on the origins of the SDLP in the School of History and Archives in UCD. She will speak at the Ireland Since 1966: New Perspectives conference, jointly organised by UCD School of History and Archives and the Department of Politics, University of Glasgow, on 11 November 2010.

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