Thursday, February 24, 2005

Bolstering the SDLP

Danny Morrison on the sad plight of the SDLP:

Last Sunday on BBC television Seamus Mallon accused members of Sinn Féin of murdering Short Strand man Robert McCartney, who was brutally stabbed some weeks earlier. He also said that Sinn Féin was “up to its neck” in criminality and the robbery on the Northern Bank two months ago.

It was a revealing outburst from a politician who has often been described as having “the sharpest mind” in northern Irish politics and of being “a tough nationalist” - views which have often brought a smile to my face.

What Mallon said showed that the former leader of the SDLP, on the eve of his retirement and smarting from his party having been eclipsed by Sinn Féin, had clearly lost the run of himself. In language akin to that used by two former secretary of states - one of whom, Merlyn Rees, referred to South Armagh as ‘bandit country’; and the other, Peter Brooke, who referred to nationalist people as ‘the terrorist community’ - Mallon astonishingly demonised even his own constituents who for almost twenty years had faithfully returned him to Westminster.

He said: “The people in South Armagh and West Belfast and West Tyrone and other parts don’t want policing, because if you have policing you don’t have criminality.”

Patently, that is untrue because nationalists, especially in urban areas where hoods and criminals are rife and don’t seem to be thoroughly pursued by the PSNI, have been crying out for a proper policing service. They thought one would be delivered to them through the recommendations which flowed from the Patten Commission only for the fundamentals to be undermined by the British government during the passage of the legislation and then accepted by the SDLP.

Nationalists may be desperate for a policing service but not that desperate to follow the SDLP’s ‘anything’s better than what we had before’ attitude. What is wrong with the PSNI can best be appreciated by the Bill Lowry episode. Lowry was the former head of the Special Branch in Belfast who was in charge of the raid on Sinn Féin’s offices in Stormont which led to the collapse of the power-sharing executive.

Although he subsequently resigned from the PSNI he has since appeared on a DUP platform – in fact, the same platform on the night from which Paisley issued his ‘sackcloth and ashes’ demand for republicans to be humiliated. The suspicion and perception is that there are many other Lowrys who hold sway within the PSNI.

On television Seamus Mallon said: “Never a week goes by when I don’t have a constituent, or constituents, telling me what is happening to them at the hands of the Republican movement… On a daily basis, on an hourly basis,” people are being intimidated, he said. If that is true then where is the dossier of compiled cases? And why do a majority of nationalists continue to vote for Sinn Féin? Are they masochists?

Or, is it the case that in Sinn Féin nationalists feel they have a party which represents them locally and articulates their political aspirations?

Mallon accused Sinn Féin of having strangled the Belfast Agreement and its institutions and of having “thrown overboard” UUP leader, David Trimble. He omitted that after Trimble and he were elected as First and Deputy First Ministers Trimble poisoned the atmosphere by refusing to allow the nominations for the rest of the executive to proceed for another eighteen months. He omitted to mention that both Trimble and Tony Blair reneged on the October 2003 deal to re-establish the executive following the IRA’s third and largest act of decommissioning. He omitted to mention the IRA’s offer before Christmas to put all of its weapons beyond use by the end of 2004.

Do the feelings of republicans count? Are they allowed to feel angry about bad faith and breaches of trust – or is that something only the privileged members of the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and the establishment can feel?

In July 1999 Seamus Mallon unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Trimble to set up the all-party executive. He told Trimble that the SDLP would be the first to exclude Sinn Féin if it defaulted on its commitments (regarding the Mitchell Principles to work exclusively through peaceful means). He said: “I will be the first – our party will be the first – to have them removed from every vestige of the political process.”

Trimble believed that Mallon was bluffing and refused to act on that commitment. Recently, Mallon’s successor as deputy leader, Alasdair McDonnell, and Eddie McGrady, resurrected, not the offer per se, but at least the SDLP discussing the offer. That is, that the SDLP should consider entering a voluntary coalition with the DUP and support the exclusion of Sinn Féin (which would lead to nationalists being gerrymandered out of their full entitlement to executive portfolios).

What could be wrong with that? It is, in fact, the logical outworking of Seamus Mallon’s proposal. But it shows how far the SDLP candidates for South Belfast and South Down fear erosion in their vote and thus need to appeal to unionist voters for support. Their proposal was quickly given short shrift by SDLP leader Mark Durkan, who needs all the nationalist votes he can get in his battle against Mitchell McLaughlin for Foyle.

Durkan knows, as well as the majority of nationalists know, that what is wrong with this country cannot be so facilely, glibly, easily, dumped on Sinn Féin, even though the SDLP often succumbs to that temptation.

The next Westminster election will probably be held on May, 5. Commenting on this BBC Northern Ireland’s political correspondent, Mark Devenport, said: “They won’t say it out loud, but both governments would like to bolster the SDLP in this election.”

Savaging Sinn Féin, damaging the party’s electoral prospects in the South and bolstering the SDLP in the next election in the North explains the current anti-republican campaign being waged by both governments.

They know the foolishness of explaining it in such terms which is why they choose to falsely denounce the IRA as being “the only obstacle” to peace and progress.


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