By Jack Holland
Specters are stalking the Social Democratic and Labor Party. As the 30-year anniversary of its founding approaches, the SDLP is undergoing a leadership crisis at the same time as the threat from Sinn Fein takes on new dimensions. Some party members fear that organizationally it is ill-prepared to cope with the looming challenges.
As much was revealed a month ago in an internal document, exposing party weaknesses, that was leaked in Belfast, to the embarrassment and consternation of members and supporters. It described a perception of the party as "tired, middle-class and lacking in vitality," said that it "lacked interest in grassroots politics," and accused the leadership of having "pursued peace at the expense of party."
Officially, the party spokesmen say that it was a sign of the SDLP’s self-confidence that it could undertake such a review, which, they say, was inspired by the new situation facing it in the wake of the Good Friday agreement and by the prospect of going into government. But privately, some party activists claim that the real story behind the document is the feeling in SDLP ranks that Hume has "done his bit," that he is tired and "past his sell-by date." They say that the review shows that the SDLP is now "a party in transition into the post-Hume era," opening up the whole question of who will lead the SDLP to face the new challenges, including that posed by Sinn Fein.
That challenge has been heightened by the perception of some SDLP activists of Sinn Fein’s growing influence over the Irish government.
"The Irish government began by saying that they’re working on Sinn Fein," commented one leading SDLP man. "But now they’re working with Sinn Fein." There are fears that the old threat from Sinn Fein to overtake the SDLP as the voice of Northern Irish nationalism will come true, aided by Hume’s success in bringing militant republicans into the mainstream of political life.
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However, Tim Atwood, one of only five full-time staff members, downplays such concerns.
"The SDLP vote rose by 7 percent between 1998 and 1999," said Atwood, who is the party’s director of development and was involved in conducting the review. "In the assembly elections it got 177,963 votes — the highest ever, beating the UUP." He also points out that in the 1999 European election Hume received 190,731 votes, the largest number that the party ever received in any election since it was founded in August 1970. He suggests that the rise in the Sinn Fein vote should be seen in the context of an overall rise in the nationalist vote in the North.
The real situation, he said, is that "after 30 years, we’ve reached a pinnacle." He said that had the review been leaked in December, when the SDLP had just entered the short-lived power-sharing government, "people would have thought it normal" that the party had undertaken a reassessment of its structures and future.
He denied that the review had anything to do with Hume’s possible retirement. "I don’t think it was a factor," he said.
Hume could not be reached for comment.
Atwood is confident that the SDLP will hold its own against Sinn Fein. As part of the review, a poll was conducted by MRBI. People were asked to list the issues that they would like to see dominate politics in the North in the coming years. The issues of most concern to people were listed in order of importance as employment, hospitals, education, women’s equality, tourism and drugs and youth facilities — all SDLP issues, according to Atwood. People were also asked to list the parties they thought best equipped to deal with those issues.
"On all the issues the SDLP outpolled Sinn Fein by two-to-one or more," he said.
However, Brian Feeney, a member of the SDLP for 18 years and a former councilor for North Belfast who now lectures in history at St. Mary’s College, takes a less sanguine view. He says that after the assembly elections in October 1982, when Sinn Fein first entered local elections in the North and won five seats, there was a review of the SDLP’s performance and future. According to Feeney, "it produced a report not dissimilar to the recent one, saying that the leadership was tired and old and lacked awareness of the grassroots."
It was never acted upon, Feeney claims. In 1983, following Sinn Fein’s capture of West Belfast and near capture of Mid-Ulster in the Westminster elections, the Irish government mounted a frantic effort to rescue the SDLP. The result was the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
"No effort will be made to save the SDLP now," Feeney said. "Sinn Fein could hold the balance of power in the south."
Feeney, a hard-hitting politician who left the party in disgust after it repeatedly failed to select him to run for the West Belfast seat, says that the party’s image of being "middle-aged, middle-class and middle of the road" (in the words of Eamon McCann) makes it vulnerable to Sinn Fein.
"Sinn Fein is attracting young graduates," he said. "It has a lot of people in the 30-40 age group, and a lot of young women."
There was little organization at street level when he was in the party, fighting for his political life in North Belfast.
"For someone like me who has trailed around the streets of the Ardoyne and New Lodge, not to have an organization behind me was intolerable. I just had a few posters saying, ‘Vote for John Hume’s SDLP.’ It won’t work in the Ardoyne."
Feeney accuses the party of not being interested in political organization at street level, and blames Hume for placing loyalty to old friends over the need to chose the best candidates to fight elections.
"He really ought to call it a day," Feeney said.
Many within the SDLP agree with him, though they are unwilling to say it on the record. Hume’s ill-health has deepened this anxiety. Within the last year, Hume has had four operations for serious stomach complaints and suffered a bout of peritonitis.
According to one SDLP member who is close to the leadership, it was Seamus Mallon who was de facto leader during the recent period of power-sharing government.
Shinners in ascent
The SDLP’s organizational weaknesses are noticeable in Belfast, where Sinn Fein is now the dominant nationalist party. There is irony in this, since the SDLP’s first leader and one of its founding members was Belfastman Gerry Fitt. Fitt, a working-class trade union activist, was also the party’s first MP. Paddy Devlin, another founding member, came from Belfast, also with a strong trade unionist-republican background. Both were rooted in the bruising politics of the North’s capital. Both left the party disillusioned in the late 1970s. Since then, its Belfast organization has been dominated by middle-class professionals who seem unable to stop Sinn Fein’s rise.
The SDLP has also been accused of more or less surrendering the powerful and influential Irish-American constituency to Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein speakers regularly visit the U.S. on well-publicized speaking and fund-raising jaunts. Leaders like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams are regular speakers at such venues as the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York. But lesser-known party members are also given the opportunity to address Irish-American audiences.
In contrast, other than Nobel Prize-winner Hume, SDLP activists arrive in the U.S. virtually unheralded. Sinn Fein and even the Ulster Unionist Party have offices in Washington, but the SDLP does not. It says it does not have the resources. As a result, in the U.S. Sinn Fein dominates the debate about the North, as it does the fund-raising.
However, Tim Atwood defends Hume’s approach.
"For 30 years," he said, "Hume used his contacts in the U.S. to change politics in the North. Secondly, he used those contacts for inward investment; 37,000 jobs were created. Sinn Fein concentrates on fund-raising for themselves."
Another prominent member said that ceding the U.S. to Sinn Fein was deliberate.
"We’d rather have Adams fund-raising in America than have his friends robbing banks in Ireland," he said.
However, the party plans to adopt a more "corporate" approach to the U.S., with Seamus Mallon, Sean Farren and others taking a more prominent role here.
Such plans are part of the projected party overhaul that will be put before a special conference to be held in June or July. Much will depend on whether or not devolved government has been restored to the North, as well as Hume’s immediate future. But insiders expect that if the SDLP finds itself in power again, then Hume will not run in the next British general election, which is scheduled sometime within the next year. Others suggest he could go within six months.
"Hume is a visionary," said Brian Feeney. "He would not put the life of the SDLP above lives on the street. But the party will have a greater freedom without him."