Mark Durkan’s defection has sabotaged the entire future of the SDLP

Posted By: March 09, 2019

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, March 9, 2019

Three weeks ago this column suggested that following its badly managed partnership with Fianna Fáil, the SDLP would try to muddle through and forecast that, ” just as the party thinks things cannot get any worse, they almost certainly will.”

This week, things got considerably worse for the SDLP  to an extent which even that prediction had not envisaged.

Former party leader Mark Durkan departed from party policy by agreeing to stand as a Fine Gael candidate in the European parliamentary election. Whatever his intentions, Durkan effectively splintered a party which had previously only been split, thereby, sabotaging not just Colum Eastwood’s leadership, but the entire future of the SDLP.

Some will see Durkan’s defection in terms of rats and sinking ships, while others will analyze it as a clever personal move. Either way, it means that while Durkan canvasses for Fine Gael in the forthcoming election, Eastwood will presumably be canvassing for Fianna Fáil. Like Irish soldiers in Europe after the Flight of the Earls, Durkan and Eastwood appear destined to spend the rest of their lives fighting in the cause of others.

Had Durkan agreed to stand for Fianna Fáil, he would have boosted Eastwood’s leadership and given the party a new impetus. Instead, he reduced the party he once led to its weakest ever position. It was an interesting decision, which confirms the view that Sinn Féin has been blessed for some time with incompetent opponents.

Eastwood was interestingly polite about Durkan’s defection. A different leader might have rightly criticized Durkan for his secrecy while Eastwood was trying to salvage something from the declining party he had inherited.

Fearing that response, Durkan did what might be called a Provo. Just as the Provisional IRA claimed historical legitimacy by “receiving” (if that’s the right verb) the Republic from the last surviving member of the First Dáil, Commandant Thomas Maguire, Durkan claimed his historical purity from Pat Hume.

That claim of authenticity reflects an interesting theme in the SDLP’s history where personality became more important than the party. The SDLP’s problem was that it never quite agreed what it was for, but it did not have to, because Hume’s reputation rendered analysis unnecessary, even after he retired.

That ideological vacuum has allowed Durkan to stand for right-wing Fine Gael, Eastwood to enter a partnership with centrist Fianna Fáil and an SDLP rump which advocates social democracy. Durkan’s stance is the most interesting because, if elected, he will sit with the European People’s Party, which includes the Hungarian Fidesz Party. It is more repressive today than the unionists here ever were. So much for the SDLP’s civil rights credentials.

Although it claimed to be the party of civil rights, the SDLP was a loose-knit, opportunistic nationalist group created on the back of the civil rights movement. Ironically, if nationalist opportunism in Belfast created the SDLP, nationalist opportunism in Dublin has now mortally wounded it.

While Randolph Churchill advocated playing the “Orange Card,” Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are now playing the green card. The North is still nothing more than the chips in political poker, leaving the SDLP not so much a party, more a green flag for Dublin politicians to wave at election time.

The competition between the two main parties to claim the soul of Ireland stems from the remarkable anti-British sentiment stirred up by Brexit, which has transformed Irish nationalism into Euro-unionism. It is now a case of Brits out (not counting the royal family and all the hurling sticks they were given) and Germans in.

It is against this background that the two main southern parties have re-discovered The Border. RTE helpfully broadcasts programs explaining what The Border actually looks like to those who have never ventured north of Swords. But under new nationalism, the political border is perfectly legitimate. After all, nationalists voted overwhelmingly for partition in 1998.

New nationalism is merely indignant about the possibility of an economic border. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have relegated challenging political partition to argue instead how best to straddle the border for economic reasons. To show just how much they oppose an economic border, the two main Dáil parties are engaged in a political fashion parade to determine which of them can claim to be the more northern: our northern totem pole is better than your northern totem pole.

Meanwhile back in the north, the various SDLP factions are competing to prove which of them is the most southern. SDLP canvassers in the local government elections here will presumably identify themselves as SDLP/Fianna Fail, SDLP/Fine Gael, or SDLP/original flavor.

The future for all three does not look particularly promising.