SDLP needs to discover how to do normal politics

Posted By: December 12, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News(Belfast).Saturday,  December 12. 2015 01:00

THIS week’s launch of the new book, John Hume: Irish Peacemaker, raises a question which we tend not to ask: if the peace was so successful, how did the politics go so badly wrong?

Of course, you may wish to argue that there is nothing wrong with our politics and that Stormont is a model of political integrity and infinite wisdom. In that case, you may now wish to take the advice of newsreaders when it comes to sports results and look away now.

If you have not closed your eyes, you will presumably believe there is merit in the argument that Stormont is a failing political experiment. This raises the question: if Stormont is the solution, are we sure we understood the problem?

For those of us who were not there, it is difficult to know how much of the reasoning behind Stormont’s existence lies in the SDLP’s efforts to end IRA violence

However, about that time, the SDLP’s analysis of the causes of violence here could roughly be described as the two tribes theory. One tribe was pro-London, the other pro-Dublin.

The proposed solution, it appears, was to bring together the two factions and their respective governments to agree a tribal settlement, in what some might see as a carve-up of the political spoils of peace.

This inevitably led to the two nations theory and the rest, as they say, is hysterical.

An alternative analysis suggests that violence here stemmed from sectarianism, which had been fostered by Britain in modern form since 1798.

Indeed, for much of the troubles, the British significantly influenced the activities of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups. By 1990 they were effectively conducting the war from both sides.

This analysis challenges the SDLP view that the British were honest brokers, with no interest in Ireland. The most significant difference between the two interpretations lies in their proposed solutions.

The tribal view sees things in terms of religion, flags and the sectarian head-counting of D’Hondt.

The view that British-fuelled sectarianism is at the heart of our problem here would suggest a non-sectarian solution. It would seek to build the middle ground through shared social and economic objectives, thereby isolating the sectarian extremes.

We do not know what the SDLP told the IRA, but if you were explaining politics to gunmen, would you emphasise tribes and flags, or would you start with the normal left-right divisions in modern democracies?

What emerged in the Good Friday Agreement were flags. Having entered the Troubles in a post-war welfare state, we emerged in 1994 into entrenched Thatcherism. Because no-one asked what sort of society we should build, Thatcherism became the unspoken economic foundation of the peace process.

The Assembly which was designed to deliver it, did not even have provision for an opposition to oppose it. No-one appeared to suggest normal left-right politics. There is little evidence that the Social Democratic and Labour Party argued for social democracy – and certainly not for labour.

In the SDLP’s defence you could make two points. The first is that what Sinn Féin did on entering politics was hardly the SDLP’s fault.

Sinn Féin might have been expected to adopt the traditional republican philosophy of non-sectarianism. Instead it opted for the standard nationalism of Daniel O’Connell – and the SDLP – by deciding that it should represent only Catholics.

The second defence is that the men of violence would probably not have settled for anything less than a share of the sectarian spoils. That is a fair point, which also argues that peace saved lives.

But its downside is that we are now perpetual hostages to the former supporters of sectarian violence on both sides. Anything which lessens their power is a threat to the peace process.

As a result, the SDLP is now effectively excluded from Executive policy-making on matters such as welfare. (Sinn Féin’s explanation for returning welfare powers to Westminster is that it was a technicality. This suggests that the 1916 Rising was just a bigger technicality – in the opposite direction.)

There is no doubting John Hume’s integrity, courage and leadership in helping to end violence here. But, for whatever reason you wish to offer, the peace has failed to deliver the expected political, social and economic progress.

That can only be achieved through a new type of politics. (Well, new to us.) It is called normal politics.

The Ulster Unionist Party may be making an effort in that direction. The SDLP might like to do the same, so that 25 years from now, they will be launching a new book in Derry, Colum Eastwood: Politics-maker.