Tough Questions


The major lesson since the Hume-Adams’ talks, which came to light in 1993, has been that nationalist/republican co-operation and agreement has raised the morale, sense of confidence and the negotiating power of our community. The SDLP and Sinn Fein have influenced each other immeasurably to the advantage and satisfaction of nationalists and to the frustration of unionists.

Of course, neither side has been subsumed by the other and there are major differences in ideology, political complexion and emphasis, with the SDLP still that bit more aloof, nervous or perhaps fearful of their electoral rivals. Nor, as an organisation is the SDLP as disciplined or driven as Sinn Fein. And often in negotiations the SDLP has got off the bus a stop early before the purpose of the journey has been accomplished. The SDLP is more open to compromise: it’s in its nature, part of its history and political culture.

That said, the SDLP, to its credit - or at least to the credit of its public leadership in the form of spokespersons Seamus Mallon and Alex Attwood - has so far remained reasonably firm in resisting the pressures to endorse the Police Act and join the Policing Board. This could change if the concessions the party seeks are granted. The demand for the closure of Gough Barracks is fairly meaningless, given that interrogations will simply take place in some other barracks. The demand for public inquiries into the deaths of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson precede the treachery of Peter Mandleson and the British government over the gutting of the original Patten Report.

Whether this human rights demand should be linked to something as fundamental as the establishment of a proper policing service is debatable. Even though public inquiries present huge difficulties for the British government (given the potential confirmations of state collusion), the demand could be conceded only for the inquiries to be subsequently undermined in a way similar to the question marks now hanging over the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

The unionists have lost the battle over the inclusion of the RUC name in the Police Service title, and the British government in all likelihood will act creatively to satisfy the SDLP on the issue of flags and symbols. Last Friday the SDLP described itself as reassured about the role of and resources available to the Police Ombudsman after a meeting with Nuala O’Loan. The SDLP and the Catholic hierarchy, representing the middle-class, will jump together when the time is right. Still, it would be a huge gamble even under the most auspicious circumstances to encourage nationalists to join the Police Service and stake their actual lives and the security of their families on nothing backfiring.

The other part of that triumvirate, the ‘Irish News’, has already leaped, in a disgraceful editorial, which could have been written by Peter Mandelson, which called upon all parties (read SDLP) to take their places on the policing board. Sinn Fein’s problems are ten times worse than the SDLP’s. Given its revolutionary past it took its seats unenthusiastically, though has worked the Assembly professionally. Patten’s report was written after many public hearings and submissions and was essentially a compromise on the unionist and nationalist positions, which Sinn Fein was stretched not to outrightly reject. Patten has since been mangled - though that’s not how the unionists view things. They look at Sinn Fein and see the IRA in government. They see nationalism as united and strong and the nationalist population spreading (one reason behind the UDA’s ethnic cleansing campaign with pipe bombs), and the potential for Sinn Fein and the SDLP to take seats in North Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone.

We are told that if David Trimble falls then he will be replaced by an anti-Agreement unionist. Forty-five per cent of unionist voters did not support the Agreement in the referendum. Ever since then that percentage has increased and it is probable that the majority of the unionist people do not support the Agreement or power-sharing with the freely-chosen representatives of the nationalist/republican community. David Burnside’s nomination in South Antrim shows where the weather-vane points. So it would appear that despite a very large minority of unionists prepared to share power and move forward in partnership, the majority of unionists would prefer to have no power rather than share power with the other side. Those of this persuasion will probably have their majority over pro-Agreement unionists confirmed in May’s council elections or in the aggregate of the Westminster election results.

And that is the problem for the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Blair can face down his military and remove the observation posts along the border and some deal might be struck on the fundamentals of policing to which both the SDLP and a reluctant Sinn Fein can subscribe, only for unionists to pull the plug on the Executive, Assembly and the all-Ireland bodies.

What should the SDLP and Sinn Fein do? Keep clawing, remain philosophical, abstain?

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison