I don’t really read “the Irish News” regularly.I might pick it up in the barber’s once- a -month and scan through it while awaiting my turn in the chair. I’ll peruse through it and “the Newsletter” , flicking pages ,just to compare through which particular, specific prism the same world we all share , is being viewed by the scribbling folk out there. These two newspapers, in the pre-internet world , represented the two strands of political belief in Norneverland .That was a long time ago though…..before broadband internet and the world wide web. I sometimes pick up a hard copy in the newsagent on Saturday along with another paper with greater world news coverage , just to get a synopsis of the week’s events and as to how the shapers of opinions out there are modelling the worldview they think their diminishing readers should hove to .
It was in this context that I read an interview with the now 80- year old Seamus Mallon , the previous First Minister before Martin McGuinness. Seamus Mallon would have been the SDLP politician in -line for leadership of his party had events not taken another course. Given their different political stances within the nationalist community , you would already gather that there would be no real love lost between the two men and certainly no real meeting of minds in their political outlook.They are different kinds of people after all..The differences are very telling . Mr Mallon would have assumed the leader’s mantle of the SDLP if circumstances had been different .He was eventually forced to leave politics to care for his recently- deceased wife ,who had suffered from dementia for the last decade of her life.He was her carer and he made that choice ,much as Martin McGuinness also made a similar health based -choice to stand -down from politics earlier in the week.
Mr McGuinness has always had a republican agenda since the police attacked civil rights marchers on the streets in the 1960s and early 1970s, when even then the majority of other Irish nationalists were gearing -up to routinely vote for Mr Mallon’s and John Hume led SDLP party. Direction of political development depended a lot on your household and where you lived.It was only when the republican movement fully embraced politics ,alone , years later , that the Sinn Fein party finally accrued the majority of the nationalist votes for themselves. It was probably a smart move and it seemed to work for them. Isn’t that what everyone, including the British Establishment and possibly even unionism , , wanted them to do?Some will gather or possibly assume that many of those voters had radically changed their politics to vote for Sinn Fein.The assumption now, years later, is that the SDLP was essentially a “middle – class” party aligned in some way to the British Labour Party of forty years ago and the Sinn Fein party was a more “working -class” affair , appealing initially to hard-core Irish republicans. Most working-class voters on the nationalist side voted for the SDLP back them. Somehow the Sinn Fein leadership managed to steal the SDLP’s political support, outright, leaving only a core of possibly more conservative voters.
The SDLP made a point of going to Westminster to argue their political case, although Sinn Fein insisted that doing so was a pointless exercise which recognised and accepted the British right to govern in Ireland. They drew a line at that.That was not their perception at all and they didn’t really want to condone it or support that idea in any way by physically joining in the Westminster political game.
In retrospect the SDLP and Seamus Mallon had been well-enough respected by the majority of the nationalist community they represented for many years.They got that important popular vote out after all.Seamus Mallon got it , as did John Hume.That cannot be denied, even though many republicans readily make snide remarks about these men and their party, the vast majority of Irish Nationalists at one time readily gave them their vote and asked them to speak for them.What can’t also be denied, in balance, is the work they started and carried out in their initial work for civil-rights. Civil Rights is what drew Mallon , the local school-teacher ,into politics in the first place . Specifically, as a teacher , respected and seen in those days as a staunch member of the community, he was approached by a Catholic man who had been basically living in a hovel , without running water , with a large family and a local Markethill unionist councillor , when asked to provide better accomodation ,responded with a racist/religious slur to the effect that he would not have such a family living in the town at all.It was this kind of high-handed and discriminatory behaviour that put civil rights marchers onto the streets in the first place. The story would have been similar for anyone entering the civil rights struggle or politics on the nationalist side, back then.
There was no struggle to free Ireland at that moment in time .It was a struggle for basic respect which was missing throughout the entire community.That was not to say that working class unionists were not also disrespected by their unionist masters. They were, but they were unfortunately much easier to manipulate by Big House well-heeled unionism than were their Catholic /nationalist counterparts. They accepted that disrespect as the price they would be willing to pay to make them feel a tiny bit superior to their equally poor Catholic counterparts.They knew their “place “and should there be any employment or housing available , they also knew that they were one step higher on the pecking order to gain an advantage .For them, that seemed to be enough. It seemed easy enough for them to divide that working -class vote by instilling fear of “the other”.
“Seamus Mallon: ‘Lack of respect in Stormont? I could write a book about it’”
That was the strapline that drew me to the interview.Given that this is the same problem that Sinn Fein and specifically Martin McGuinness confronted in office with the DUP, it appears to be the major problem within the unionist community .It’s worth remembering that the SDLP or their members were never involved in any armed activity and yet they faced the same disrepect from David Trimble and the UUP that affected the Sinn Fein relationship with the DUP.It cannot simply be a hatred of an association with past violence, after all, because those who have supported the UUP and the DUP have not had clean hands either in the violence stakes throughout this past century and earlier. In Seamus Mallon’s view there was never any realisation on unionism’s part that the office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister (FMDFM) was actually always a “joint” two-headed office . Unionism …of whatever stripe proceeded to do business, when back in power, as if they alone ruled the roost.It was not seemingly in their political or social make-up to do otherwise. They assumed that it was back to Unionist Rule”Big House” again, a generation on… and back to business as usual ,as if the long years of social conflict had taught them no real lessons at all.They had not as yet taken that important mental step to bridge the gap.
“The way in which [Arlene Foster] and her colleagues treated Martin McGuinness was not showing the type of respect that was needed in an executive but shows how they actually still have this old-fashioned unionism, [viewing themselves] as czars. – ‘This is now ours; we are the largest party’ – and they did what they liked.”
Some see bitterness in Seamus Mallon’s view of Sinn Fein and unionism and how things went wrong for the SDLP, but I simply think he is being a pragmatist in his acceptance of how politics panned out.
It is possible that the SDLP’s biggest error in terms of their own proposed electorate is that they too became too comfortable with the trappings of Westminster and the slow creep of change that their kind of politics seemed to demand.Change was not coming quickly enough in this past twenty years for the Irish nationalism which was their original base and here were the SDLP enjoying the trappings of power without having really much control of that power itself.It appeared thatWestminster was leading them slowly by the nose to accept less than was wanted.
Who can blame an urbane man like Seamus Mallon for enjoying the life of a big city like London? Anyone who wasn’t already dead , could enjoy one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world ,no matter their origin…..even if the masters of that city were ultimately responsible for much of the ills that Ireland has experienced for a century and more. Anyone who has lived in London could tell you that, but what if the London -life and the fabulous acoustics of Westminster, which surely made his voice sound grand and important ,even as he spoke to half-empty rooms, and the pull of the colourful city nightlife , surely stood in stark contrast to the buttoned -down gloom of life back home in the closed small night-time country towns of Ireland. Did the SDLP simply stray too far from their voting base? It seems so. It is now easily understood that the game has moved on from the cry for simple civil and civic rights to the aspirations of a majority nationalism’s need to push for a re-united country back home and an entirely New Ireland , rather than to simply fiddle away in a Westminster which does not respect any agreements signed , anyway.
It is odd though , that no matter how many chances unionism has been given to reform its nature, it consistently misses every cue it is given.
As for Mr Mallon’s current take on his party . After a long period in the wilderness with a succession of lame leaders, by his reckoning the first thing needed is for the current young leader Colum Eastwood to ditch the beard and return to the fresh-faced image. I’m not sure if it will make much difference to the party’s success but In this I have to agree with him .For as long as that distracting white spot catches the television lights, no one will ever hear a word the man says. That prominant white spot is the most distracting thing about him and is the entire focus.I dare say that unless he shaves off the beard soon, no one will even remember that he is the leader of the SDLP at all.Then again, I might be wrong and he is using reverse psychology to fix that white spot in our minds.