Over on Slugger, Mick Fealty makes the point that the “SpAds Bill” showed up the SDLP’s tendency to put technicality before broader (moral) principle. It fell to some of the older guard, more than a decade removed from frontline politics, to focus on the principle. Mick explains:
Someone on McDonnell’s front bench was trying to be just a little too clever with a piece legislation that turned out to have a very powerful (and for the SDLP, a very nasty) emotional edge to it.
For all that, the SDLP is far from the only Assembly party which could fall victim of this – the Alliance Party fell victim to it over the most recent same-sex marriage motion, and the Ulster Unionists on countless issues ranging from flags to welfare reform.
For all that, this is not so much about morals and principles as about a clear sense of place and, particularly, a clear historical narrative. What the SpAds bill and others have demonstrated is that the DUP and Sinn Fein are reasonably clear about their historical narrative. Both are outrageously hypocritical, frankly, but clear nonetheless. None of the other three Executive parties can demonstrate such clarity.
For the DUP, Northern Ireland is the Ulster-British State saved from becoming Irish, run well by Unionists for half a century, plagued by a SF/IRA terror campaign, which ended only once the DUP got a “Fair Deal” in 2006-7. For SF, Northern Ireland is a gerrymandered failure, run effectively under Apartheid for half a century, which resulted in an inevitable war, in which its IRA comrades heroically fought against the British Army to secure power-shared, an all-island dimension, and the potential of a United Ireland in an Agreement which ended the War (and saw their heroes let out of prison). These historical narratives have the benefit of being both convenient to large segments of the population, and simple (and actually simplistic) so that they can be widely adopted – to the extent, and herein lies their fundamental problem, that their main rivals (the UUP and SDLP) have effectively also adopted them.
The problem is the Ulster Unionists should not meekly accept the DUP narrative when in fact they secured the basic deal in 1998; and even more obviously, the SDLP should not meekly accept that the IRA campaign was inevitable (nay justified, nay heroic).
On the SpAds Bill, the key issue was the SF narrative, and particularly the issue of prisoner releases. SF likes to pretend what happened in 1998 was tantamount to an amnesty – but it very clearly was not. Prisoners were in fact released on licence, without even immunity far less an amnesty – an amnesty, whereby a crime is viewed differently (to the extent, usually, that it is retrospectively deemed not a crime) is distinct from immunity, whereby someone may admit to crimes but not face prosecution. SF likes to talk in terms of an amnesty as it fits its world view that what happened between 1969-94 was a “war” – but again, it very clearly was not. All these terms are clearly defined, and SF is on the wrong side of the definition. The problem is, by endorsing campaigns such as that for the release of Gerry McGeough (whose licence was revoked entirely in line with the 1998 Agreement) right up to Leadership level, the SDLP has bought into the SF historical narrative. The whole point of the SDLP from the outset was to suggest and promote an entirely peaceful means of attaining change and that violence was neither inevitable nor necessary; so, if it buys into the SF narrative (that essentially an IRA campaign was inevitable and justified and part of a war which resulted in an amnesty) it totally removes its own raison-d’etre.
It took Seamus Mallon and Brid Rodgers to remind their party of what their raison-d’etre is. It, alongside Alliance in this case, has to stand up full squarely against SF’s re-writing of history and against SF’s historical narrative. The SDLP (and Alliance, in this case) have to demonstrate the utter fallacy of SF’s assumption that the IRA campaign was inevitable and justifiable, not only because it wasn’t, but also because if they fail to demonstrate this fallacy then in fact their own commitment to peace and non-violence becomes the “historical mistake”!
This is more serious, however, than the survival of two old political parties. SF’s historical narrative – which promotes the interests of prisoners over innocent victims, which promotes the notion of amnesty over reconciliation, which promotes a notion that violence was necessary to progress when in fact peace was necessary to progress – is seriously, seriously flawed to the extent that if no one stands up and demonstrates how flawed it is, it is bound to be repeated by “dissidents” at the cost of many more lives.
The SDLP and indeed the Alliance Party and others have a job to do. They have demonstrated on occasions that they can do it – not least the Alliance Party in City Hall in December. If they want or need a bit of extra courage, they should ask to borrow some from Ann Travers.