Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023

Ronan Farren: 'SDLP cosying up to Fianna Fáil is a betrayal of Hume's legacy'

In the worst of times and the most appalling circumstances, John Hume redefined the centuries-old relationship between Ireland and Britain. Rather than viewing it through territory, lines on a map, or headcount he focused on relationships, cultures and traditions.

He developed a political vision and philosophy that ultimately found expression in the Good Friday Agreement.

This week the current leadership of the party Hume helped found, led for more than 20 years, and through which he articulated much of that vision – the SDLP – is announcing a political realignment through a ‘partnership’ with Fianna Fáil. At such time it is worth considering the appeal of Hume’s legacy, why other parties would wish to inherit it, and why cosying up to one party over any other is a betrayal of a key consensus in our politics that Hume painstakingly built up.

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Hume’s story and achievements need little recounting. From community activism in establishing the credit unions in Derry, to leadership in the civil rights campaigns, to confronting the sectarian unionist state in Northern Ireland, to implacable opposition to violent republicanism, Hume stood up for democracy, constitutionalism and peace throughout the Troubles and beyond.

The scale of his achievement is recognised and lauded at home and abroad. His place in Irish political history sits alongside that of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, while internationally he is compared with Gandhi or his own great hero, Martin Luther King Jnr.

But a key part of his political strategy was to unite political parties in the south behind it. He deliberately, carefully and skilfully rose above the differences that define Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party to build an important consensus that largely endures to this day.

It is easy to forget the scale of this achievement. For most of the 20th century, political alignments in the south were defined by schisms and cleavages that emerged at the founding of the State. But following the outbreak of the Troubles, the main parties united behind and supported Hume’s diagnosis of and remedy for the conflict.

Such was Hume’s success that his approach has now become political orthodoxy. All parties support the Good Friday Agreement that is his crowning achievement. But they don’t own him or his legacy. Yet the current debate about realignment brings that issue to the fore.

It is easy to see why Fianna Fáil now wishes to position itself as the inheritor of Hume’s legacy in its flirtation with the SDLP. It wants to claim him as one of its own. Largely this is being done for political purposes to allow it to draw a direct thread between Hume and its own leaders. We risk waking up some day in a few years time to find it claiming that Hume was a Fianna Fáil leader all along. And this is largely electorally driven – to allow it to claim at election time that its type of nationalism trumps anyone else’s.

But some political issues matter more than the next election. And some legacies need to be carefully cherished, managed and maintained.

Presently, Northern Ireland faces its biggest political crisis since before the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit, Sinn Féin’s departure from the Executive and the subsequent suspension of the Assembly, combined with the DUP’s partisan approach have brought us to this point.

There is a strong argument that in this context John Hume’s unstinting pro-European and solidly social democratic politics have never been more relevant for Northern Ireland. Yet it is precisely at this time that the current SDLP leaders are positioning themselves to line up behind Fianna Fáil over any other party and shatter a key consensus that Hume sought to create.

If there is an argument for the SDLP to realign then let’s hear the party leadership outline the rationale for it. How are they going to protect and maintain Hume’s legacy? Why choose one party over another to do so? What is so compelling now to change the approach Hume set out?

The argument that there has been a fundamental change in the politics of Northern Ireland and that new dynamics are required to move things along may have some merit. More than any other party, the SDLP has sought for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement as the best way forward for the North, for the island, and for Britain and Ireland together.

It has stood up for victims, sought alliances with unionism, and delivered change in its communities for the people it represents. Yet, this has come with little reward. The ambivalence of other parties towards the agreement in preference for political gains, and governments either unwilling or unable to fully fulfil their roles as its guardians, has now left the SDLP looking to other parties to help it force further change.

But if that is the route it wishes to go down then the more honourable outcome is to dissolve with dignity intact. Members and representatives could go their own way and new alliances would emerge, with everyone proud of Hume’s and the SDLP’s achievements. His legacy could belong to all Irish people and all parties in the south. They made their own significant contributions to the peace we enjoy today and could justifiably and deservedly claim a piece of it as their own. This would be a slightly more respectable outcome than hitching a piggy-back from the only party currently offering a ride.

Over the years the SDLP has had many friends in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party. From time to time friends fight and fall out. And at other times you may be a bit closer to one friend than you are another. But in the current messy tangle of media reports, today’s SDLP leaders risk going from being everyone’s best friend to having no friends at all.

John Hume’s message was a simple one about people, relationships and reconciliation. But the respect he earned, the friends he gained and the peace he delivered was hard won. His legacy is the SDLP’s greatest asset. Its current leaders must not betray it to those who want to use it for their own ends.

  • Ronan Farren is former chair of SDLP Dublin Group, and former Labour Party press officer and adviser

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