Alasdair McDonnell attends the funeral of Gerry Conlon. Photo:Getty
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Why has Northern Ireland's "nice party" gone to war?

A continuing squeeze from both sides and an underwhelming leader all add up to a party in crisis.

A fringe party tearing itself apart. Open dissent about a leader who is thought to be past his best. A lack of cohesion about where they go next.

Not Ukip, but the SDLP. That’s the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s moderate nationalist party, where there is growing frustration about the performance of its lacklustre leader, Alasdair McDonnell.

He plans to step down from the Northern Ireland Assembly to focus on leading the party from Westminster instead. This may have been with the intention of wielding influence in a tight House of Commons, but it sends an odd message a year out from assembly elections. It’s the equivalent of the next Labour leader choosing to sit in the European Parliament instead of the House of Commons.

But there appears to be a deeper problem. The underwhelming McDonnell, a former GP, has a dose of Milibanditis. He was “a real issue” on the doorstep during the recent general election, at least according to the party’s former leader, Mark Durkan. Another ex-leader, former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, has called for him to go "as soon as possible".

McDonnell himself says that he’s not going to "run away from a task half done," although the threat of removal at the party’s November conference looms. For now, he has secured watery support from his executive committee:

The executive endorses the strategic direction and development of the party under the leadership of Alasdair McDonnell and will continue to support him in that regard."

This row is unexpected. On any measure, the SDLP are the nice guys of Northern Irish politics, coming out of the civil rights struggle back in 1970. The party was, for decades, at the forefront of attempts to provide genuine cross-community power-sharing with recalcitrant unionists who didn’t want to include Catholics in the affairs of their sectarian state and equally truculent republicans who saw no other viable path to militarism.

Party leader for much of its history, John Hume, was a tireless pursuer of peace. More than anyone else, he was responsible for convincing republicans that there was greater merit in politics than war. Without Hume, there would be no peace process. His reward for coaxing Sinn Fein into becoming fully involved in politics and giving up the armed struggle earned him a much-deserved Nobel Prize.

His party has not been so fortunate. Quickly eclipsed by the better-organised and better-financed Shinners, the SDLP has struggled under a series of leaders to define a role for itself. It still has a constituency, picking up support from middle-class Catholics who blanch at the prospect of voting Sinn Fein, but it is reduced to bit-part status in Northern Ireland’s power politics, which are carved up by Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

There is no shortage of resentment about playing second fiddle and some of this blow-up over McDonnell’s leadership stems from the frustration of marginalisation. Alas, the SDLP’s immediate future is no rosier than its immediate past. Whether they rate their leader, or not.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle