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Peter Hadden

Split in anti-Unionist camp shows need

For a New Party of Labour

(October 1977)

From Militant [UK], No. 376, 7 October 1977.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Two recent events have disrupted the political camp of the so-called “anti-Unionism” in Northern Ireland.

Arising from the morass of right-wing nationalism has come a new party which calls itself the “Unity Party”. “Unity” in this context, however, means but another form of sectarian division. It means the merging of all the forces of right-wing nationalism behind its narrow, sectarian banner.

At the same time, the main “Catholic” Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, have suffered a severe blow. One of its leading spokesmen and founding member, Paddy Devlin, recently chose to resign from his leading positions within the party and was subsequently expelled. He has accused the SDLP of becoming a new version of the nationalist party and of forgetting about the bread and butter issues.

These events show the strains which are being felt within these “minority” parties. The SDLP was formed in 1970 from a merger of all strands of “non-unionist” opinion. It attempted to combine all the aspirations of the Catholic population. Right-wing nationalists, middle class “moderates” and a few individuals with a background in the labour movement joined its ranks. A purely sectarian appeal – and the fact that this appeal translated itself into votes and therefore positions – held the party together.

But in the recent period, the glue which held together these different trends has begun to lose its effect. Because of the lack of any political administration, the party has nothing to offer the numerous political careerists who pushed themselves forward through it. Now the political patterns of the period before the Troubles are re-emerging.

From the inception of the Northern Ireland State right up until 1970, the opposition to Unionism never managed to weld itself into one organisation. A Party representing “nationalism” never emerged as a force comparable in stability to the Unionist Party. The reason is simple, Catholics opposed Unionism, but often for diametrically opposed reasons.

Some held aloft the misty concept of a united capitalist Ireland where all interests would be submerged under the green flag. But for the Catholic working class, the opposition to the Craigavon’s, Brookeborough’s, the capitalist magnates of Unionism, stemmed from more than pure and simple nationalism. It was also opposition to poverty and unemployment.

Within the main Catholic working class areas of Belfast have more strong socialist tradition. This was particularly so in Belfast. While leading nationalists like Eddie McAter in Derry were capable of drawing support for their green version of the capitalist policies being pursued by the NI state, the titles of the parties which gained support in the Catholic working class areas of Belfast have been more often contained the word “Labour”: for example Eire Labour, Anti-partionist Labour, Republican Labour, among others. Most significantly, the Northern Ireland Labour Party, especially in the 1960s, was able to gain a huge support in Belfast and elsewhere.


In 1970 these divergent and contradictory traditions were swallowed by the SDLP. It was to be conservative to the conservative sections of the Catholic population and “Labour” or “socialist” when trying to build its influence in the working-class areas. The pretence has now worn very thin.

As in the pre-1970 days, a nationalist grouping of sorts has emerged in the form of the “Unity” party. At the head of this group are people who were prominent in the old nationalist party, the McAteers and others of that ilk. Its strength is in the west of the province, in the rural areas, traditionally strongholds of right wing republicanism.

Meanwhile, within the body of the SDLP, the right wing ideas which always have held sway in that Party have been completely dominant. Most of its leading figures supported and worked for the Fianna Fail Party in the Southern General Election. Recent party statements have concentrated on the “Irish Dimension”. This, in part, explains Paddy Devlin’s public disassociation from these policies.

However, Paddy Devlin’s resignation revealed much more than this. He has been in the SDLP since its formation. He now says that Austin Currie, John Hume, Ivan Copper are not socialists! But this has been the case for seven years.

True, the SDLP may have moved marginally to the right in recent months. But fundamentally its outlook and composition are the same as at its formation. It is not changes in the SDLP, but changes in the general situation which have compelled Paddy Devlin to change his position. He had mentioned that social and economic issues have been neglected by the SDLP leadership, that the working class were capable of breaking the UUAC stoppage, that the workers “may have to create an instrument of their own to change society.”

Workers’ Party

In other words, there now exists the potential for the unity of the working people! He has sensed the tremors within the labour movement which indicate the gathering of forces to build a political party of the working class.

Despite his past waverings, Paddy Devlin’s disaffection from the SDLP is an indication of the potential of the labour movement in Northern Ireland. On both sides of the sectarian divide, the major political parties are largely discredited. The low poll in the recent local government elections revealed the vacuum that exists. At the same time, within the trade union movement a wave of opposition to cuts in living standards is developing. Already a rash of strikes has taken place on the issue of wages, with demands and even settlements of 20%, 25%, or more, being common.

These developments make it essential that the trade union movement in Northern Ireland brushes off its non-political stand and seriously begins the task of creating a broadly-based Labour Party to serve the interests of working people. A conference of Labour should be called to thrash out ways and means by which a new Labour Party would be built and to hammer out a socialist programme on which it could fight.

If individuals like Paddy Devlin wish to assist in this task, they should totally turn their backs on such organisations as the SDLP and use their influence to push the trade unions into action. This has been the role of the Labour and Trade Union Co-ordinating Group in the recent period. All those who want to see a workers’ party being formed should give support to the fight the Co-ordinating Committee has been, and is, conducting.

British Labour Party

From another point of view, the resignation of Paddy Devlin should have rapidly disillusioned those in the British labour movement who still clung to the notion that the SDLP was in any shape or form a Labour Party.

Unfortunately, at the present time there is no mass Labour Party in Northern Ireland. There are parties which claim to be Labour but which have succumbed to sectarianism. The British Labour Party can assist in rectifying this situation, not by supporting discredited parties such as the SDLP or the pan-Protestant Northern Ireland Labour Party, but by giving every assistance to those in Northern Ireland who are fighting to create a genuine party of Labour. By pressing the unions to intervene politically and by making adequate resources available to a new Labour Organisation, the British Labour Party could enormously speed up developments.

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Last updated: 17 February 2020