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Peter Hadden

Fitt resigns

SDLP has never resembled a socialist party

(December 1979)

From The Militant [London], No. 483, 14 December 1979.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

“The SDLP has become a middle class, nationalist party”

In this way Gerry Fitt, MP for West Belfast and the leader of the SDLP since 1970, has explained his decision to resign both from his position as leader and from the party.

Fitt has said that his conscience as a “socialist” will no longer permit him to remain in a sectarian, nationalist party. He implies that the character of the SDLP has changed in recent months, and that it has been taken over by green Tories.

It is quite true that the leadership and the conference of the SDLP has become more openly dominated by right-wing nationalists. But it is completely untrue to infer that this represents some fundamental change in the character and appeal of this party.

From its inception, the SDLP has been a sectarian party of the Catholic middle class. Not for a moment has it resembled a socialist party. Formed in 1970, it brought together politicians from various backgrounds who enjoyed support among the Catholic community.

Fitt came from his own Republican Labour Party. Paddy Devlin joined from the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Aside from these two, with their quasi-Labour backgrounds, most of the other SDLP leaders came from a background of nationalist politics.

From the very moment of its birth the appeal of the SDLP has been purely sectarian. Under the proportional representation electoral system it decided the number of its candidates from each constituency on the basis of the number of Catholics living there. In the last General Election, its chief argument to persuade Catholics to vote was that if the people of the “anti-unionist” (i.e. Catholic) areas, who had abstained in previous elections, were to vote, more “anti-unionist” (i.e. SDLP) candidates would be returned.

Despite its title the SDLP has never borne the slightest resemblance to a Labour Party. It was and is a Catholic party, sectarian in outlook, composition and appeal, which added the words “Labour Party” to its title only in order to hold the support of the catholic working class and to prevent them moving in the direction of class unity and socialist policies.

The presence in the SDLP of individuals like Paddy Devlin, and to a certain extent, Gerry Fitt, with their past Labour associations, allowed that party to parade among members of the British and Irish Labour Parties as a Labour Party in Northern Ireland. The resignation of Paddy Devlin a little over a year ago severely damaged this pretence.

Fitt’s departure must end it once and for all. Many Labour Party members in Britain confused his acceptance of the Labour Whip at Westminster with an indication of the class allegiance of his party. Fitt himself has cleared up this conclusion.

Fitt has announced that he now prefers the title “Gerry Fitt, Socialist, West Belfast”. But his ten years in the SDLP and his past positions have coloured him as a Catholic representative, not as a socialist, in the eyes of most workers.

Fitt will not build a united party of the working class. But his resignation confirms beyond all argument that no such party now exists. Yet the need for a Labour Party could not be more evident.

A report just issued by the Supplementary Benefits Commission has just revealed in statistical form what workers in Northern Ireland have long known from their experience, that N.I. is the most poverty ridden area of Western Europe.

Add to these facts the miseries inflicted by sectarianism and by military repression and the terrible plight of working class families can be appreciated.

Fitt chose the non-participation of the SDLP in the latest government “initiative”, the conference called by the secretary of state, Atkins, as the immediate reason for his resignation from the SDLP. Yet the workers of Northern Ireland stand to benefit in no way from the policies and “initiatives” of the Tories. This government’s solution to the N.I. problem is one of cuts in public spending, falling living standards and rising unemployment, all spiced with repression from the army.

What is required, and this is simply underlined by Fitt’s resignation and exposure of the SDLP, is not an “initiative” from the Tories, but an initiative from the labour movement.

Only the workers organisations can show a way forward in N.I. Instead of a conference of discredited, bigoted, middle-class political parties, there should be a rank-and-file conference of the labour movement to work out a socialist solution.

Such a conference could set about the creation of a genuine Labour Party in N.I. This alone could resolve the political deadlock and overcome sectarianism by bonding Catholic and Protestant workers in political unity.

In particular, those in the British Labour Party and also in the Irish Labour Party who were taken in by the SDLP’s past “Labour” masquerade must now work for such a workers’ initiative and a socialist solution.

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