The last week has seen a number of problems with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Northern Ireland's moderate nationalist party that was opposed to the use of violence during The Troubles, largely of its own making. The Traditional Unionist Voice's sole Assembly member and leader Jim Allister proposed a bill to make it illegal for a party to appoint a special advisor who has a criminal record for an offense for which the penalty is five years or more in prison. This was in order to eliminate Mary McArdle, who was the sole person convicted in the murder of Mary Travers, the daughter of Northern Ireland judge, who was murdered during an attempt to murder the judge and his family after they left mass.
Sinn Fein wanted to file a motion of special concern against the bill, for which it needs 30 out of 108 MLAs. Sinn Fein has 29 MLAs, just one short of the total needed. But with all of the unionist parties supporting the bill, and with Alliance and the Green Party unwilling to side with Sinn Fein despite reservations about the bill, it looks like Sinn Fein will lose. But will it really lose? Since the start of The Troubles the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein--first as the publicity bureau of the IRA and then as its political wing--have been engaged in a process of ethnic outbidding as Duke University Law School Professor Donald Horowitz has labeled the process. The two each use the threat of the other to lure voters away from more moderate parties within their respective communities. For the nationalists the threat is seen as the return to the bad days of Stormont when the nationalists were second-class citizens discriminated against in employment, housing, and the franchise. For the unionists the threat is seen as both republican terrorism and a united Ireland in which they will be the minority. On the Northern Ireland/British isles blog Slugger O'Toole Sinn Fein supporters are already spinning this as discrimination against the nationalist community because it only applies to Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is already spinning it as such. No one enquires as to why the unionist parties do not appoint former terrorists as candidates or special advisors.
Ann Travers, the surviving sister of Mary Travers, has been an advocate of victims' rights and a natural candidate for Jim Allister because she is Catholic. When former Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, who was also deputy leader of the SDLP under John Hume, came out of retirement to criticize his party for doing something that would be so offensive to unionists his party did an about turn. Sinn Fein will not get its bill and, if this bill is applied retroactively, Ms. McArdle will simply be appointed to another position within the party and a new special advisor will share his or her salary with the party. But Sinn Fein will have another issue with which to attack their nationalist rivals whom they regard as collaborators with the British.
It is about time that the SDLP's leadership got together and decided on a strategy for the party based on its natural electoral base: traditional Catholics who follow the lead of the Church hierarchy, middle class professionals, and nationalist democrats who oppose a party with a fascist ideology serving as the ruling party in the province. It must decide how to bridge the contradictions among these groups and how to attract new supporters. If it does not the middle class nationalists will either drift away to Alliance, Sinn Fein, or their Protestant equivalents in the "garden center party" of non-voters.