The Social Democratic and Lobour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin are two major nationalist political parties in Northern Ireland. These two parties have had vastly different views regarding policy issues until the 1990s. They were extremely polarized on virtually every major issue. However, beyond the 1990s some have claimed that the policy agenda of Sinn Féin has become similar to the SDLP’s. Has Sinn Féin evolved into a party indistinguishable of the SDLP? Do any differences currently endure? In order to answer these questions, a history of the two parties must be discussed. This will provide any historical difference that is evident between the two parties. An analysis of the policy differences that occurred prior to the 1990s must also be exposed. After analyzing the two political parties it will be evident that prior to the 1990s there were distinguishable historical and policy differences. Also, it will be clear that beyond the 1990s those differences became less distinguishable, but some difference still remained.
II. History of the SDLP
The SDLP party was founded on August 21, 1970. The party grew as an advocate for civil rights after incidents such as the Belfast Curfew . The party was formed from members of various nationalist and socialist political parties such as: the Republican Labour Party, the National Democrats, and Northern Ireland Labour Party. The founder of the party was Gerry Fitt. Fitt had a history in politicking and would become the leader of this newly founded party.
The SDLP had a “radical programme of wealth distribution, civil rights, friendship between Catholic and Protestant and cross-border co-operation, leading to eventual unity.” The party also adopted the use of non-abstentionism ; it planned to represent its constituents at Stormont . The party hoped to gain Catholic and Protestant support by adopting these policies in its early years.
The party argued for a constitutional change to reconcile the problems created from partition with the consent of the North. The SDLP’s argument was made in 1972 through a policy document titled Towards A New Ireland. In this document, the SDLP declared:
It follows from all of this that Britain must not again attempt to impose a settlement on this country. The key to her role now lies in her making an immediate declaration that she believes that it would be in the best interests of all sections of the Communities in both Islands, if Ireland were to become united on terms which would be acceptable to all the people of Ireland. Such declaration should contain no hint of coercion but should make it abundantly clear that this is Britain’s view and it is the one that she will positively encourage. No one in Ireland has demanded that such a declaration be translated into immediate Irish Unity. There are too many problems inherent in its implementations which will take time to resolve and which will require the setting up of democratic machinery [agreed and consented by both the North and South] for their resolution. In the meantime an interim system of Government for Northern Ireland should be set up which is fair to all sections.
The SDLP firmly believed that Unionist consent was necessary for any future stance on the future of Ireland. By 1974, the SDLP was involved in a power sharing executive with Ulster Unionist. This was an attempt to put an end to the troublesome past by creating a situation where Unionist had to share power with Nationalist. This agreement emerged from the Sunningdale Conference held between December 6 and 9 in 1973. During the conference “the SDLP was promised a share in executive power, and the development of all-Ireland institutions.” In an effort to carryout these promises “the British and Irish governments … agreed to set up a Council of Ireland, with representatives from north and south to administer matters of common interest.” Sunningdale would not prove to be the last of the peace process: “There may have been some slender unionist support for, or at least resignation to, power-sharing. There was virtually none for a Council of Ireland.” In 1979, John Hume would become the new SDLP leader due to Fitt’s resignation “on the grounds that the party was becoming too nationalist.”
During the 1980s the SDLP would take a new approach in discussing ways to bring peace and stability to Ireland. John Hume was also fearful of the growing power of provisional Sinn Féin. To remedy these issues and to strengthen the party’s governmental position the New Ireland Forum was setup to take place at Dublin Castle. The result of this forum was a published report outlining three options: “a confederal Ireland, a united Ireland (unitary state), or joint sovereignty.” Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) during this time, completely dismissed the findings of the forum stating “that is out” after each proposal. The “out … out … out speech” severely damaged Anglo-Irish relations. This blunder would lead to another component of the peace process. That component was the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. This agreement gave the Irish government an advisory role in Northern Ireland’s government while confirming that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK unless a majority of its citizens agreed to join the Republic.
From the 1980s and beyond many of Hume’s ideas have been implemented into various aspects of the peace process. For his contributions to the peace process and advocacy for non-violence during that process he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
III. History of Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin was a party that traditionally advocated for the use of abstentionism. During Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis (annual party conference) in 1970 a vote was cast to end this traditional stance. Many members were against this decision. Some of these members, Sean McStiofain and Rauri Ó Brádaigh , walked out of the conference to form Provisional Sinn Féin and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). After the formation of Sinn Féin, the party did very little political organizing, they spoke on behalf of the PIRA, and they practiced abstentionism. These facts made it difficult for Sinn Féin to be viewed as anything more than the political sector for the PIRA in its early years.
Sinn Féin and the PIRA, the Provisional Republican Movement, believed that the British could be removed from Northern Ireland through the use of a PIRA military campaign :
the Provisional IRA’s strategy was to use as much force as possible to cause the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration and to inflict enough casualties on the British forces that the British government would be forced by public opinion to withdraw from Ireland.” A policy described by Sean MacStiofain as, “escalation, escalation and escalation”. This was modelled on the success of the Irish Republican Army in the Irish War of Independence 1919-1922 and was articulated in slogans such “Victory 1972”. However, this policy failed to take into account the strong unionist commitment to remain within the United Kingdom.
By the mid-1970s, the idea of a quick military victory leading to British withdrawal was fading. Secret meetings between leaders of the Provisional Republican Movement and the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Merlyn Rees, concluded with a PIRA ceasefire. The ceasefire was to be in effect from February 1975 until January of 1976. During that time, Rees was trying to bring the Provisional’s into peaceful politicking. Critics of the PIRA leadership felt that the ceasefire was disastrous for the PIRA since it led to many difficulties within the organization. The ceasefire broke down in January 1976.
One of the most prominent critics of the ceasefire, Gerry Adams, would become the Vice President of Sinn Féin in 1978. A new strategy termed the “long war” would be implemented under Adams guidance. This strategy involved the reorganization of the PIRA into small units, acceptance that their campaign would last for many years before being successful, and increased importance on political activity through Provisional Sinn Féin. The PIRA would carryout an armed campaign while Sinn Féin would carryout a propaganda campaign. They also would be the public and political voice of the Provisional Republican Movement. This strategy would move Sinn Féin towards an existence involved in full-time politicking.
In 1977, PIRA prisoners were stripped of their political status. In response, over five hundred prisoners refused to wash or wear prison clothes in an incident known as the Dirty Protest. The Dirty Protest evolved into the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. This strike involved seven PIRA members starving themselves to death in an effort to regain their political status. Also, there were work stoppages and large demonstrations all over Ireland in support of the hunger strikers. Bobby Sands was the first of the hunger strikers to die and over one-hundred thousand people attended his funeral. After the success of PIRA hunger strikers in mobilizing support and helping to win elections in 1981, Sinn Féin increasingly devoted its time and resources to electoral politics. This policy became known as the “Ballot Box in one hand and the Armalite in the other.” This was a strategy where elections were contested by Sinn Féin, while the PIRA continued to pursue a paramilitary action against the British army.
In the 1980s, the PIRA attempted to escalate the conflict. The attempted escalation did not prove to be successful; movement leaders increasingly looked for a political compromise to end the conflict. Gerry Adams entered talks with the SDLP leader, John Hume, and secret talks were also conducted with British officials. At this time Adams increasingly tried to promote separation between Sinn Féin and the PIRA. Within the Provisional Republican Movement, the new strategy was known as the tactical use of armed struggle. A strategy devoted to ending the reliance on the use of arms and placing Sinn Féin into a position devoted to full-time politicking. In 1986, the idea of full-time politicking would become a reality at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis when the vote to drop abstenionism was passed.
IV. Policy Differences between the SDLP and Sinn Féin Up Until the 1990s
A historical difference from the inception of the SDLP and Sinn Féin up until the 1990s is evident. It has become clear that the SDLP grew out of the civil rights movement, the policy of non-abstentionism, and devoted to bringing peace to Ireland. Also, it has become clear that Sinn Féin was born out of disagreement with Official Sinn Féin concerning the use of abstentionism. Sinn Féin went on to play a propaganda role in the PIRA’s campaign of violence devoted to withdrawal of the British by any means necessary.
Now policy differences must be exposed to continue analyzing the difference between the two political parties. The policy differences between the two parties center around five main issues: their focus, their views of Unionist, their views of Britain’s role in the conflict and its future role, their views regarding Unionist consent, and their positions on the use of violence.
The focus of the SDLP and Sinn Féin has been significantly different. The SDLP was focused on the concept of divided communities. The party believed that the most important thing was to reconcile the two communities in order to make progress. The SDLP has focused less on the idea of an Irish nation; “it focuses on people rather than territory; it speaks of a legacy of conflict which must be transcended…” However, Sinn Féin was focused on the concept of a divided island. The party believed that partition is the problem and if Northern Ireland and the Republic were made into one Irish nation progress will follow: “The party is dedicated to the achievement of a united Ireland.” For Sinn Féin the reconciliation of the divided communities will naturally occur once territorial partition is abolished.
The view of Unionist is another issue that differs between the two parties. The SDLP accepts Unionist as being British if Unionist viewed themselves as being British. The SDLP’s solution to political settlement in Northern Ireland is to recognize the divisions of national identity within the community. According to the SDLP, the division of identity cannot be ignored. The SDLP believes that until the differences in identity are recognized little can be done to mend the situation: “The Party has acknowledged the presence of an alternative Ulster-Protestant-British tradition on the island, endorsing a two-tradition, equal legitimacy approach. The primary objective is national reconciliation not liberation.” Sinn Féin’s approach to their view of Unionist is quite different. Sinn Féin views Unionist as Irish with their own set of peculiar traditions: “the position of Sinn Fein towards formal institutional recognition of the Ulster-Protestant identity [as British] has not shifted…There is to be none. Sinn Féin refuses to recognize the Unionist view of being British. According to Sinn Féin, Unionist are Irish and do not deserve recognition as British regardless of their beliefs.
Britain’s role in the conflict and its future role is another source of debate between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The SDLP blames Britain for the partition of the island and believes that they should stay to help reconcile the problems:
John Hume of the SDLP said that the British government should consider…in its search for a political solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland…an ‘agreed Ireland’ where the British government would declare that its objective was to bring the two main traditions in Ireland together in reconciliation and agreement.”
Sinn Féin is convinced that Britain has selfish reasons for remaining and should leave as soon as possible: “The only solution to the present political conflict in Ireland is the ending of partition, a British disengagement from Ireland and the restoration to the Irish people of their right to sovereignty, independence and national self-determination.”
Unionist consent is a highly contested issue between the two parties. The SDLP believes that Unionist consent is necessary for any constitutional change to take place regarding the status of Northern Ireland. This is considered a precursor for a united Ireland within the party. On the other side of the spectrum, Sinn Féin believes that reconciliation of partition and British withdrawal should be the priority. As a result of the success of that goal, Unionist consent will come naturally:
In effect, Sinn Fein’s historical view appeared to remain intact, namely that Unionist consent and allegiance would be a consequence of the creation of Irish unity [partition and withdrawal]. For the SDLP, such consent was a prerequisite for the establishment of a united Ireland.
The view on the issue regarding the use of violence was another policy difference between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The SDLP was opposed to the use of violence as a means to reconcile any of the problems within Northern Ireland. The SDLP states, “Throughout the course of the last thirty-five years, the SDLP has never deviated from its core values. We have always stood completely opposed to all violence, arguing that it was not only morally wrong but politically bankrupt as well because violence always destroys that which it claims to defend.” Sinn Féin was the political arm of the violent PIRA organization for much of its early existence. Sinn Féin was devoted to the creation of a united Ireland by any means necessary, including violence.
V. Modern History and Policy: The SDLP and Sinn Féin after the 1990s
In this section, a brief history of the SDLP and Sinn Féin starting in the 1990s is explored to show any historical difference in the modern era. After the current history has been discussed an analysis of any current policy differences that remain will be conducted.
During 1988 John Hume held a series of talks with Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin, in an attempt to convince Sinn Féin that the PIRA should end its campaign of violence. In 1993, the party supported the Downing Street Declaration . In 1996, the SDLP concentrated on multi-party talks that were being conducted. In April of 1998, these talks ended with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). In 2001, John Hume retired as leader of the party and was succeeded by Mark Durkan. As the new leader, Durkan had to deal with the growing electoral challenge by Sinn Féin, which became the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.
In 1993, Sinn Féin entered into renewed talks with the SDLP. After the announcement of a second PIRA ceasefire in 1997, Sinn Féin was allowed to participate in the multi-party talks leading to the GFA. Sinn Féin’s growing participation in the political process gave an increased electoral threat to the SDLP. In 2001, Sinn Féin became largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.
The policy changes from the 1990s to the present have led many to believe that Sinn Féin’s agenda is virtually the same as the SDLP. The main policy agenda of the SDLP has remained intact. However, Sinn Féin has implemented policy changes regarding their view of Unionist, Britain’s role in the conflict and its future role, and its position on the use of violence. These policy changes are virtually the same as the SDLP’s long-standing policies. Sinn Féin has traditionally viewed Unionist as Irish with peculiar traditions. This policy has shifted to an acceptance that there are two competing traditions on the island. Sinn Féin has even gone as far as to admit that Unionist have a distinct identity. The traditional view of Sinn Féin regarding Britain’s role in the conflict and its future role has been that Britain has had selfish reasons for remaining and should leave immediately. Sinn Féin’s “demands for immediate British withdrawal have been superseded by calls for ‘constructive disengagement’.” This is merely a restructuring of words. In the end, this policy matches the SDLP’s policy for Britain to help reconcile some of the problems before a complete withdrawal. Regarding the policy of the use of violence; Sinn Féin was born as the political wing of a violent organization. The party advocated for the use of violence as a means to an end for most of its existence. The party has slowly disengaged from its involvement with the PIRA over the years, but this policy has undergone an even greater shift: “This has also meant a greater separation of the political from the military, exemplified most startlingly in Adams’ assertion that ‘Sinn Féin is not the IRA. Sinn Féin is not involved in armed struggle. Sinn Féin does not advocate armed struggle.’” In the end, Sinn Féin has managed not to change their position on Unionist consent. To Sinn Féin this remains to be the consequence of a change rather than a prerequisite:
In arguing that the consent and allegiance of Unionists were ‘essential ingredients for a lasting peace’ Sinn Féin was not stipulating that Unionist consent was a precursor for the exercise of self-determination. Rather, Sinn Féin was in effect acknowledging that the result of the exercise of self- determination, presumably a unitary Irish state, could only be successful once it enjoyed the allegiance of unionists.
The current leader of the SDLP, Durkan, stated it best when he said: “…that anyone wanting to gaze into a crystal ball to predict future Sinn Féin policy, only need look at the present SDLP policy to see what it is going to be.
Up until the 1990s there were many historical and policy differences between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The SDLP was born out of the civil rights movement while Sinn Féin grew out of a campaign of violence. The two parties were polarized on many policy issues including their focus, view of Unionist, Britain’s role in the conflict and its future role, Unionist consent, and the use of violence. After the 1990s the historical differences began to fade as the two parties participated in many of the same milestones. The polarization on policy issues also became virtually nonexistent; the only exception being the issue of Unionist consent. What is the difference between the SDLP and Sinn Féin? The answer to this question has become clear. Up until the 1990s the differences between the two parties were huge, ranging from historical to policy differences. After the 1990s, the two parties have become virtually indistinguishable from a modern historical and policy perspective.
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Photo by Sean MacEntee