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The gospel according to John.

THE LATE JOHN WHYTE once commented that in proportion to its size, Northern Ireland is quite possibly the most heavily researched area on earth. Given the extensive literature on the Troubles, it is surprising that there is so little dedicated to a party that was the main voice for Northern nationalism for over thirty years and at one point held almost 22 per cent of the overall vote in Northern Ireland. Sean Farren's book on the SDLP is certainly filling a gap in the literature. It is not surprising that the SDLP (particularly when it has lost out electorally to Sinn Fein in the last decade) would use the opportunity of the fortieth anniversary of its foundation to highlight the central role that the party played in the Good Friday Agreement and in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.



DUBLIN: FOUR COURTS PRESS. 2010. 39.95 [euro].

Farren's history of the SDLP rivals Ian McAllister's book, The Northern Ireland Social Democratic and Labour Party: political opposition in a divided society (London, 1977), in terms of research and access to party archives. While McAllister's account ends in 1977, Farren brings the story up to the beginning of the current century. No other historian has had such unrivaled access to SDLP archival material over such a time-scale and Farren's research is meticulous. Just as thorough and fastidious is his research of available Irish and British government archives. Thus, the book will be invaluable to anyone studying Northern nationalism or the history of the Troubles.

Most accounts of the SDLP are written as comparative history (often contrasting the SDLP and Sinn Fein) or approach the subject in the form of autobiographies or biographies of leading party figures. Himself a member of the party, Farren offers us a valuable insider's account of the SDLP's development.

This can, however, pose problems about the objectivity of the research. Farren has an obvious agenda--to highlight the successes and downplay the failures of the SDLP. While he does not analyze the party's reaction to internment in 1971 too deeply, including the decision to create a "green" alternative assembly of the Northern Ireland people and the Rent and Rates strike and what this meant in later years for the party, he does probe the decision, which impaled the party on a hook, to refuse talks until internment ceased. Farren's thorough research is at its best when discussing the delicate issue of internment and its implications for members at all party levels.

However, there are areas and topics that Farren neglects to discuss as a party insider, where such a perspective would clarify the position of the SDLP on certain issues; the party's apparent knowledge and support of Operation Motorman in 1972 is a case in point. SDLP records hint at this during a meeting with William Whitelaw, a week after the operation, when the secretary of state for Northern Ireland acknowledged the party's help. During the meeting, Ivan Cooper suggested "that the Bogside operation could never have been achieved without SDLP help" and John Hume argued that "in supporting Motorman we had given Whitelaw a blank cheque." A nuanced insider's perspective would have been fascinating, but Farren fails to provide this or offer any analysis of Operation Motorman. Likewise, it would have been intriguing to learn of the often publicly hidden but well known personal tensions within the party, such as those between Hume and Gerry Fitt, and, later, Hume and Seamus Mallon. Farren has opted not to delve into this sensitive area.

The book, as the dust jacket conveys, is Hume-centric--the gospel according to John. This now almost obligatory in considerations of the SDLP; the notable exception to this is McAllister's treatment. Farren's admiration of Hume, and his role in shaping SDLP policy and identity, is obvious, but the emphasis on Hume unfortunately obscures the role played by Fitt and Paddy Devlin. Farren's assessment of their contribution to the party is fair, bur be fails to analyze SDLP's assessment of why they are currently in the electoral doldrums.

The book is divided into four parts, with approximately five chapters in each section. The division is predictable for those familiar with the history of Northern Ireland. The first, titled "Years of Hope," takes us from the party's inception to 1976 and offers a unique insight to the Sunningdale agreement and its failure. Farren does not refrain from analyzing Farren focuses on the party's reaction to the hunger strikes of 1981 and to Sinn Fein's electoral debut. He also considers the impact of the decision not to contest elections in Fermanagh-South Tyrone and Mid-Ulster lest it split the nationalist vote. The New Ireland Forum and the Anglo-Irish Agreement are considered but not how some of Hume's comments and policies could be read as a misunderstanding of Unionism.

The third section, titled "Hopes dashed, hopes renewed," covers the years 1986 to 1994. This is arguably the part of most

interest to those with a general curiosity about the SDLP. Those expecting an analysis first of whether by talking to Gerry Adams and bringing him in from the political cold, Hume put country before party, and second what this meant for SDLP support, will be disappointed. Farren does not directly address these issues. His approach is indirect suggesting that, initially at least, the SDLP actually benefitted electorally from the policy as well as gaining support in America and Dublin.

The final section of the book, "Hopes realized," continues the story from 1995 to 2000, concluding with the Good Friday Agreement and its aftermath. This section highlights the SDLP's dedication and continuous struggle to bring a lasting settlement to the Northern Ireland question. It is no small irony that the SDLP did not benefit electorally from the culmination of what the party had been espousing for thirty years.

There is no fifth section of the book chronicling the past decade when the SDLP was overshadowed and electorally surpassed by Sinn Fein. Given that the book is published on the fortieth anniversary of the party, it is surprising that Farren decided to stop at thirty years, instead of forty. But the author is not blind to the decline in support for the SDLP. In fact it is something that is referred to and commented on in the book from section three onwards. In a short epilogue, Farren notes that the decline of the last decade had many contributory factors, including the "departure from public life of two of the giants of Irish politics, John Hume and Seamus Mallon, together with several others who had served in the leadership of party from its early years." In this he includes himself. The story of the decline of the SDLP awaits another study. Without question, the SDLP faces a challenging future. Farren hopes that by portraying the SDLP's unswerving commitment to democracy his study will encourage and inspire another generation of party activists. Such aspirations aside, The SDLP: The Struggle for Agreement in Northern Ireland is an invaluable source for historians and political scientists interested in the recent history of Northern Ireland.

--University College Dublin
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Title Annotation:The SDLP: The Struggle for Agreement in Northern Ireland, 1970-2000
Author:Campbell, Sarah
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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