ELECTION: Analysis on Nationalism: Goggle Yer Google, SF

Article excerpt

Byline: CIARAN McKEOWN Political Correspondent

SINN Fein may now feel that things are going so well that it need not change anything. In terms of winning elections, that may be the case: in terms of winning the peace, the party faces greater challenges than ever.

But it is the SDLP which really has to get back to basics, on two fundamental fronts - purpose and organisation.

The party showed considerable technical skill and energy and Mark Durkan faces no threat to his leadership. But the powerful connection which John Hume represented with the roots no longer operates and that needs to be examined.

During the election, Mr Durkan and his colleagues kept insisting on being 100 per cent for the Agreement and 100 per cent for a ''united Ireland''.

They presented themselves as ''nationalists'', in other words. Have they all forgotten that John Hume came to prominence by, among other things, taking on the old Nationalist Party?

Riding the growing tide of centre-left social democratic politics throughout Europe, Messrs Hume, Mallon and McGrady moved to form the Social Democratic Party but were easily persuaded by Northern Ireland Labour Party chairman Paddy Devlin and Repub- lican Labour Party leader Gerry Fitt to add the word 'Labour', to give the SDLP its title.

The entire movement was also rooted in the nonviolence symbolised by Martin Luther King junior: so here we had a leadership which saw itself as ''post-nationalist'', utterly constitutional and passionately committed to justice by nonviolent means.

When the movement crystallised into the SDLP, however, its ''post-nationalism'' became progressively irrelevant, once the fateful decision was made to base the party on the old nationalist constituencies.

Now, in 2003, it has gone to the polls with a very explicit nationalistic pitch, trying, as it were, to ''out-green'' Sinn Fein. It is a nonsense which fools no one: if nationalism is the most important thing in someone's life, then Sinn Fein - provided it continues to demilitarise - is the place to be.

The SDLP, for many years, was able, under its first-class leadership, gently and subtly, to sublimate any residual ''fourth-green-field'' sentiment in favour of being a mature, modern Euro-style social democratic party.

By inverting these priorities, it has potentially rendered itself vulnerable to even further decline, in spite of the recruitment of some very bright young people.

Moreover, if it wishes to be seen as having political backbone by standing up to reactionary forces, its principal target should really be the republicans whom it may justifiably accuse of not having the backbone to demilitarise completely. …