CAIN Web Service

'Shifting, complex and ambiguous - Political Allegiance' by Fionnuala O Connor

[Key_Events] [KEY_ISSUES] [Conflict_Background]
POLITICS: [Menu] [Reading] [Articles] [Government] [Political_Initiatives] [Political_Solutions] [Parties] [Elections] [Polls] [Sources] [Peace_Process]

Text: Fionnuala O Connor... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Fionnuala O Connor, with the permission of the publishers, The Blackstaff Press Limited. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

large image of front cover This chapter is taken from the book:

Catholics in Northern Ireland
by Fionnuala O Connor (1993)

ISBN 0 85640 509 4 (Paperback) 393pp £8.95

Published by:

Blackstaff Press
Blackstaff House
Wildflower Way
Apollo Road
BT12 6TA

T: 028 9066 8074
F: 028 9066 8207

This publication is copyright Fionnuala O Connor and is included on the CAIN site by permission of The Blackstaff Press Limited and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without express written permission. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

From the Back Cover:

'Sense of identity is one of those ideas that people think they'll be embarrassed to talk about with a stranger, until they start...'

How do Catholics in Northern Ireland see themselves?
Do they still believe they are trapped in an 'alien state'?
While northern nationalists were once regarded as 'politically helpless, hopeless and cynical', many Catholics are now part of the political and economic mainstream - what are the consequences in terms of personal confusion and painful family and class divisions? The polls suggest that one in three Catholic voters support Sinn Féin and the IRA, two in three oppose their methods. But behind these stark figures lies a world of complexity and subtle difference.

In Search of a State is a challenging examination of the intricate reality concealed by tags like 'northern nationalist' and 'northern Catholic'. In an intensive series of interviews with Catholics from every walk of life, leading political journalist Fionnuala O Connor explores their feelings and attitudes to their own community, to northern Protestants, to Britain, the Republic of Ireland, the Catholic Church, and the IRA's campaign. Through their voices, she conveys dramatically different experiences and reads the pulse of a dynamic community living through a time of overwhelming social change.

In Search of a State
Catholics in Northern Ireland

Fionnuala O Connor


1 'I remember . . .'
2'Two very different lifestyles'
3 'Shifting, complex and ambiguous'
4 'I don't want them to be bad guys'
5 'Benign apartheid'
6 'If we could trust them . . .'
7 'I don't like their attitudes'
8 'Contact with hearts and minds'
9 'No going back'

Chapter 3

'Shifting, complex and ambiguous'

Chapter Sub-headings:

Whose Nationalism? What Nationalism?
West Belfast
'The Country'
Sinn Féin and the IRA
Gerry Adams

In the face of a united unionism that controlled the Northern Ireland state, nationalism before the Troubles was above all disorganised, and Northern Catholics were by and large politically helpless, hopeless and cynical. One man remembers the politicians of his youth 'whingeing on the sidelines', their policy no more than wishing the state away. Now it is unionism that is fragmented and demoralised, while Catholics, although still divided, increasingly show a confidence many Protestants struggle to come to terms with, and which the old Nationalists would scarcely believe. For some it comes from a belief that they have made clear their disaffection from the Northern Ireland state so violently through the IRA, that they can never be ignored again. 'The Croppies won't ever lie down now,' Sinn Féin president GERRY ADAMS says, invoking rebels of two hundred years ago - derided in a contemporary loyalist song - to suggest the unchanged defiance of republicans. For others, represented by the SDLP, confidence is born of an altogether modern satisfaction at the new status they or their children enjoy or have a chance to enjoy, and the conviction that their political leadership will build on this. 'We're not going back to their wee Northern Ireland,' a delegate told the SDLP annual conference in 1992 to delighted applause.

Self-assertiveness does not always mean a clear-cut and conscious sense of political allegiance. There are many non-voters who are either too cynical about all the existing parties to give them support or who believe party politics has no answer to Northern problems. But otherwise the pattern of Northern Catholic voting throughout the Troubles is clear. Apart from a period when the Alliance Party looked attractive to middle-class Catholics, votes for unionist or left-wing parties have been insignificant. Since there has been a choice, a steady two out of three Catholic voters have chosen the SDLP, one out of three Sinn Féin. The SDLP originally brought in people involved in the civil rights movement and inherited voters from the old Nationalist Party; Sinn Féin attracted those who habitually opposed any participation in the Northern Ireland state and withheld their support from the Nationalists, as well as a younger generation shaped by the Troubles. The divide, however, is far from exact, and masks the unhappiness of those who think that in effect they have no choice, and the reservations and even unease many feel about the political parties their votes support. DANNY MORRISON, in jail since 1990 but formerly Sinn Féin's director of publicity, says republicans are well aware of this. 'Support can't always be taken for granted. Some agnostic Catholics who are working-class and unemployed, who have experienced Brit harassment and suffered perhaps even the violent death of a loved one, will still have a moral problem with the armed struggle; whilst some middle-class SDLP supporters I know were severely disappointed that the IRA missed Thatcher at Brighton, and were quite emotional and angry about the hunger strike. And when John Hume (as sometimes he does) meets a British government minister head-on and genuinely stands his ground - the tendency I think would be for republicans to privately applaud him.'

As a teenager in south Derry MICHAEL FARRELL remembers thinking of the whole Northern nationalist community as 'lacking in self-respect, desperately looking for the South to rescue them', a judgement John Hume and Gerry Adams would second. A quarter of a century into the Troubles, self-respect still dictates many political allegiances - and, in essence, that now means a determination that the state of Northern Ireland must change to reflect two identities, Irish as well as British. As Northern Catholics have become more confident about expressing a sense of Irish identity, forms of politics that ignore or downplay that conviction have steadily become more and more irrelevant.

The Alliance Party was an early victim. OLIVER NAPIER is fifty-eight, knighted by the Queen for 'political services' in 1985; he helped found the party and Was its first leader. He is a Catholic unionist, but he was brought up to think 'the ideal was the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter'.

'Then I asked myself, how do you achieve such unity? And I realised the Protestant and the Dissenter were damned if they were ever going to be united with the South. Some time around the end of the IRA campaign [December 1956-February 1962] I appreciated that the only progress that could be made was going to be made in the context of the Union.

'When the civil rights thing broke out I said, this is disaster. I was totally in favour of what they Were trying to do - it was methods I was very concerned about. If you bring people onto the streets, they're going to appear threatening and therefore will be divisive. I didn't blame the people who were marching - they had a case which was totally unanswerable. Nothing had been done about it. I didn't join because I thought it meant confrontation and if you want to reconcile and create ideas of common identity, you don't operate that way... Though I don't blame those who thought this was the only way to produce anything in the short term. And they probably were right. Unfortunately my political thinking has always been in the longer term, and in the period 1968-69 in the Catholic community there was deep resentment of what the Unionists were failing to do - and probably, therefore, a greater bitterness against somebody like me, who was seen not to be kicking them where they should be kicked, in fact trying to reason and produce another concept. Yes, it was quite bitter.

'I believed there would be an explosion from the Catholic population in the sixties, I saw it coming. They weren't quiet years, as people sometimes say. There were expectations, growing all the time. . . I believed then and I still do that the only hope for a peaceful and happy Northern Ireland was to have cooperation between different sections of the population. In other words people had to work together, not against each other. I joined the Ulster Liberal Party, then four Liberals formed the New Ulster Movement, putting forward the idea that the people of Northern Ireland have far more in common with each other than with anybody in the South or in Great Britain. In due course the Alliance Party was formed.

'My views were that any party which did not accept the constitutional position in Northern Ireland was not going to be listened to by anybody in the majority - if you were threatening their identity, that's what it amounted to. If you threaten the Protestant population with an eventual united Ireland you bring up the laager mentality and that is going to resist all change, good and bad.'

But overriding concern not to antagonise unionist opinion is an unpopular political tack among Northern Catholics, commonly described as an 'apologetic' attitude. Alliance's message of non-sectarianism, cooperation and togetherness once sounded plausible and progressive to some in the middle class. But a steadily more assertive sense of Irishness has led the new expanded middle class instead into the SDLP, a party they believe has helped them rise and which now perfectly reflects their aspirations.


People support the SDLP or they support Sinn Féin because the image their chosen party presents is how they want to see themselves: or because they cannot bear to be seen as supporters of the other party. For many in both groups, the figure of John Hume, the SDLP's leader since 1979, is highly significant. Northern Catholics say that they hear him redefining their sense of nationalism realistically, in language that strikes them as modern, intelligent and reasonable - all of which matters to Northern Catholics to an extraordinary degree. The long years of sullen submission, when this community saw itself represented by the inept and the impotent, their politics no more than wishing the state away, have left a lasting mark. It is remarkable how many early campaigners for civil rights still recall their frustration at a television performances in the early sixties, by a Nationalist MP who was 'shown up' by the then Minister of Commerce in Terence O'Neill's government, the highly articulate Brian Faulkner. In contrast, twenty-five years after Hume's first appearances on local television to make an impassioned, eloquent and reasonable case for Northern Catholics, a particular pride in Hume's ability is still widespread.

To people who inherited the suspicion that their second-rate status perhaps meant they were indeed second-raters, the way he outshines Unionist politicians still counts. The compliments come from both ends of the political spectrum as well as from SDLP voters, and from non-voters. A former Alliance member described him as 'probably the greatest politician in these islands, indeed in Western Europe, a man of rare skills'. A senior republican thought he was merely the 'man in the best position to deliver a new image, Nationalism Modernised, when the old Nationalist Party lost its grip' - but he conceded that Hume had 'political genius'. In what seemed a remarkable admission of dependence on an avowed political rival, a Derry Sinn Féin representative said it was 'no wonder Hume looked depressed all through the inter-party talks in 1992 - he was carrying the weight of republican hopes as well as of his own supporters'.

Given this kind of acclaim over a prolonged period, even saints would have difficulty in retaining a sense of their own limitations. John Hume is a politician, not a saint. He resents criticism and answers it sharply, a habit partly responsible for the SDLP's chronic lack of internal debate. Though there is a journalistic predisposition to give him extensive and usually favourable coverage as the leading anti-IRA Northern Catholic voice, the media gets a similarly thin-skinned response. One seasoned observer thinks that the very different public reactions to Hume and to Gerry Adams have had a considerable effect on both men. 'Hume is cocooned from criticism and swathed in flattery. Unlike his earlier, innovative days, he scarcely stands back any more to look at the direction and effect of his policies. Self-criticism's become unthinkable because he gets so little. Adams on the other hand is barraged, and as a result you can almost hear him digging in and only moving cautiously when he moves at all.'

But largely thanks to Hume's cultivation of links with politicians elsewhere, the SDLP has status and considerable clout in the Republic, with Britain and abroad. Although it contains other people of ability - and deputy leader Seamus Mallon has a different kind of appeal - in the eyes of friends and foes alike the party depends to an alarming degree on the 57-year-old leader's energy and political resilience. Readiness to delegate is not among his talents. Even among veterans, there is considerable scepticism about the fragility of the party's organisation and a tradition of often derisive criticism, though it is rarely voiced directly to the leader.

'All the SDLP's about is non-violence,' says one. 'Count the branches that put down motions for any party conference now,' says a former official. 'Ten years ago we had a hundred - in theory anyhow, maybe sixty-five active. Now it's more like twenty, with two or three activists apiece and five years' work at the most in each of them.'

'Just an election machine,' another says. 'There's an executive of muppets, and the four SDLP MPs [Hume, Mallon, Hendron and Eddie McGrady] are their own authority. They're barons, they run their own wee fiefs.'

'Forget any ideas about socialism because of the 'Socialist" in the name,' says a former executive member. 'It's able to articulate what the grassroots would like to say about unionism, that's what the SDLP's about. And it allows people to be confidently Irish. Hume's never here, and when he is, who does he talk to?'

All these people still canvass during elections, several hold or have held party office, and all of them have represented the SDLP in public with considerable prominence and apparent conviction. Begrudging and backbiting is in part tribute to rare skills, and in part inevitable because so few have the opportunity to deploy any political skill of their own. The party is in many respects a broad front, a range of local and small-scale networks unified only by Hume's talent for presentation and the need to voice a constitutional alternative to the IRA.

An early civil rights campaigner who says his politics are still 'left-wing, but I've no one to vote for', long ago decided John Hume was 'essentially a social conservative' and sees him intent on furthering an essentially undemocratic arrangement by which 'the British, Irish and maybe even the American governments get together and decide things and then say to people, this is what you get'. Republicans may reluctantly recognise Hume's ability - but that only means they have more reason to fear his achievement of a compromise, an accommodation of shifting nationalist aspirations that will condemn their purist demands once more to oblivion. One veteran of pre-Troubles nationalist politics, 'driven with some discomfort towards Sinn Féin', wonders 'how many of the thousands of wee men around the country who put on their caps and their wellington boots and march down the mountain and stick the ticket in for John and the boys really know that it's not a nationalist party at all. I honestly don't think most people in the SDLP know what the party's about. They think that John Hume's a nationalist.'

MARY-ROSE, on the other hand, has no doubt that Hume is a nationalist in the same way she is. Aged thirty-two, from a small farm in hilly south Armagh and living now in a comfortable home on the affluent outskirts of Newry, she thinks the SDLP and its leader perfectly suit the aspirations of many contemporary Northern Catholics, particularly in the new class she believes she is part of - and about which she has no illusions.

'I've heard it said in south Belfast that the Provos are the insurance policy: it's good that they're there. The bulk would find the Provos alien but a lingering number are happy to see them in existence. They say, we don't want them over here, of course, but it's good that they're there in case there's a pogrom, Doomsday. These are people who've dropped out of society in terms of making a contribution. They're not going to join political parties like the SDLP, Alliance. I think they don't vote at all.

'But the majority of new educated Catholics feel that it's John Hume who symbolises them - the intelligence dormant for years in the heads of their parents, with no way of emerging because they were so far down the social ladder and had no money and no driving force. Hume might be getting tired, but he still does them proud. He catches exactly what they want... what we want. Symbolism will do, because money's taken the edge off the grievance. Status, I suppose. We're still Irish, we're not British. But a united Ireland's not on the cards for a long time, is it?

'The Anglo-Irish Agreement meant a lot to me. And it means a lot to others like me. We want fair play and equality, that's all we're after - and a recognition that this place is ours too, it's not all British. I don't want any kind of devolution - where'd be the point in going back to that carry-on? There's got to be something a bit grander than that.'

HUGH, the businessman born on a small farm in County Tyrone who now lives in the most exclusive part of Belfast's affluent Malone Road, supports the SDLP, as do many of his neighbours. Once, though, he says, they voted Alliance.

'That was when they moved here first. They hadn't the confidence then that they have now, and they thought of Alliance as a nicer kind of political allegiance, more polite. Now it's respectable to say you're Irish - that's a change. And I give Hume full credit for that, it's what the Anglo-Irish Agreement has done. That, and directing us towards Europe. He realises the day of a united Ireland on the old model is gone so he's moving along. He is the one politician there's been - and it creates a fear among unionists that's almost irrational, because they equate him almost with terrorism, a terrorism of the intellect. You can almost hear them thinking, he's taking us on, and he's winning. He should be admired cross-community, and he's not - he's an unacceptable Catholic because he takes them on.'

From the comments of these people - and from others who were less affluent - it seems that Hume's vision, and his method, exactly suit the interests of many SDLP supporters. He does not want a British government withdrawal from Northern Ireland for some time - if ever - and nor do they, because they fear it would mean greater loyalist violence and more general instability in Ireland. He does not promise them a united Ireland because (a) it is unattainable in the old sense of a unitary state delivered in the foreseeable future, and (b) he is acutely aware of the depth of Southern aversion to any such idea. Much of this Hume will not state too starkly; nor will his supporters. 'Where the problem lies is in using the right language to spell it out, so that you don't provoke an emotional reaction,' he admits. The unconverted find the 'right language' foggy and repetitious, apparently chosen to obscure rather than define.

But approval of Hume's 'moving on', in Hugh's phrase, and praise for the way he has relegated the old-model united Ireland, is widespread. Hume's prescription for an enthusiastic Europeanism to 'transcend' a 'narrow, sterile and outdated nationalism' suggests a cosmopolitan identity and an intellectual approach that are particularly attractive to many in the new middle class. "'Transcend": what genius thought that one up?' one longtime Hume-watcher remarked, drawing out the sound of the word to invest it with maximum pomposity. Hume 's invocation of modernity also has a general appeal to people who have always been keen to convince the world outside that the tag 'narrow, sterile and outdated' is properly applied to Northern Protestants, not to them. As for the rest of Ireland, which Northern Catholics once reflexively applied to be merged with, Hume is perceived as having built a practical link with Southern governments into the mechanism of the Anglo-Irish Agreement - unlike the insecure and humiliating relationship with the South of pre-Troubles days.


The Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the SDLP's promotion of it, can impress people but still leave them unpersuaded to vote. Deputy leader SEAMUS MALLON, whose redefinition of traditional loyalties has always been more circumspect than Hume's, makes an analysis of Catholic political allegiance and identity that traces shifts in attitudes during the Troubles but is emphatic about the centrality of nationalism. 'There are different elements of Northern nationalism. The first's a fairly loose nationalist position that can accommodate, because of class, social position, intellectual disposition, a Northern Ireland context - they describe themselves as nationalists but are within the Alliance position. Some vote for us, for localised and personalised reasons.

'Second's the broad spectrum of nationalism - very deep-rooted in history, politically defensive of the nationalist position and which has accepted that the route to obtaining nationalist objectives can only be obtained through the political process. As a result of the last twenty-odd years, these people have realised that the route through the political process is not a straight line: it will move in various directions, but inexorably along the one line. Those people will not settle for a six-county arrangement. They do not want a nod in the direction of nationalism, lip service. They want their position to be an inherent, intrinsic part of the solution to this problem. Those are the vast majority of the nationalists in Northern Ireland - and the vast majority of them vote for us.

'The third element I won't define as being Provo or Sinn Féin, although many of them are - part of the legacy of the fifty years before '68, which had a womb comfort in being absolutist in their position and haven't moved away from the position where if you say a thing, it will happen. The reality is that it can only be done through the physical force method or the political method.

'A number are caught in a no-man's-land between those two positions - again for historical reasons, or because they've got the wrong end of the stick from security forces operations. Many are thinking their way out of that position, but haven't got to the stage where it's formalised in their voting pattern.'

But this is the analysis of a full-time politician. TONY is a 38-year-old Derry-born academic, who thinks political views need to change 'from the bottom up', through people forming community groups rather than through party politics. He has 'no time for most of the politicians' and says he knows lots of others with similar views.

'I've never actually voted. The constitutionality of Northern Ireland is not uppermost in my mind.' He laughs. 'The only political development that's involved me for years was the Anglo-Irish Agreement. When that was announced live at Hillsborough I remember it reverberating right through my whole body, that I would never ever apologise again for where I was coming from. And I've found myself defending it ever since. I remember Tom King saying there are de facto two traditions in Northern Ireland, and our role is to acknowledge the validity of both. Whether it's because I was thirty that year, I'd come to a stage in my life where I wanted to hear that, but it actually meant a lot to me.

'The actual framework, what Garret FitzGerald and Margaret Thatcher did - I don't for one moment think the Brits or the Irish took it all seriously. I don't think they worked it, and I think they were only expedient in what they put their energies into. But it still meant that acknowledgement to me, something never done before - and that's so important, recognising that there are two traditions here, as important as each other.'

BEN CARAHER, like Seamus Mallon, dislikes people who are dismissive of politics and politicians: 'That's just a cop-out.' A former vice-chairman of the SDLP, he is a backroom boy rather than a would-be elected politician, who in the early days helped work out the policy ideas that John Hume has largely operated on ever since.

Now fifty-five, Caraher was brought up in Crossmaglen, County Armagh, and despite years teaching in Belfast still thinks of himself primarily as a native of south Armagh - which was 'Irish' to his mind rather than 'nationalist', marooned on the very edge of an alien state. In the fifties, approaching adulthood, like many in his generation Ben Caraher saw the IRA campaign of 1956-62 and the nationalist politics of the time as equally futile, and unionism as totally alien. Like many others, he says his earliest political interest lay outside Ireland.

'In so far as I was interested in politics, I was indignant at Suez, I was a big Labour Party supporter - and later I remember rejoicing at the Labour victory of 1964. If you'd asked me about politics then, that's what I would have meant - Labour politics in England. What went on here to me, it just wasn't a political entity that operated in a real way or that greatly engaged me. I would have described myself as a nationalist, but I thought the physical force programme was mad and the Nationalist Party were silly. In retrospect, I suppose it's unfair to blame the actual people involved. What could they do?

'You had the Unionists firmly in control here - they could afford to laugh. All they had to worry about really was if they drew attention to themselves from London. But apart from that, they could despise the Nationalists, as they did - almost as much as the nationalist population who voted for them despised them. It was because of the pointlessness of their political programme: they had none, except to say that in an ideal world this state wouldn't exist. But they had no programme to bring about this ideal world, no function other than to protest.

'There was nothing the Nationalists could do. The political tradition out of which they grew did not have anything useful to say about the North.'

After involvement in the Queen's University New Ireland Society, Caraher helped found the National Democratic Party, a forerunner of the SDLP which merged wholesale with the new party. He sees considerable progress from the dead politics of his youth and the confusion of the civil rights days to the SDLP 's present position, and is inclined to dismiss debate about the party's nationalism as a distraction from the central question about political allegiance.

'The problem here is one of legitimacy, constructing institutions where people who are ruled by them recognise their right to rule. Even in the fifties, when the Southern state was a ramshackle affair, nothing to be admired, the state in Northern Ireland still lacked legitimacy. There was no emotional identification with it. And you ultimately didn't recognise its right to tell you what to do. You obeyed the law - a quite wise thing, to obey the law - but that sort of commitment was not there, and still is not there, in the mildest of nationalists.

'The problem is, is the very fact that you construct institutions that would have the support of nationalists, does that very fact make them insupportable to unionists? If it does, then there is no solution - if the very fact that they're acceptable to one means ipso facto they're unacceptable to the other, which might well be the case. But you presume that it isn't, and you still search for ways of squaring these circles, basically to find a way of running the place, to construct institutions. That's the major problem now, rather than the assertion of national identity.

'It's why I've always felt at home in the SDLP, that it's less a nationalist party than a party which takes account of national identity. It recognises nationalism as something that has to be accommodated in Northern Ireland. But nationalism hasn't the status of a religious belief, it isn't a belief system. There isn't a party definition of it. The party doesn't even think it is "a good thing". It's there, it has to be accommodated.

'I have never called myself a "nationalist", except in shorthand terms. I don't believe that the government of national units is the be-all and end-all of human existence. I don't think that at all.'

For Ben Caraher, the SDLP's first and most lasting achievement was to 'think about it all and work out a new approach'. He thinks there can be no doubt that John Hume has dominated the political scene ever since. 'It's surely a measure of the SDLP's success that everyone now, including the British government and the Provos, is using the language that we have been using for years.'

Many are similarly pleased that there is now general recognition of what they regard as an updated and rational formulation of nationalist demands by Hume and the SDLP. Others resent media emphasis on, and overt approval for, the 'Hume line'. In the course of preparing this book I came in for a blast of anti-media rage from two people who refused to be interviewed as a gesture of their disgust: Bernadette McAliskey and Father Des Wilson. After she had given me about six hours' worth of interview, a similar anger boiled over in SHEILA, a Ballymurphy woman.

'Journalists all take the SDLP line on nationalism. That's the orthodoxy, to praise John Hume, to think he's great. I bet you think he's great. And the result is people don't feel they're being heard. They're turned off. You can see why. The range of voices the media presents is very narrow, isn't it? Look at it, listen to it: BBC, RTE, the Dublin papers, the Irish News - how many journalists have opposed the broadcasting ban [British government restrictions on broadcast interviews with Sinn Féin and others], for instance? It means there's no real discussion, and it just heightens the mistrust.

'When it comes down to it, people don't trust the SDLP. In talks, there's the fear, the belief, they'll go into an internal settlement. And if you tell me they won't, that's not what they're about now, I don't believe you.'

Beyond that, and a suggestion that she does not vote, Sheila did not voice her own political preferences. But her suspicion that the SDLP would agree to go 'into an internal settlement' is familiar. Leading Sinn Féin people concede that in the 1992 inter-party talks John Hume eventually made clear his determination not to be part of another devolved government at Stormont (on the model of the 1973 power-sharing experiment) by insisting, against Unionist and Northern Ireland Office pressure, on Irish government involvement in any future arrangement. Others remain unconvinced.

The distrust Sheila has for the SDLP is common, but she emphasised that even in the republican stronghold of west Belfast, the district she knows best, this distrust does not automatically translate into votes for Sinn Féin. Political allegiance, she says, is 'shifting, complex and ambiguous - not a simple pro- or anti-IRA decision by any means. It's a problem for a lot of people.' Of the considerable number who described such arguments with themselves, MÁIRÉAD was the most open, and the most coherent. She is a forty-year-old community worker in west Belfast, who lives in north Belfast. She thinks from talking to Catholic friends that her confusion and doubts about how to vote are common to many.

'I always use my vote. Sometimes I've done eccentric things, like voting for Paddy Devlin.' She laughs. 'But now I vote for the SDLP although I'm very sceptical about them - I think I'm probably one of the many, many people from whom the SDLP regularly gets votes but who are half-hearted about them. Working in west Belfast, you hear people joking: "Somebody in west Belfast votes SDLP - who is it?" Everybody laughs, no one owns up. But obviously a whole lot of us do.

'It means in my case I wish to register my vote for people who are to some extent acceptable to me - and I don't support the continuation of armed struggle. Nevertheless in my case it would be wrong to read my vote, that I have no sympathy whatsoever for the political attitudes of republicanism. I find it still very difficult. Every election is something to be thought about, and it isn't an easy kind of choice.

'As the campaign against Sinn Féin has increased, the use of censorship, and even more so the loyalist killings, I'm struck by some of the things that Gerry Adams says about the demonisation of people who support Sinn Féin. My inclination is increasingly to support their right to exist and to be voted for, to say that it's not a terrible or immoral thing to vote for them. They're a political organisation. And when I look at what happens to people in west Belfast, at their everyday lives, I know why they're voting for Sinn Féin, I can't see that as something they should be punished for.

'Having said that, I would find it difficult to vote for Sinn Féin myself. Partly because I don't like so many things on their programme' but also because of the morality of it. Not that I think anyone here has clean hands. A government that bombed Iraq talking about the morality of supporting violence is a joke. But people generally should think about what it is they're doing when they uphold a point of view. A voter for the Democratic Unionist Party has got as big a moral problem as somebody voting for Sinn Féin. I don't vote Sinn Féin because I don't want to give sanction to an armed struggle. I want the Provos to stop, completely.

'I vote SDLP because I don't want to be alienated from the political structure, and they're the best I can do. Ten to fifteen years ago I would have voted for the Workers' Party, but not now. Not only because of the hand-washing of the most useless kind they do but also because when you run up against them at ground level in west Belfast, when you see how they behave - how they can preach to anyone else gets me...

'The Alliance Party is not an option at all. You get nice polite people coming to the door and saying we all want peace. But I have to at least vote for somebody who sees that this is a political problem and the sorting out of it has to be in terms of meeting some of the nationalist demands.

'So people like me vote for the SDLP - not because they're clearly anti-Provo, anti-Sinn Féin - they might have ambiguous attitudes to the whole Provo thing - but because they don't support the continuation of an armed struggle. They don't think, though, that the way to differentiate themselves from that is to wear a badge saying "I WANT A CEASEFIRE". There are a lot in that position. We don't support the IRA. We vote SDLP - but that doesn't mean we're saying, can we just have an internal solution, a wee bit of reform, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and that'll be enough.'

One of the most interesting points that Máiréad made was her observation that she knew why west Belfast people voted for Sinn Féin. There was not the slightest mention of republicanism, nationalism, a desire for a united Ireland. Clearly she believed their choice of party was coloured at least partially, and perhaps to a great extent, by their circumstances, by poverty and the presence of the British army - 'what happens to people. . . their everyday lives'. In other words, it was a protest vote, which naturally went to Sinn Féin.

Her own vote for the SDLP, on the other hand, seemed to be nothing more than a protest against the IRA: though she went on to express some admiration for John Hume, it was in a way that suggested she thought of him and his party as separate entities.

To STEPHEN a former priest who now lives in London, less than wholehearted support for Sinn Féin and simultaneous suspicion of the SDLP are familiar emotions. He met both among his parishioners in mid-Ulster. Being in the community but not of it, which is how he saw the experience of being a priest, led him to weigh and judge the political options for Catholics with some detachment. From the distance of England now, he sees a community that has lost coherence and a unified sense of political identity.

'I don't think there's that great sense of grievance any more - that was what we all had in common, wasn't it? We were anti- Stormont, we knew we were being discriminated against. The SDLP's not a party of grievance. It's a party that's arrived, its time has come. It's gained great advances for the people, it's got a respectable, respected leader. The only people carrying the gnevance now are Sinn Féin.'

Like many others, Stephen believes republicans' growing sense of isolation is heightened by an awareness that SDLP supporters are relatively content. There is an argument that the way the SDLP and John Hume have translated and then tackled nationalist grievance has in one sense merely added a new layer of anger. The most aggrieved - and people have no self-consciousness about using the word - now also feel shut out of the consensus Hume and the SDLP have built. It is a form of double alienation, all the sharper because the aggrieved know that their anger, christened 'alienation' for the purpose, was used by the Irish government and the SDLP - though Hume steered clear of using the word - as pressure on the Bntish, the promise of their eventual reconciliation dangled as the carrot to produce the Anglo-Irish Agreement. And the symbolism and drift of the agreement has to a great extent accommodated the much less pressing grievance felt by SDLP supporters.

One SDLP theory suggests that the Sinn Féin vote is now holding steady only in the centres of urban deprivation: Derry, Newry, west Belfast above all. There is talk of an 'underclass', bitter and anarchic because disadvantaged by poverty, not peculiar to Northern Ireland though with an extra layer of disaffection because of partition, similar in many ways to the USA's and even Britain's poor inner-city blacks. The idea offers the SDLP the comfort of explaining in global terms its own failure to dent Sinn Féin's hold on this poor urban vote: which stood at a total of 28,000 in greater Belfast in both the 1987 and 1992 general elections, more than the entire Sinn Féin vote in the Republic. And in the 1993 local government elections, Sinn Féin became the largest party in terms of first-preference votes in Belfast city council.


When at the 1992 general election the SDLP captured Sinn Féin's greatest electoral prize, the West Belfast parliamentary seat - courtesy of Protestant tactical voters out to dislodge Gerry Adams - there was at least an awareness that the Adams vote had stayed solid, and some care not to gloat. Joe Hendron, the new MP, having for nine years been the contender, has at last put in place a local office with young local staff. It remains to be seen whether grassroots organisation will follow.

Party politics in West Belfast have to contend first with apathy and depression: a steady one in four in the constituency does not vote, with the lowest turnout among those living at subsistence levels. The SDLP vote seems to have settled at around 15,000: substantial enough, given that the party struggles to find candidates and workers in each local election. But Sinn Féin appeals strongly to young voters, and more than half the Population is aged under twenty-five as is the case in all the Working-class Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry.

Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin, the big West Belfast political names of the past, famously maintained their local government votes, and Fitt his Westminster seat, on little more than their own charisma and the tirelessness of their wives as phone answerers and constituent-soothers When Fitt finally departed, the SDLP salvaged part of his personal vote, but no machine. The seamless takeover of the old Nationalist Party vote in rural areas had no parallel in early-Troubles Belfast. 'In 1970 you weren't relevant in Ardoyne or up the Falls unless you were giving out flame-throwers,' growls Paddy Devlin. While republicanism was still split and bereft of anything resembling political organisation, in Belfast's Catholic enclaves the kind of people who began to support the new SDLP elsewhere were in many cases joining the Citizens' Defence Committees, which were to be swiftly taken over by the Church. The times did not favour the organisation of traditional political parties: the huge movement of people displaced by intimidation and the burnings of 1969 went on shifting, settling and resettling throughout much of the seventies. Several of the youngest people I talked to had moved two and three times in their first few years, sometimes with a period in makeshifts such as prefabs, a story common to thousands. (In 1974 a Community Relations Coin-mission report said that firm evidence existed of 8,180 families forced to evacuate their homes in the greater Belfast area between August 1969 and February 1973, 80 per cent of which they estimated to be Catholic.)

While the SDLP undoubtedly is an 'all-class alliance', as a Derry Sinn Féiner put it ruefully, it has had a particular attraction for the upwardly mobile of the past two decades. The Belfast MPs who helped form the new party, the urban 'republican socialists' Fitt and Devlin, were always uncomfortable in what they felt from the start was an organisation dominated by rural conservatives. A helper in the Fitt campaigns of old remembers asking him how he was getting on with his new colleagues. 'I'm up to my arse in fucking teachers, the present Lord Fitt replied.

But in the end it was the increased militancy and republicanism of their working-class voters that drove Fitt and Devlin out of nationalist politics, and the SDLP. Both increasingly condemned the IRA and suffered in the process: their homes attacked, Paddy and Theresa Devlin's younger children abused and insulted at school and in the street. Fitt took a much-ridiculed title and now holds court in the House of Lords, his speciality being denunciation of nationalism as espoused by both the Provos and the SDLP, the party he once led; he makes little distinction between them. PADDY DEVLIN, now sixty-eight, helped to form the United Labour Party in 1978, and the Labour Party of Northern Ireland in 1985: both collapsed. He is a founder of the Peace Train organisation, formed to lobby against IRA attacks on the North/South rail link.

'I split with the SDLP essentially because of their closeness to the Catholic Church and their lack of socialism. The second wave into the party after we founded it was all Catholic schoolmasters, principals mostly - and I always suspected Cardinal Conway encouraged a lot of them to join up. The shape of the party was clear after that... You add up the votes now, there's only about two votes out of eleven in favour of getting rid of the border. The full nationalist vote, nor anything like it, isn't coming out for the Provos and the SDLP together. I reckon there's a possible Labour vote there - at least there's a possibility they're looking for Labour. They might be too fatigued with all the parties at the minute.

'The Provos stop a lot of people coming out to vote, just by their presence on the streets on polling day. Because the one thing they have done, which is very effective, is that they've kept a register of those people who're voting for them and those people who vote against them.

'There's other things more important to me now than politics: I love rugby, I'm on the Boxing Board of Control, I'm the President of Immaculata Boxing Club, the vice-president of all-Ireland boxing, I've just finished a play on the 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots [when Protestant and Catholic strikers fought the police together]. I don't bother with politics. People are thinking that I have changed my views and values, that I'm a government flunkey. It's not true, I'm a sterner critic of the system than most people. I've criticised it all my life, I've fought it. I'll never be a lord because I wouldn't accept anything like that.'

Throughout the Troubles, those who could afford it have steadily moved to more peaceful places: up the Falls, into Andersonstown - the drift that in the late eighties finally became so evident and such a symbol as it fetched up in what had once been solidly Protestant affluent south Belfast. Catholic west Belfast is still much more varied socially than those who steer well clear of it imagine, with a much-shrunken middle class but still visible and sometimes striking differences in lifestyles. The evidence, mainly anecdotal, suggests that it is those who vote SDLP who have moved out in larger numbers.

During the seventies, trouble on the streets displaced most other political activity. It took the H Block hunger strikes and the emergence of Sinn Féin to set the scene for the clashes of the past decade. A woman who arrived on the Falls as a community worker in 1980 saw the battle taking shape.

'The hunger strike brought a lot of people into the political process and just sharpened it all up. You'd get these people turning up at community meetings, for example about Divis [the demolition of the hated Divis Flats], and you could see they were going to fight it out for who'd get the political credit. The Shinners [Sinn Féiners] then were a whole mixture of things. Some got involved because of the hunger strike, who'd never been involved at all before, some with notions of community involvement wider than a purely party political approach. With others it was, it's the movement that matters.

'The SDLP were essentially not at the match. If they had been you wouldn't have had Cahal Daly sending out messages to the middle class to get involved.'

It is widely believed in west Belfast that the Catholic Church, the British government through the Northern Ireland Office, and the SDLP have made common cause to push Sinn Féin into the political margins: common cause in the struggle - launched by Cahal Daly in his time in Belfast as Bishop of Down and Connor, and won by the Church - to control government-funded job schemes, and common cause during the repeated election battles to take the Westminster parliamentary seat from the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams. Even among senior clergy, the job scheme strategy from the start caused particular unease. 'Channelling British government money through the Church makes us look like an arm of pacification,' said one. A Sinn Féin councillor complains that no one in his party has ever been appointed to the board of governors of a Catholic school, though the SDLP is multiply represented. SDLP party workers are occasionally uncomfortable about the none-too-subtle help their always puny organisation in west Belfast is given by the powerful agencies of Church and state.

In the election court that adjudicated on a complaint that the SDLP victor, Joe Hendron, had spent more than the amount allowed in the 1992 campaign, the Irish News - founded by the bishops as an anti-Parnell organ and traditionally the voice of the conservative Catholic establishment - was asked to explain a considerable discount to Dr Hendron for advertisements, a favour not offered to other candidates. Few thought two senior judges likely to declare the election invalid and allow Gerry Adams another chance to retake West Belfast. But the court was widely expected at least to rebuke the SDLP election agent. Instead, agent and candidate alike were declared blameless -'granted relief in the court's language - and the complainants were told they must pay half the legal costs although the judges solemnly vindicated their right to take the case.

Off the record, several SDLP people described the judgment as embarrassing. 'I blushed when Joe thanked the judges,' said one old campaigner.

There is a widespread perception of the party as detached from the concerns of an area with multiple problems, as an organisation essentially based elsewhere. A confidential survey carried out for the SDLP in advance of Joe Hendron's victorious 1992 campaign showed strong personal allegiance to Gerry Adams: 'strength of character and affinity for west Belfast' were deemed to be his key strengths among Sinn Féin voters. White-collar workers were three times more likely to have voted for the SDLP than for Sinn Féin; the unemployed and those at subsistence levels were twice as likely to have voted Sinn Féin.

Twenty-six-year old SINÉAD, a nurse tutor who lives in 'posh' Andersonstown, focused on something many others mention. Her support for the IRA, untypical in her immediate district, and Sinn Féin - 'I think of them as the same thing,' she said -began with the hunger strikes, and originally came out of a desire to 'belong' to what she thought then was a unified west Belfast community. She now sees her vote for Sinn Féin as in a sense a protest against the SDLP's distance from the people. The SDLP MP Joe Hendron works as a GP in the area but lives in affluent south Belfast. Sinéad says he is someone she cannot take seriously.

'I vote Sinn Féin because I believe there is no politician who will actually stand up, and I think Sinn Féin is the nearest to it. We have to get behind something that will stand up for us, because the SDLP will always be happy with second-class citizenship and we need somebody who won't.

'The ideal would be somebody who'd say we're not prepared to be second-class and get together with Ian Paisley and sort it out. Whereas I believe the SDLP would be happy to be second fiddle to him. That's the thing about Catholics I don't understand - they tend to not mind, they won't stand up for themselves. The problem with Sinn Féin is people see them as Provies, not as politicians. We need politicians that aren't necessarily republicans, though I suppose if they aren't willing to be second-class, they'll be classed as republicans.

'Seamus Mallon I would see as a brilliant politician, and there's a few like him I would respect - but the others? Hume sits back a bit. When anything happens, what does he say? If Mallon was the head, I'd vote for the SDLP. Hume very rarely says anything, when there's an SAS shooting, say. Whereas Seamus Mallon will, which is almost a sign of a person who's saying, come on, we're not going to take this. He's maybe the only one of them, come to think of it.

'If we didn't have this problem, I wouldn't vote for Sinn Féin. It's just the person who's down will vote for the party they think represents them, people who have been brought up like them. Mothers etcetera in west Belfast vote for Sinn Féin because they think, this person's like me. That's a pity, because if somebody in the SDLP was strong enough they could. . .

'I think the Sinn Féin vote will go back up again. If there's something like the hunger strike. Every time anything happens in the areas, young people especially support them because they believe the others aren't any good. I don't think Sinn Féin will ever get anywhere. But that's not why people vote for them. They vote for them because they are the underdogs and because Sinn Féin are the underdogs - and because Gerry Adams will never give an inch.

'In a way that's sad that people like me should vote for him when I know he can't do anything. But I wouldn't vote for the SDLP - not because they won't get anywhere, but that they're not prepared to stand up for us. I'd hate to think they were representing me.'

Sinéad's comments raise several points. First, unlike other interviewees (including some Sinn Féiners) she clearly had little sense that the SDLP had made gains; or at least, she had no sense that any gains made had relevance to her or to people in her district. In common with many others, she was expressing an alienation apparently untouched by the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The agreement was said to be about lessening that feeling, for some, like Tony and Mary-Rose, it has, yet others' alienation seems to remain intact.

Sinéad's explanation of her support for Sinn Féin is also familiar from other accounts: as largely dependent on identification with the style and background of republican representatives rather than a belief that the party is making progress: as a protest against the situation of the people she lives among and the SDLP's response to that, rather than as an expression of ideological republicanism. Her admiration for Seamus Mallon appeared to be totally unconnected to her feelings generally about the party he helps to lead.

Like everyone else I spoke to from west Belfast, Sinéad's life and political views are powerfully influenced by her surroundings. But some with fewer options and fewer resources have much less interest in the political tensions around them. GEMMA is nineteen, has a baby and lives with her parents in Turf Lodge. Politics 'disgusts' her. All she wants is to get away.

'When the elections are on and people are saying vote Sinn Féin, vote Sinn Féin. . . you re living in a republican area and you say to yourself, I might as well. You've no choice and if you did vote anything else you wouldn't be wanted. Nobody hears what you vote for, I know, but you have to just go along with what everybody else says. And they'd know all right, unless you did a big act. So I don't vote. I did last year when I got the vote first, but I thought, not again. I don't believe in any of it. I just live here. I've no choice. I've nowhere else to go at the minute but I couldn't be annoyed with it.' She volunteered no opinion on the SDLP.

But Máiréad, who works with local young people, has strong feelings about the SDLP's behaviour and record in working-class Belfast - all the stronger because she feels she has no option but to vote for them because she is determined not to support the IRA.

'They're holier-than-thou towards republicanism. Joe Hendron's role in life seems to be to make statements that prove the SDLP is moral and the Provos aren't. You get it from others as well, like Brian Feeney: it's an "I'm going to sit up here and preach at you" attitude. What sort of relationship is that to have with the community? You can't act like God living here. Nobody's above it. I feel surges of irritation when I listen to SDLP men, though I know there's individuals who do good work. But they're afraid of people. Instead of believing that most are reasonably moral and trustworthy, a whole lot of SDLP representatives treat them as shifty, psychopathic even.

'It's something you really notice in places like west Belfast. Their attitude is never: "What's happened here? As your councillors, what do you think we should know?" Instead they say: "Oh we know what's going on, and these people are up to X, Y and Z - and they're all really Sinn Féiners anyway and what's the point in us going out to talk to them." I know it'd be a hard job going to talk to some people, but politics isn't easy. And they should have more confidence in what they stand for themselves and in what people are capable of thinking about and saying.'

Like many others in Northern Ireland, Máiréad feels particularly deprived of a secular, radical party to vote for, a party that would also in some way represent how she feels about the wider question of political identity. She is a feminist, and she and her husband chose an integrated school for their children rather than have them attend a Catholic school.

'In a general way, I don't like the SDLP's social policies. They say they're a social democratic party, but in European terms they appear to me to be more a Christian democratic party, weak on state intervention in the economy, for example, and very close to the Catholic Church. I would definitely want a party with a more secularist attitude. They're under a lot of pressure and I don't want to demean everything they do, but they don't stand for any real kind of pluralism. I suppose for me they're just too conservative. I want a society in which I can have the freedom to have an abortion, divorce - and not just the freedom, but that it's socially acceptable.'

In the end she laughs and gives an exasperated shrug. 'I think the SDLP must be nearly unique in European politics: if you could analyse the number of people who vote for it, feeling irritated every time they do. It must be a very unusual sort of phenomenon.'


In the more conservative countryside, there is less sense of Sinn Féin versus a Catholic establishment than in the socially divided cities and towns. Rural republicanism is to some extent a different animal. When Cahal Daly moved from Belfast to become archbishop of Armagh, priests in his new diocese predicted that he would soon moderate the harshness of his anti-republican language, as in ways he has, when he discovered 'that he's not dealing with corner boys down here and some of the solidest Catholic families he has, pillars of the Church, are republicans'.

While Gerry Adams was insisting that 'republicanism is not the prerogative of any one social class' he remembered how during the hunger strikes and at other IRA funerals many city republicans were surprised to discover that IRA volunteers had come from 'what by Belfast standards would have been mansions in very lush pastureland - these were people who were, from hard work I have no doubt, relatively well off'.

Another leading Sinn Féiner, urban to the fingertips, said, 'The GAA [Gaelic Athletic Association] is a big conservative influence. That's who we're contending with for hearts and souls in the country, and we have to show respect as we do with the Church. You never arrange a meeting to clash with a match. I found out the hard way - there was outrage at the very idea. It's a more conservative world, no doubt about it.' He added, 'In the country the poverty doesn't seem the same. You'd get people suggesting a raffle with tickets costing £30 apiece - you wouldn't sell one in west Belfast at that price. And these wouldn't be rich country people.'

Increasingly, Sinn Féin votes in the countryside have been levered over to the SDLP, however, as in large measure they were in Armagh and Down and presumably will be progressively in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, by the time-honoured method of the sectarian head count. In the same 1992 election in which the SDLP was boasting of its cross-community drawing power in west Belfast (where off the record they admitted that they knew Protestants had voted tactically to get Gerry Adams out) and in Foyle (where John Hume claimed a Protestant personal vote) in Mid-Ulster Hume's senior aide, Denis Haughey, was appealing for votes on a strictly mathematical basis, calculating a narrow Catholic majority and reminding voters they had 'nothing to lose but Willie McCrea', the Reverend Ian Paisley's Westminster colleague.

The SDLP routinely professes to be 'pluralist', and spokespersons from time to time become exceedingly annoyed at the shorthand media description 'mainly Catholic party'. But appealing for every Catholic vote in order to unseat a Unionist is judged to be non-sectarian, strictly a tactical matter, legitimised by the ancient rules of Northern Ireland elections. In the course of an interview for this book, recalling the absence of any nationalist organisation and reliance on a simple head count in the fifties and sixties, John Hume remarked with what sounded like disapproval that 'every election called then was very similar to the ones we've returned to in Fermanagh and Mid-Ulster'. It was as though he was commenting on a phenomenon his party now views sadly from afar: a curious moment.

Sinn Féin's rural organisation is sketchy. Much like the situation in Derry and Belfast twenty years ago, it depends to an uncomfortable degree on the energy of individuals and on pockets of traditional loyalty in places like mid-Ulster. Some SDLP people in the country maintain that they have seen republicanism diminish in families in which someone has for the first time got a secure public service job. 'It fairly settles them down,' said one old farmer. The republican response, especially in the cities, is to suggest drily that 'the country' has never been entirely convinced about the wisdom of diverting energy and resources into political organisation and away from the IRA. But the more honest will admit that their own disorganisation has helped the SDLP to collect four Westminster seats.

In the border land of Fermanagh, in a county where a Catholic majority divided between 'constitutional' and 'physical force' nationalism has regularly delivered up its chance of political representation to unionism, there is a history of hotly disputed 'unity' candidates. Allegiance to modern political republicanism is fragile: BRIAN MCCAFFREY reflects that in the story of how his own views developed. He is thirty-six, a self-employed electrician, and a former Sinn Féin councillor in the small border town of Roslea.

'It was something I came to believe: our house wasn't political, there was no political connection anywhere in the family - I think my father might have been loosely connected one time to the Ancient Order of Hibernians! There was certainly no republican background. I probably wouldn't have really started to form any radical views myself until around the time of Bloody Sunday [30 January 1972]. The rest - the very bad housing, the B Specials, discrimination, the border between you and Clones where you went for the shopping at the weekend - that was all taken for granted. As a kid I never thought about it - even when the civil rights started, the bombing up in Belfast... You know the way when you're a kid it's only yourself matters?

'But Bloody Sunday, that made an awful impression on - not myself alone, but people I was at school with too. A lot of people I can remember knocking about with didn't want to know about Belfast, bombing. Their views just changed totally out of sheer shock. We were all about fifteen. There's a lot of them would still have the same politics as me. Some of them have been in jail, some are on the run. Within the school I went to, St Michael's in Enniskillen, it's peculiar to that year, and maybe the year ahead of us. Obviously, attitudes hardened all over the place and probably we were just a part of that.

'And then it was a natural progression for me towards Sinn Féin. I went through various stages without realising I was going through them. The guy I was working for got me to sit in a booth doing the register [checking the list of voters] for Frank McManus [Unity], then Frank Maguire [Independent]. But the civil rights movement was reasonable, the pressure from Frank McManus, Frank Maguire when they were MPs - and yet at the end of the day, while both did a good enough job of representing nationalists in the constituency who were downtrodden, highlighting it whenever it was appropriate, it never seemed to get anywhere.

'You just gradually thought, this doesn't work - you became more and more hardline. The major changes in housing only took place after the fall of Stormont. And even then in Fermanagh, for a rural area, we had an intolerably high waiting list. Nothing happened fast enough, and all the time we were getting further into the situation where the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment] was formed, you ran into them, there was constant hassle at roadblocks - where once it was the B men [the part-time B Specials, a wholly Protestant force] ... But they were just the same, really.

'Once internment came, and the IRA activity in the aftermath of that, next thing people in the community started to get arrested and you started realising the IRA was only ordinary people. It was no longer three initials in a newspaper. It was people you'd grown up with, that you knew were straightforward, ordinary, honest, decent people except they'd taken a decision to go a step further. That had a big effect. The names became known, you knew the families. People's perception was those inside were innocent - and therefore it wasn't justified. The whole thing snowballed from there. Bloody Sunday. . . the aftermath, the cover-up. . . the realisation that at the end of the day, no matter what happened, there wasn't going to be any justice.

'I just thought to myself, well, you can't go on taking this, and people shouldn't have to. You were generally driven to a point where you couldn't hold any other viewpoint than where I've arrived at: the conclusion that it was impossible to change the system. At the end of the day the only option was to try to remove it, to get rid of it.'

Brian McCaffrey makes no exaggerated claims about Sinn Féin's base in the Fermanagh countryside. He is well aware that republicans benefited, before they were ready to make the most of the opportunity, from the fluke of Independent (Unity) MP Frank Maguire's death during the surge of nationalist sympathy for the prison hunger strikers of 1981. When IRA prisoner Bobby Sands won the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster seat, it was not under a Sinn Féin banner: the ballot ticket read 'Sands, Bobby - Anti-H-Block/Armagh Political Prisoner'. There was no SDLP candidate, nor had there been when Frank Maguire took the seat.

'Sinn Féin didn't exist in Fermanagh until the mid-seventies, and even then it was clandestine. You felt threatened - because of arrests and so on. It would have been something people shied away from. It straggled along until the hunger strikes, and there was a total change after that.

'Probably where we made a major mistake was in not contesting the local government elections immediately after Bobby Sands won the seat. A lot of us worked instead for the late Tommy Murray, the SDLP councillor who signed Sands's nomination papers. Tommy would have had connections in the fifties [in other words, someone related to him was in the IRA during the fifties campaign]. I think the hunger strike was more than he could take at the end of the day. [He was expelled from the SDLP, stood as an independent, then as a Sinn Féin candidate.] Definitely it was a major chance missed for us. It might have made a difference today - the vote we would have taken would have been well in advance of anything since, and Sinn Féin might have been taken more seriously. Fair enough, the effects of the hunger strike have made Sinn Féin what it is today, but we lost out to a certain extent.

In 1987, on Remembrance Sunday, the IRA left a bomb at the Enniskillen war memorial. It exploded as the day's ceremony was about to start, collapsing the wall of a building onto the bystanders. Eleven local people died, a number of them elderly - many more were badly injured. The open sectarianism of the attack, on what is for Northern Ireland Protestants an important ritual, caused almost as much revulsion as the scale and nature of the deaths and injuries. In Dublin and Cork thousands queued to sign books of condolence. The then Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich, who had always condemned IRA killings while making his own brand of republicanism clear, made an emotional 'apology' on behalf of Catholics for the Enniskillen deaths.

Republicans realise that Remembrance Day finally put paid to their chances of improving the Sinn Féin vote in the South. Enniskillen also damaged Sinn Féin in Fermanagh, as Brian McCaffrey admits. The IRA claimed the bomb was intended for patrolling soldiers and was detonated prematurely by army equipment, a claim discredited by the subsequent discovery of a similar bomb at the war memorial in nearby Tullyhommon.

'Enniskillen was when we were really down,' Brian McCaffrey recalls. 'That was the final straw for me with the Church. It was as if they were saying that Enniskillen was intended, and weren't prepared to consider for one minute that it wasn't. It was the Church being nakedly political, to the same extent as the DUP virtually, and saying.. . these people, they're sinners, beyond redemption. When in fact if they'd taken into consideration what we'd said about it, they'd have seen we were as shocked as everybody else.

'There was just no way we would have wished Enniskillen to happen - it was as simple as that. It was one of the things that did do damage to Sinn Féin in this county, as well as the damage to the support for the IRA itself. Then we had eight Sinn Féin members on the council, now we have four. [Since then he has lost his own seat.] Probably at the end of the day, if it hadn't been for the fact that the media's endless condemnations flogged it to death, there would have been more damage done.'

Brian McCaffrey makes no attempt to attribute Sinn Féin support locally to factors other than those he described as influencing his own views. But he did say that he supposed he had 'generally left-wing, socialist sympathies', he thought Sinn Féin's support undoubtedly came from the poorer section of the community - and he had no doubt at all about the nature of SDLP support. He is also convinced that there is a gap between the SDLP leadership and the party's grassroots.

'The SDLP locally would always have been the middle class. I know all of them, but basically it's the relationship of somebody that's working-class with the professional person's family: the clergy, teachers, better-off farmers, bigger farmers.

'There's times I wonder are the SDLP nationalist at all, then I give them the benefit of the doubt. Hume might say he's not, but most of his support is, that's what he has to come to terms with. All that European stuff of his has very little relevance here to the ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry who's got a farm one side of the border and he's living the other. The European dimension doesn't come into it when you're sitting at a British army checkpoint for half an hour.'

The account Brian McCaffrey gives of developing republican sympathies from a non-republican background, influenced by the events of the early Troubles, has elements common to the accounts of many other people: Bloody Sunday, internment, the hunger strike and, in the end, the effects on the Sinn Féin vote of IRA violence. His sharp awareness of Sinn Féin's slowness in organising locally and the weakness that has caused is partly due, he says himself, to the experience of the 1992 general election when Sinn Féin 'held back' in the hope that another unity candidate in the mould of Frank Maguire might emerge - which in turn might have pushed the SDLP into a decision not to stand. 'We lost three weeks' campaigning time,' Brian McCaffey says, 'but we learned our lesson: we have to do it on our own.

Much of the Fermanagh Sinn Féin story is peculiarly rural: intrigues over unity candidates, the intensity of feelings about 'splitting the vote'. But Brian McCaffrey's description of the local SDLP as much more middle-class than Sinn Féin supporters is almost word for word how republicans elsewhere see their more successful rivals for Catholic votes. The most prominent try hard to sound inclusive when they assess how their support and that of the SDLP differ on class lines: Danny Morrison insisting on the way lines blur, Gerry Adams affirming that no class has a 'monopoly' on Irishness. Less public figures are not so diplomatic.

From the one avowed IRA man I met, what came through was a strong dislike, compounded equally it seemed of resentment at the way some Catholics had prospered - and a frustration that it was their version of nationalism and nationalist grievance, the SDLP version, that monopolised political discussion and would inevitably dominate the histoncal record. A senior member of the organisation, he spoke with a sharpness about SDLP supporters and personalised the political divide in a style no leading Sinn Féin figures allow themselves.

'You feel an overwhelming sense within the whole community of its Irishness,' he began. What did he mean by 'the whole community'? I asked. 'Speaking from within Belfast -which is not the same as Feeny or Claudy - everyone has a very strong allegiance to nationalism, reunification. There's no clear division between Sinn Féin and the SDLP on those issues. There's also common denominators there: e.g. Britain's the ultimate problem.

'But there are clear differences. The SDLP bedrock vote is as committed as the Sinn Féin vote. These are people who would always have been uncomfortable with militant republicanism, ranging from diehard Catholics who'll always do what the Church says, to people who have a reluctance to confront anything - safe people, who play safe all the time.

'The Sinn Féin vote is massively committed, a different animal altogether, with a clear idea of where the solution would lie. You can see the differences best at elections, of course. SDLP voters will go and vote between seven and nine, then to Mass, the coffee house, off to be doctors, solicitors, a foreperson in Marks and Spencer. Sinn Féin will work to get the vote out solidly all day, en masse.

'The other difference is that the SDLP accepts the traditional view of society, of those meant to occupy positions of power: doctor, priest, career politician. Republicanism is egalitarian, where the views of members are equal from the top down. It would be hard to imagine John Hume or Seamus Mallon fitting in, in the same way as Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison, with whatever needed to be done. Mark Durkan and Tom Kelly are younger, sure, but they still have very hierarchical views. Mark Durkan has a view of himself as a leader. He sees the community as his to lead.

'In republicanism there's a sense of where we're going as a movement, and Gerry Adams for all his abilities is no more important - though he is historically - than the volunteer out tonight or tomorrow night engaging the Brits, or the woman of sixty who sat in the polling booth all day long. I don't rate anyone more than the "minor figures" who sustain and carry us [in the IRA.] But it's your Mark Durkans who'll write the history books.'

The last reference was obviously intended as a bitter comment on the way the middle classes write history in their own image, the picture of doctors and solicitors idling in 'coffee houses' a weird distortion of the true SDLP voter profile in west Belfast and a parody of its more middle-class but still mixed support elsewhere. But again, as in Sinéad's explanation of her own vote and as in the way a number of people summed up their reasons for voting Sinn Féin, there was a final echo of defeatism:

a recognition that history is written by those who end up most advantageously placed. In much the same tone, a dozen interviewees reckoned IRA violence had damaged Sinn Féin. It was always expressed the same way: not as a matter for resignation, but as a matter of fact, the way things are.


If Sinn Féin knows the IRA will always limit their vote, why do they not push for an end to the IRA campaign? The question so frequently put is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. Sinn Féin is not a separate and equal partner: the political party is the underling to 'the Army', as its members always call it. In its present form Sinn Féin was devised as an aide to the IRA campaign - with overlapping membership in sufficient numbers and at a senior enough level to give 'the Army' a controlling influence. The political party has changed out of all recognition from the scrappy pretence of 1970 through various phases: mere mouthpiece for IRA statements, enthusiastic collector of the votes generated by the republican prisoners' hunger strike, practitioner and for some time beneficiary of the 'Armalite and ballot box' dual strategy, claimant of a place on behalf of republicans in talks about the future of Northern Ireland.

A political voice developed to such a degree over so long a period has never existed before in republicanism's history, and there are bound to be unprecedented internal questions. But for observers, watching the interplay between what is clearly a close-knit and thoughtful group of leaders, scrutinising their statements for every scrap of significance much as China- and Kremlin-watchers used to do, forever on the outside of an organisation only a fraction of which is open to inspection, the temptation is to imagine tensions between two distinct groups. What has never changed, and in the nature of the relationship is incapable of change, is Sinn Féin's subordinate role. To suppose that there are leading Sinn Féiners who would like to alter that relationship is almost certainly to misunderstand how those people see themselves, and the nature of modern republicanism.

For years those presented as spokespersons for Sinn Féin raised no objection when it was described as the political voice, or political wing, of the IRA. It was clear that the IRA had authorised an emphasis on electoral activity as a complement to their campaign of violence. But although every conversation with senior republicans about political developments continues to involve discussion of the IRA campaign, its intent and effects, the official line now is that 'there are no organic links' between the IRA and Sinn Féin.

This comes at a time when British ministers in Northern Ireland have begun referring to the possibility of a debate inside republicanism, and the encouragement of those who may seek an end to the military campaign. It is possible that republicans think maintaining a polite distance, if only verbal, from the IRA might improve Sinn Féin's eligibility as negotiator should the British ever decide to talk. But the denial of 'organic links' also follows a period when the party's hopes of developing a vote in the South finally collapsed, the Northern vote levelled off and in some places began to decline, and when Sinn Féin spokespersons became increasingly frustrated by being asked to answer for IRA atrocities. Both Sinn Féin and the IRA now admit that republican violence has alienated the South and capped the Northern vote - but far from this realisation prompting a backing away from violence, some argue that it has had the opposite effect.

The 1992 return of the car bomb to Belfast city centre and elsewhere (in particular to a series of predominantly Protestant towns and housing estates), concentration on a pattern of bombings in Britain with a high risk and indeed repeated incidence of civilian casualties, incidents like the Teebane workers' bus ambush and the bombing in Musgrave Park Hospital: in that none of these have left Sinn Féin any useful propaganda role whatsoever, all seem evidence of a now-established switch to unmitigated militarism. The twin-track strategy of Armalite and ballot box, never a logical and coherent construct, appears to have simply evaporated, its disappearance only recognisable by the aftermath.

A more useful question than 'Why doesn't Sinn Féin tell the IRA to stop?' might be 'What is the point of Sinn Féin now?' In this business of making sense retrospectively out of the doings of a movement dominated by a secret army, it is tempting to see significance in the conviction of the man who coined the 'Armalite and ballot box' slogan, Sinn Féin's former director of information Danny Morrison, for wrongful imprisonment of someone the prosecution claimed was about to be killed as an IRA informer.

'While I have been in jail,' Morrison writes, 'Sinn Féin has certainly distanced itself considerably from the IRA in comparison to former days. But the republican struggle as a whole still consists of a military campaign (the Armalite) and a political campaign (the ballot box). I have no problems whatsoever with the slogan being dumped because it is inappropriate and there is a different emphasis today.'

But in the comments of people who vote Sinn Féin while knowing little about its inner workings, there is no speculation on what the internal republican debate about a new emphasis might be, much less a discussion of where the party stands in relation to the IRA. It is simply taken for granted of the two supposedly separate organisations that 'they're the same thing'. The IRA man made it clear at the start that he would have nothing to say about IRA policy or the relationship with Sinn Féin: What relationship? There's no organic link,' he recited, with a trace of a smile. He was there as an individual to talk about his own sense of identity, he reminded me, not as a spokesman.

Other interviews suggested that if there is any distinct reason for voting Sinn Féin other than to show support for the IRA, it is as a form of protest against the SDLP, a marker: 'You may settle, you may be accommodated, but not us, and despite everything we're still here.' Sinn Féin officials on the other hand tend to talk about their success in moving the SDLP greenwards' - as though recognising that their role will never be more than that of a pressure group. Occasionally, their depression is unmistakable. Less than ten years ago, senior Sinn Féin figures had visions of displacing the SDLP as the strongest voice of nationalism.


The 23-year-old IRA leader released from detention and flown to London in 1972 to negotiate a ceasefire with the then secretary of state, Willie Whitelaw, is apparently, at forty-four, Sinn Féin president until he chooses to retire. Writer of folksy short stories, prison tales and memoirs of old Belfast, a pipe-smoking thinker with impeccable manners and a slow, cautious, intense way of answering questions, Gerry Adams has a public image that reflects some of his private preoccupations and effectively disguises the rest. Losing the Westminster West Belfast seat hit him hard. Being an MP, despite never attending Parliament, gave him extra status with foreign press and politicians. At the count in Belfast's City Hall, when the SDLP's Joe Hendron was declared elected, for once Adams's composure slipped. He made a bad-tempered comment about the seat being 'stolen' from the people of West Belfast, in one phrase a declaration of religious and political sectarianism - denying the equal right to be represented of the West Belfast Protestants whose votes tipped the balance for Hendron and, as damagingly, the validity of the SDLP's 15,000 Catholic votes.

Adams's dignity has always been an important attribute in the republican propaganda struggle to displace blood, death, misery and the crude image of mindless 'Provos' - in particular, for example, the effect of television documentaries like the 1993 BBC 'Panorama' report that showed an IRA man turned double agent for the RUC talking about some of his colleagues as more blowy and shooty' than political.

Though republicans continue to insist that theirs is not a hierarchical movement, the Sinn Féin president has undoubtedly been awarded a special role: somewhere between policy- maker and father figure. To judge from the way he is presented on public occasions such as the annual ard-fheis (conference), his effectiveness is deemed to outweigh the disapproval of personality cults.

Speeches about the republican 'strategy for peace' - in essence laying out the conditions for an end to IRA violence -are made by a series of senior figures, not Adams alone: Martin McGuinness and Mitchel McLaughlin in Derry, Jim Gibney and Tom Hartley in Belfast. The substance is recycled, with occasional additions by one or other, which will then be rephrased in the next speech. Beyond this process, Adams clearly sees his particular public contribution as building self-esteem and a sense of republican communal pride in the poorest parts of Belfast and Derry where Sinn Féin and the IRA are strongest. But of all the best-known senior Sinn Féin figures, it is also Adams who in general works hardest at claiming a wider allegiance for republicanism.

Not for him the terminology of the imprisoned Danny Morrison: 'The SDLP versus Sinn Féin - in a sense it's the age- old split between O'Connell and the Young Irelanders, Parnell and the Fenians etcetera. A class analysis is helpful in that it provides something of a framework to explain the differences but, of course, it doesn't allow for the complexities and peculiarities of the situation. Regardless of the SDLP denying (with some truth) that it is mainly representing a middle-class ideal in its approach to and analysis of the conflict, there can be no doubting that in Sinn Féin's case we largely represent lumpen-nationalists and an alternative culture (our constituency being a state within a state").'

No 'lumpen-nationalists' for Gerry Adams: instead he uses the words 'nationalism' and 'republicanism' interchangeably, keen to outline a unity among Northern Catholics which others believe no longer exists.

'There is, I think, something a friend of mine calls group Catholic thinking. About 80 per cent of Northern Catholics, after all, are only a generation away from the land or away from the ghetto and it doesn't take an awful lot to concretise their views. . . the hunger strikes, discrimination, the Queen's University member of staff who was called a "Fenian bastard" ... there's a tendency within this state for some aspects of life to remind you where you come from.

'There's a limit to accommodation and accommodationist politics - and it's the constitutional issue, because Protestants won't talk about it. It's the same thing as people making accommodations in their personal lives and then finding they come up against discrimination. Political accommodation in this state depends on the Unionists and British as much as anyone else. The Unionists have shown no great effort to accommodate, the British are not prepared to push the issue forward, and that brings people back to this group Catholic thinking. Maybe this will reinforce the Unionist paranoia that behind every Catholic, there's some sort of nationalist. I know that isn't the case. I'm trying to make the point that even when the SDLP were prepared to give under Sunningdale, the Unionists wouldn't let them, if you like. I don't think the SDLP any longer want to give. It has moved on, twenty years later. If the emergence of Sinn Féin means a slight radicalising of the non-unionist section of the community, so much the better.'

But having virtually suggested that Sinn Féin's effect on Catholic opinion had been minimal, Adams was less modest about the IRA. 'I think our history shows that progress has always been made around a hard edge of agitation. Demands were usually conceded to whoever the established constitutional politicians were - but that happened when there was unity of purpose or coincidence of objectives. The IRA is the catalyst for change. Britain I don't think would move otherwise. The SDLP know that: that isn't to say they welcome it, want it or appreciate it. But they know it's very difficult trying to persuade the British. Some say the IRA brought down Stormont -I think the whole resistance including the IRA brought down Stormont.

'There's a point people miss. A mass of people come through what's broadly called the republican movement - thousands here in west Belfast in the last twenty years. And I say to the people I work with, those people, although they're not active now, they are still republican. They may have hang-ups, they fell out with the leadership, don't like this or that, but basically what happened was they just couldn't go on. They got married, had kids, got older, couldn't take the pressure - but they still remain republicans. The march on the day Sean Downes was killed, it was just a normal march, a few thousand people. We called a march the following night and it was the biggest I saw on that road [the Falls], there were people there who you'd known in '69, '70, '71 or '72, in jail. They were there to fight, going up that road no matter what happened. Go round and ask those people now would they come out and do something and they won't do it. But when something happens that outrages them, like Sean Downes's death, like the hunger strikes, then all the reasons why they left vanish. They still have the aspiration. They're all there, they're still there.'

The intonation was unmistakable: 'I say to the people I work with.., they're all there, they're still there. ..' Authoritative, reassuring, like all effective leaders, Adams works hard at encouraging the troops. This far into the Troubles, however, he must hear the hollowness of his own reassurance that 'they still have the aspiration'. Gerry Adams knows that the lapsed republicans who marched when Sean Downes was killed by an RUC plastic bullet came out to protest at police violence, not because the 'aspiration' for a thirty-two-county socialist republic had reawakened in their hearts.

Adams hits a note with some resonance in the comments of others, however, when he maintains that a folk memory of shared disadvantage and awareness of continuing prejudice are still strong in many Catholics. Near the top of the social ladder, memory of disadvantage is fading, and often denied or muted - but I was surprised by repeated stories of prejudice encountered, and resented, at points late on in the climb.


John Hume manages to reassure many that discrimination is effectively a thing of the past, that the arrangements he envisages will remove what remains of their dissatisfaction with the state of Northern Ireland and will adequately reflect their political identity. Beyond that, no SDLP supporters I spoke to had much idea what the future shape of government should be.

PETER O'HAGAN is perhaps typical of the voter and supporter who is puzzled but still gratified by Hume's grand designs. He is an SDLP councillor in the Unionist-dominated Lisburn council, a retired secondary school head teacher. He has spent years asking for more RUC protection for Catholics against loyalist attacks, and charting the scarcity of Catholics in council employment. His first political involvement was in the Campaign for Social Justice in the early sixties, collecting statistics on discrimination that bolstered the civil rights agitation. He is sixty-two, one of the 'poor bloody infantry', in his own words, who has slogged through the Troubles at the SDLP's grassroots, and occasionally come close to despair.

One of those occasions was the famous moment during the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Agreement when the then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher brutally and publicly dismissed the three constitutional models put forward shortly before by the New Ireland Forum: a unitary Irish state, joint British/Irish authority over Northern Ireland, and a confederation or federation.

'Give-up time was the '79 to '85 period,' Peter recalls. 'When Thatcher did her 'out, out, out" bit, there were good people then saying "we're finished". The fortnight before the Anglo-Irish Agreement, '85, the party conference then - John made a speech about the rest of the world, he could have delivered it to the United Nations. I said if this doesn't come up with some kind of way forward, I'm going to pack it in.

'But I haven't, because the Anglo-Irish Agreement was unbelievable. It simply recognised the fact that the problem of Northern Ireland began a long time ago, was exacerbated by partition, it did not bring peace, stability or good government, to unionists even! For the first time in my lifetime somebody looked at it and said, let's begin to repair the damage. The two governments talking together... I said, this is worth giving a couple of heaves along the way.

'It's not that I can live with this state as it is, even with the changes with direct rule, the start of some kind of attempt to put discrimination right, and God knows there's still a long way to go. I can't live with it - but I've got to live with it, that's what I feel. Like thousands: we're trapped in this. All you can do is try to make a contribution.

'Withdrawal - that's an emotive word. But I do think the British have realised there's no future here. I'm not talking about abolishing this, abolishing that, or even the term "a united Ireland". I'm talking about getting together and working out a structure where the two parts of Ireland begin to work in harmony.'

Does this mean joint authority? How would joint authority work? Are we talking about a confederation of Britain and Ireland with a Unionist-dominated northern region?

In October 1992 Hume told BBC Radio Ulster that Northern Ireland was an 'abnormal entity' and that power-sharing in a devolved Northern Ireland administration - which Unionists continue to shy away from - would not be a solution. The Unionist furore this caused still reverberates. Hume had 'moved the goalposts' and made it clear for the first time, it was said, that the SDLP would not accept an 'internal solution' - meaning an arrangement in a purely British context. It is what Gerry Adams meant when he suggested Sinn Féin might have 'slightly' radicalised the SDLP. This was not the first time Hume had said something of the sort, however - it was only the most open, unambiguous statement he had made in recent times. In May 1972, he told RTE that the possibility of a restructured North was as impractical as Stormont itself: the only viable option was Irish unity: 'Let's cut the nonsense now and get down to answering the question once and for all.' But in 1972 the SDLP also produced its first document on joint British-Irish authority over Northern Ireland - Ben Caraher helped to write it.

During the 1992 general election campaign Hume said that 'the real union on the table' was European, the union of 'a Europe of the regions'. He was pressed to say whether he meant Northern Ireland would be a region of Ireland or of the UK. 'Quite obviously it would be a region of Europe,' he said, 'quite clearly - both Northern identities transcend the boundaries of Ireland.' An SDLP document produced for the confidential inter-party talks in 1992 proposed a six-person executive commission for Northern Ireland with representatives from the two governments, plus three from Northern Ireland, plus one from the European Commission.

Unionists were outraged at the prospect of an Irish minister having executive power in Northern Ireland, and at the thought of European involvement. Judging by subsequent interviews, the European element of the structure seems to have been dropped - though presumably the context is still important. Sinn Féin, which has only just begun to make unconvincing noises about the importance of 'the European project', as Mitchel McLaughlin calls it, after almost two decades of opposition to the idea of a European community, was plainly baffled all along by the entire plan.

Someone who has known Hume for more than thirty years once said, 'His tactic from the start was to ask for civil rights, which the Unionists couldn't give - in a slightly cynical way it was a safe demand from a nationalist point of view. There was no danger of the book being closed.' But that interprets Hume's original motivation as dogmatically nationalist and anti-partitionist. The increasing emphasis on Europe as a stage or setting that will simultaneously accommodate two Northern identities suggests instead a pragmatism that has been shaped by Hume's lengthy European experience - he first began to liaise with European, and us, politicians, in the mid-seventies - as well as by a growing awareness of the limited Irish government interest in the North.

Hume says now, 'I've never called myself a nationalist. I've always been a social democrat.' For several years he has used the platform of the SDLP annual conference to decry the nation-state as obsolete and nationalism as sterile, a dated, nineteenth-century phenomenon which ignores the divisions between the people on the island of Ireland. In 1984, however, he described the SDLP's achievement through the New Ireland Forum, the meeting of all the nationalist parties except Sinn Féin, as having established our position as part of the body politic of the Irish nationalist tradition'.

In 1991, during the SDLP's annual conference, Hume told a BBC Radio Ulster programme that his position on the unification of Ireland was that he was 'translating its meaning into the reality of today's life'. What this meant was that 'it's essential the two governments cooperate as closely as possible in providing peace and stability for the people of this island'. There is not necessarily any contradiction here, as the more overtly traditionalist and plain-spoken Seamus Mallon insists. He traces the new realism in nationalism back to the New Ireland Forum.

'Redefining nationalism is not revisionism, it was absolutely essential. We came out of a time, remember, when the term "a united Ireland" had never been defined. In the early seventies, late sixties, the catch-all was a "thirty-two-county socialist republic". Nobody bothered to think much about what that meant...

'The forum gave options in terms of nationalist aspirations. In many ways it relieved nationalist opinion of the historical imperative that had built up: that if you weren't simply pursuing a thirty-two-county republic you were less of a nationalist. It accepted there could be a staged position and if a united Ireland was your ultimate aim, you had to decide how to pursue it. That is my ultimate position.'

John Hume is more enigmatic. He guards himself and his party against the charge of undermining identity and abandoning tradition by lashing out at the 'grievance mentality, which I think still exists in fairly major areas of the Catholic community. They're happy to keep complaining. It's all they know. They're whingers. They don't want you to remove the reason for the complaint in this funny sort of way. They're comfortable in it.'

Where leading republicans tended to be circumspect in their public denunciations of the SDLP, mindful that the party is a reflection of a major strand in the Northern nationalist identity, Hume has no such inhibitions. The 'whingers', he makes plain, are Sinn Féin and the IRA. By using 'nationalist' as a term of abuse and appropriating 'republican' for his own party, he preempts the accusation of 'selling-out' or apologetic nationalism. 'In the real meaning of the word, the SDLP is a republican party, in the original meaning of uniting Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. The Provos are the nationalists, more in the tradition of the Peep O' Day Boys and the Defenders [nineteenth-century Catholic faction-fighters who committed atrocities against Protestants] - we're more in the tradition of the genuine republican philosophy. I remember as a boy, my father taking me to a nationalist meeting at the top of the street, and they were waving the flag and I was getting emotional. And my father put his hand on my shoulder and he says, "Just you remember one thing - you can never eat a flag."'

As for his own ultimate position, he leaves options open. It is the kind of answer that unnerves unionists and leaves republicans unsure whether to condemn or to borrow some at least of his terminology. 'Unity I've always defined as agreement, not as a takeover bid. And the form of unity? I don't mind what it is. Because the moment the two sections of the Irish people actually agree on how to live together and start working that, it will evolve itself... Once people start working together you grow into a completely new Ireland - and two or three generations down the road, you create new structures that give expression to what has happened.'

The language about new structures and a time scale of several generations has now begun to seep into republican statements, as has the insistence that unity can only happen by agreement. Suspicion about 'internal settlements' remains. In successive elections the SDLP vote has steadily increased, except in Belfast - proof enough for party members that they have given their supporters what they want. It is difficult, none the less, to avoid the conclusion that the SDLP's success has been at the cost of deepening a new and bitter division: among Northern Catholics. The growth of a Catholic middle class is an important factor. But discontented, cynical people in Belfast, Derry, Newry and mid-Ulster are not simply or even primarily bitter at the new economic advantages open only to some. For these people, there is a clear awareness that their aspirations have been pushed into the background by other Catholics as much as by the rest of the political world. They are not all poor; their republicanism is by no means a uniform set of beliefs. Many feel silenced, 'marginalised', in the same way as their parents and grandparents did in the fifties and sixties. What was once a fairly straightforward disaffection from the Unionist state of Northern Ireland is now a more complex feeling. There is no longer a Catholic community of interests within which anger at the state can be expressed.

Máiréad, who dislikes many things about the SDLP but votes for them and has considerable respect for their leader, seemed to me to be expressing something like this.

'What is attractive is the idea of Europe, the way John Hume pushes that, the whole notion of a more multi-ethnic situation. At an emotional level that really appeals to me. But I think it's still predicated on an internal settlement of some kind. No matter how you dress that up, it's going to be a settlement where the Unionists are the government of Northern Ireland. Given that we've got Unionists saying "no power-sharing", how does that undermine support for the Provos? As they stand at the moment, their only reason for being is to keep going. They've got to be given some very good reason to stop.

'Their support is ambiguous and very deep, remember. A lot of political argument here is useless for that reason - because it's conducted in terms of: "There's these two hundred bad boys, so why can't we get rid of them?" But the problem isn't that there's open support for an armed campaign. A lot of it is more on the level of: 'Well if they keep going, at least it means they'll not be able to impose something on us - we don't want to see these bombs, but on the other hand if the Provos gave up altogether what would that mean? Free rein to internal solutions?"'

Hume's meetings with Gerry Adams during the past year are tersely described by both as intended to discuss the development of a 'strategy' to end the conflict. But they seem an acknowledgement by the SDLP leader of this kind of fear. For republicans, they offer a lessening of their isolation and at least the illusion of participation in mainstream political life. For others, they seem a better, if still remote, chance of progress than further negotiation with Unionists within the unchanged constitutional context of the United Kingdom.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :