Irish Unity, Labour politics and the role of the SDLP: an interview with Patsy McGlone MLA….

Bill Breathnach is  Writer and TV researcher based in Connemara. Interested in economics, politics and all things cultural…

Patsy McGlone is a true Gael. The Ballinderry man is a fluent Irish speaker and with a passion for Gaelic culture. His father John played football for Derry, but it was another sporting legend from the Oak Leaf County that encouraged Patsy to enter politics. Roddy Gribbin, who played in the 1958 All-Ireland Final, was an SDLP councillor in Magherafelt during the 1980s and was pivotal in convincing Patsy to join the party. Patsy later became acquainted with John Hume and Seamus Mallon and the philosophy of these two men would greatly influence his own political outlook. McGlone was first elected to the then Cookstown District Council in 1993 and in 2003 he was elected to the Assembly for Mid-Ulster. At present, Patsy is the SDLP spokesperson for Rural Communities and the Irish language.

Of course, when Patsy started in politics there was a clear contrast between the SDLPs pacifism and Sinn Féin’s support for the Provisional IRA. But nearly 30 years after the final Provisional ceasefire, is there still a meaningful difference between them? Both parties support the peace process and claim to have similar ambitions regarding Irish unity and social justice. The MLA acknowledges that this is a common question in the North; “There are of course some differences regarding specific policies, but for most of the public the would wonder what the difference is”. Still, Patsy believes that the historical differences between the parties are important. “I could never go into a unionist village near me and say that I give full support for the Provisionals’ campaign. That campaign effected a lot of people from both nationalist and unionist communities”.

According to Patsy, the Provisionals’ campaign is still a massive impediment to nationalist objectives. “On both sides of my family there are people who believe in the Republic, but if we want to unite the two sides on this island we have to be able to win over unionists … that’s a big problem for Sinn Féin”. While there is still much work to be done to attract the confidence of unionists, he believes that the SDLP are better placed to do it; “If you are serious about bringing people into a new Ireland, you have to be understanding that people will have different viewpoint. I’m talking about my neighbours, people who were in school with me from a Unionist background. It’s not something impractical. This is the truth”.

However, despite the lofty ambitions of Patsy and the SDLP, the party has witnessed a steep decline in fortunes since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998, the SDLP achieved 22% of the vote at the Assembly elections. They only achieved 9% in the same elections in 2022. According to the MLA, the electoral system incentivises cynical voting to the SDLPs detriment. “When we were on the doors, everyone was saying we should get rid of the DUP and achieve the post of First Minister for Sinn Féin. It had nothing to do with ideology. It was just like a political football match regarding who could get the top job”. In this context DUP intransigence creates more havoc for the SDLP, as nationalists are further incentivised to vote tactically. “It wasn’t what was intended with the [Good Friday] Agreement, but the way the DUP is functioning, it’s a massive benefit to Sinn Féin”.

It appears therefore that Northern Ireland’s political landscape is not conducive to the development of political philosophies outside realm of the constitution, culture wars or sectarian headcount politics. “We discussed policies on the doors a little bit with regards to education or health, but the main thing discussed was who would get the job of First Minister”. Of course, the SDLP was founded to be the central component of a Labour movement that could unite all workers, regardless of religious background. Patsy admits that at present, this is still impossible. “It’s not how it works here. The trade unions don’t support one party or another. Their members are from different backgrounds, and therefore they deal with all the parties. It’s quite unique in the 6 counties. I don’t think it can be said that politics is evolving, or even at the point of evolving to that point”.

Well if the electoral landscape doesn’t support Labour politics, can it be said that the state apparatus does either? Labour politics are ultimately economic in nature but it’s Westminster that controls the purse strings in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t matter what political outlook the Minster of Health in Stormont might have, if the British Government wants to cut funding to the healthcare system, then they have no choice but to implement it. Patsy accepts that Northern politicians don’t have full control over matters devolved to them, irrespective of how functional or dysfunctional the devolved institutions might be. “There are a lot of problems in the 6 counties regarding waiting lists. It’s very difficult. And any Minister who might be there, regardless of party, would find it very difficult … It depends on what Government is in power [in Westminster] when it comes to the policies and amount of money that come the way of the 6 counties”. He is not too sure either about what might be in store for Northern Ireland if there is a change in government in London. “Now with Britain in financial trouble, would a new Labour government be able to invest more money in in health, education or the economy? I don’t know”.

Despite these difficulties, is the SDLP able to remain committed to the politics of labour? According to the latest Lucid Talk poll available, among employed SDLP voters, 34% could be categorised as “Working Class”. Among employed Sinn Féin voters this figure was 46% and nearly 49% for the general population. Of course, it is important to state that these figures are derived from sub-groups within the total survey sample, and thus have a wider margin of error but do they point to a certain trend? Patsy does not concur. “If people think our vote is middle class, then they don’t understand Derry. The party got a fantastic vote for the Westminster seat there. I was campaigning with the party in areas there that weren’t at all middle class. We got a great response”.

What about the warm relationship between the SDLP and the Southern parties. Is there a certain contradiction between the social values of the SDLP and the largely neoliberal economy of the Republic? This doesn’t bother Patsy at all; “I have friends in every party in the 26 counties and I work very well with them. It’s very important that we do that. If we are thinking about creating a new Ireland, we all have to cooperate with each other”.

According to him, there should be an arrangement made regarding public services as part of a process to achieve Irish unity. “How can people be comfortable in a new Ireland? Neither I or the party would want there to be differences in healthcare for rich and poor people. We want to generate equality in whatever new Ireland we might have”. As such, the party would still have a meaningful purpose in a united Ireland according to Patsy. “I hope I’ll be around to see it. The party’s role would be the same as it has always been over the years. We want to create a new society based and inspire values based on equality, job creation, education, and health”.

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