Reflections on the SDLP revival

Reflections on the SDLP revival Gerry Fitt Photograph: Jimmy McCormack/IrishTimes

As a new party, Aontú did well in the Derry constituency of Foyle for the UK General Election: Anne McCloskey got over 2,000 votes and saw an increase in support for her party.

Yet, in terms of the overall political picture, it’s surely also a welcome development that the SDLP, which had been wiped off the political map in Northern Ireland, won back two Westminster seats. Colum Eastwood in Derry and Claire Hanna in South Belfast may not be aligned on all issues that readers of this newspapers would wish; but it had been so regrettable that the party founded by Gerry Fitt and John Hume, and to which Seamus Mallon brought such distinction, had disappeared. At least John Hume’s heritage has now been revived as an active political force.

Seamus Mallon’s lovely memoir A Shared Home Place also prompted some personal regrets for me.

I met Gerry Fitt when he was first elected to the House of Commons for West Belfast and thought him a very decent man.  He told me about his experiences as a merchant seaman on the wartime arctic convoys crossing the freezing Baltic Sea during World War II.  One night he saw a German plane coming  towards the ship he was travelling in, and he thought: “There’s a pilot up there trying to kill me, and I’m on a vessel trying to kill his people. But I’ve nothing against that German personally and he has nothing against me. What’s it all about?”

At that moment he felt a strong compulsion to dedicate himself, subsequently, to the cause of peace. It was an epiphany which informed much of his political life. Gerry Fitt survived his wartime experience, but saw many other men lost at sea in terrible conditions.

But it had been so regrettable that the party founded by Gerry Fitt and John Hume had disappeared”

Seamus Mallon writes that, as an older widower, and a member of that ultimate retirement home, the House of Lords, Gerry was often quite lonely in London. I now wish I had made more effort to contact him during his declining years.

It was only recently, too, that I learned that Gerry had been born out of wedlock – literally in a Belfast workhouse, to a single mother, and “father unknown”.

He was fostered and raised by George and Mary Fitt, who had five other children. Later in his adult life, his birth mother approached him, wanting to meet him, but he rebuffed her. He claimed that she had been physically cruel to him as a young child and had caused the disability that marked one of his eyes.

Who knows what her story was?

He adored his own daughters, whom he jokingly called ‘The Miss Fitts’.

So, if only for the historic association with John Hume, Seamus Mallon and Gerry Fitt, I welcome the return of the SDLP to the active political arena of these islands. And surely it’s important that there should be a voice in the new Brexit Westminster parliament to represent the moderate Irish Nationalist populace in the north.


I’ve always been interested in failure, perhaps because I’ve failed at so many endeavours myself: and I would say that any modest success I’ve ever achieved has been built on many failures. So I was rather cheered this year by a report which claimed that people who fail at some challenge often learn more than people who succeed.

The researchers even came up with a theory that it is better to have a 15%failure rate, in any undertaking – from exams to jobs – than to have 100% success. Abject failure can indeed dishearten, but some failure is often a spur.

Even as a schoolkid I loved that line in the New Testament about how the stone that the builders rejected subsequently became the cornerstone.


Focus on Scotland, Nicola!

It was remarked that nationalism was a theme running through the British election – Scottish nationalism affirming itself with the success of the SNP, led by the redoubtable Nicola Sturgeon.

Ms Sturgeon is certainly every inch the confident Caledonian, striding forth in her elegant high-heeled shoes: unlike most other modern women, she seldom wears trousers – perhaps proud of a shapely pair of pins!

Fair play to her and her campaign for a Scottish independence referendum. She’s entitled to be respected for her national aspirations.

She’s not entitled, however, to meddle in referendums held in other sovereign states, and that’s just what she did do during the Repeal the Eighth Referendum in Ireland – actively lending her support to the pro-Repeal side.

Politicians of one nation should keep out of the legislative business of their neighbours.