N. Ireland GE2019 (3) – SDLP and South Belfast


This is the third of the GE2019 series. The first two on the DUP and N. Belfast and Sinn Féin and Foyle are available by clicking on the links.

Some History

When Northern Ireland was founded in 1921 it had many advantages over the Free State, not least because it contained about 80% of the industrial capacity of the entire island of Ireland. It was also, in terms of GDP per capita, much wealthier. Indeed it took until the 1980s for IE to catch up. In 1954 for example (Fig. 1), NI GDP per capita was still over 1.5 times higher than IE. The NI growth rate, however, was the lowest in W. Europe.

Fig.1 NI and IE GDP and subsequent growth.

In terms of politics and statecraft, IE was much more successful than Northern Ireland. It had the advantage of PR, a written constitution and an elected upper chamber. Protestants were well integrated into the state from its inception — the first president of Ireland Douglas Hyde was a Protestant. This not to give An Rialtas an A* rating, many mistakes were made.

Lloyd George sought and was given assurances by the founding fathers of NI that it would be a beacon of democratic excellence and that Catholics, in particular, would be treated both fairly and equally.

This proved sadly not to be the case. There was a lack of confidence in the new NI. Rather than trying to integrate Catholics, they were seen by many as potential enemies of the state. Brookeborough, the PM of NI from ’43-’63, regarded all Catholics as potential traitors, who could not compromise their traditional views and embrace Northern Ireland.

There was also a convention that Northern Ireland matters were not discussed at Westminster and Unionists effectively had free reign to run their own fiefdom.

Fig. 2 GE1964 a clean sweep for Unionists (reference)

The PR voting system for the NI Parliament (Stormont), was regressively changed to FPTP in 1929. Gerrymandering was rife, most notoriously in the City of Derry, where despite only having about 1/3 of the population, Protestants managed to keep control of the city.

By the ’60s, Unionist control seemed to be complete. In 1964 the UUP, for the last time, managed to capture all 12 Westminster seats in the GE (Fig. 2). However, within five years the entire edifice was in danger.

In addition to electoral discrimination there was also perceived discrimination in other areas:

  1. Housing.
  2. Jobs — especially in the public sector.
  3. Abuses of civil power, in the use of legislation (the Special Powers Act of 1922) backed by a sectarian auxiliary police force (the B Specials).

Things came to a head in 1968. There was a belief among many Catholics that NI was a Herrenvolk Democracy, similar to the Southern US or South Africa. The NI civil rights movement was very much inspired by the US Black civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King, in particular, and the power of peaceful protest.

The chronicle of events is documented on the Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland (CAIN) site, but things rapidly spiralled out of control from 1968 and led to the Troubles.

Three prominent organisations involved were: the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) and the People’s Democracy (PD).

The main strategy was peaceful protest, but it was often met with completely disproportionate police brutality. Two of the most infamous incidents were the Derry Civil rights march on the 5th October ’68 and the Long March from 1st-4th Jan ’69, which was ambushed at Burntollet Bridge. The brutal events, shown on TV around the world, were recorded by RTÉ cameras and led to the disbanding of the B-Specials and, quite likely, to later support for IRA fundraising in emigrant communities.

The police brutality has the opposite effect than intended, Fig 3. shows a march in Derry on November 16th, with about 20k protester headed by Derry civic leaders including John Hume, showing a determination not to be cowed.

Fig.3 Peaceful Response to the 5th October march.

The situation deteriorated rapidly. Confidence in NI policing had evaporated. Free Derry was established and a train of events which led to The Troubles had begun.

As usual, there were a number of strands to the Nationalist movement, those dedicated to peaceful protest and constitutional means and those who felt they had no option but to confront state oppression and brutality, with force.

The Constitutional Nationalists largely coalesced to form the SDLP; the PIRA was the main vehicle for those who felt force was justified. On the Unionist side, there were also some who believed a better (non-sectarian, more inclusive) NI was possible. One outcome was the formation of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

The Party


The SDLP was founded in July 1970. Two of its most prominent founders were Gery Fitt and John Hume.

Gerry Fitt, who captured the W. Belfast seat in 1966 for Republican Labour, sponsored our class for a school trip to Stormont in May ’68. I had the privilege of meeting both him and Ian Paisley.

The SDLP is, of course, a Nationalist party and one of their core values as expressed on their website is:

We have always stood completely opposed to all violence, arguing that it was not only morally wrong but politically bankrupt as well because violence always destroys that which it claims to defend.

Even though Gerry Fitt was the first leader of the SDLP, John Hume was by far its most influential member and is credited as being the main architect of both the Sunningdale agreement in 1973 and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.

John Hume is a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award. He was voted Greatest Irish Person in an RTÉ poll. One of the achievements he is most proud of is the establishment of the Derry Credit Union, which transformed the lives of many in the city.

Sadly, though Hume is still alive, he suffers from advanced dementia and is unaware of his many great achievements. Since Hume’s retirement, the SDLP which was the dominant Nationalist party in NI has gone into decline, to be replaced by Sinn Féin.

The SDLP currently hold no Westminster seats but have a good chance of retaking Foyle and are odds-on to take South Belfast.

The Constituency

South Belfast

Belfast South contains not only the Queen’s University but many of the more wealthy of the Belfast suburbs. It has a very mixed electorate with many students and young professionals, as well as some working-class pockets.

It is a constituency where demographic change is most apparent. The former Protestant and Unionist majority is long gone and even though it is currently a DUP seat, it is very unlikely to remain so after the election.

Fig. 4 GE 2017 Results Belfast South.

Emma Little-Pengelly (ELP) captured the seat in 2017. This time, however, neither SF or the Greens are running and the SDLP candidate is the charismatic Claire Hanna, who is hot favourite to win the seat. Brexit has galvanised the NI electorate and the SDLP have impeccable “Remain” credentials. S. Belfast is a very “Remain” constituency with a 69.5% -30.5% pro-EU result in the referendum. Many of the South Belfast electorate, reckoned to be the most sophisticated in NI, are likely to abandon the DUP.

Paddy Power has the SDLP as odds-on favourite at 1/6, Alliance on 11/2 and the DUP 3rd on 13/2.


  1. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    Thanks again, Sean for taking the time to explain some of the mysteries of Irish politics.

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