50 years ago today JohnHume andGerry Fitt established the SDLP

Fifty years ago today the SDLP was formed with Gerry Fitt, a member of the Republican Labour Party, as its first leader, and John Hume, Independent MP for Foyle, as deputy.

A Social Democratic and Labour Party press conference at the Tribine offices in Smithfield. (l-r) Austin Currie MP, Gerry Fitt MP, John Hume MP, Ivan Cooper MP and Paddy O'Hanlon. Behind them is Edward McGrady (left) and Paddy Devlin MP.
A Social Democratic and Labour Party press conference at the Tribine offices in Smithfield. (l-r) Austin Currie MP, Gerry Fitt MP, John Hume MP, Ivan Cooper MP and Paddy O'Hanlon. Behind them is Edward McGrady (left) and Paddy Devlin MP.

Ivan Cooper, the civil rights activist and Independent MP for Mid-Derry was also present at the press conference to announce the new initiative in Belfast.

Mr. Fitt said the party’s aim was to develop a “strong political alternative to the Unionist Party.”

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Messrs. Hume, Cooper and Fitt were joined on the dais by Austin Currie, Paddy Wilson and Paddy Devlin, each bringing significant support from their respective bailiwicks within nationalist and labour politics .

Socialist Democratic Labour Party leaders, (left to right) Austin Currie, Gerry Fitt, John Hume and Paddy Devlin, during the meeting at Cappagh.

“We regard this present crisis as being particularly urgent in view of the fact of a very real possibility that there may be an extreme right-wing takeover of the government of Northern Ireland with a consequent interference in the reforms which have been recently placed on the Statute Book,” said Mr. Fitt, outlining a ‘radical left of centre’ vision. pledging non-violence, and appealing for Protestant support.

The launch made front page news the next day via the Irish Times but the reception in Derry was initially muted: the party was founded on August 21 but it was not until September 1 that the ‘Journal’ carried a front page story on the new developments. The paper did carry an article on the formation of the party inside its edition of Tuesday, August 24, under the headline ‘New Party ‘neo-Nationalist’ says McCann’.

The coverage, however, focused on Eamonn McCann’s claim that the new party ‘will not change anything and will not really try to.’ Mr. McCann, chair of the Derry Labour Party, said: “This is not a new party; it is the neo-Nationalist Party.”

The same article quoted a Derry Protestant Unionist Association claim that the SDLP would not be able to form a united Opposition front because of the ‘different political persuasions in its make-up.’

It contained ‘all kinds of everything’, the association quipped, in reference to the coalesence of the various labour, independent, Connollyite and nationalist elements within the new movement.

On Tuesday, September 1, the ‘Journal’ ran a story on how the success of the SDLP seemed to hinge on the attitude of the Nationalist Party which, up until the previous year was led by Eddie McAteer.

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‘Nationalists hesitate on link with new party’ the ‘Journal reported.

“The hopes of the new SDLP becoming the united and coherent voice of anti-Unionism in the Six Counties seemed to take a knock when the Nationalist Party executive, meeting in Armagh on Sunday, postponed a decision on its future relationship with the Mr. Gerry Fitt-led SDLP.

“There appears to be more than one reason for the Nationalist hesitation. Nationalist president Mr. Eddie McAteer has long been an advocate of a united Opposition at Stormont but he has never minimised the difficulties of bringing all the Opposition viewpoints together in one party,” the paper reported.

The Nationalist reservations were based on two main points, the report suggested.

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“First, that the Nationalists are not convinced of the SDLP commitment to a real effort to remove Partition; and secondly, suggestions at the weekend that Mr. Fitt and other SDLP MPs were thinking of an official link-up with the 26 County Labour party,” it stated.

Despite these concerns over Mr. Fitt’s overtures to Dublin, “Sunday’s Nationalist meeting reaffirmed the party’s unequivocal commitment to the objective of a united party on accepted principles (which would be on the lines of that announced between Mr. McAteer and Mr. John Hume in Derry prior to the general election in June).”

On top of the speculation over mergers with the Nationalist Party and the Irish Labour Party, there was conjecture about a link-up with the NI Labour Party too.

“At the moment there seem to be many questions to be answered before Mr. Fitt can hope to lead all Opposition members into Stormont under the SDLP banner,” the ‘Journal’ remarked.

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The rest is history. Notwithstanding the initial scepticism the SDLP became the dominant nationalist political force within a few years and from the end of the decade under the leadership of the late John Hume enjoyed unprecedented electoral success.