Newly-disclosed documents produced in 1990 by Northern Ireland Office (NIO) officials identified a degree of tension within an SDLP dominated by two ‘strongmen’, John Hume and Seamus Mallon .
The secret papers released by the Public Record Office (PRONI) under the 20 Year Rule show that the then Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, was being briefed on significant divisions within the party.
For example, a September 1990 memo penned by the NIO’s Political Affairs Division found: “Like most political parties in Northern Ireland, there is little of a broad philosophical base to unite the SDLP. Many members, and many of its candidates, are middle-class Catholics who subscribe easily enough to the liberal nationalist perspective of the party, but who are much less comfortable with left-wing policies of the sort expressed in the original party manifesto.
“On many social and economic issues policy is left of centre and based largely on encouraging HMG to put more and more money into Northern Ireland to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment.”
The authors referred to the SDLP’s dominance by its then leader, John Hume, who they considered the principal architect of party strategy.
“Policy is formally decided at annual conferences but in practice is largely a product of the leader of the party.
“Paradoxically, John Hume is not in the business of making policy. He and the SDLP think big, often in a European context, about concepts rather than mechanisms, using words like totality of relationships, thinking about problems not solutions, rather than the nitty gritty of fine detail which unionists dwell upon,” it added.
The NIO believed the relationship between Mr. Hume and Mr. Mallon was lukewarm.
“Hume and Mallon are the strongmen of the leadership and there is clearly a difficult interface between them. The three MPs do not appear to meet often or discuss issues at any length. They seldom have pre-meetings and therefore appear often to be ill-prepared.”
In November 1990, S.A. Marsh of the same division produced a note of a private discussion between the then SDLP vice-chairman Tom Kelly and NIO officials.
The memo stated: “Kelly complained about the centralisation of power within the party. Effective control rested with John Hume, supported by a group of unelected party spokesmen. The situation would be worse after next week when Mark Durkan, John Hume’s assistant, became party chairman. Although the SDLP’s structure appeared democratic on paper, the reverse was the case.
“Open discussion on important issues was not encouraged, and for a long period the leader had not bothered to attend meetings of the party executive. Kelly said he had hoped the election to Parliament of Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady would have provided a broader-based leadership. But this had proved not to be the case. McGrady and Mallon operated within their own territorial areas but had little influence on Hume.”