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23 February 2015

SDLP showing courage and cowardice in equal measure

SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell

As someone who doesn't want the big parties to crush the opposition, I was feeling quite cheerful recently about the SDLP. It may have taken 18 months of wrangling, but it was brave of the MLAs eventually to stand up to Sinn Fein by supporting the extension of the remit of the UK National Crime Agency (NCA).

The NCA's job is to tackle serious and organised crime that crosses international borders: up to now, in Northern Ireland, it's been restricted to border and customs operations, which, with smuggling, drug and people trafficking and money laundering rampant, left a huge burden on the PSNI.

Other businesspeople moan about red tape: republican entrepreneurs in the border counties grumble about the officers of the law. It's no wonder that Sinn Fein were obdurately opposed to the NCA. Fortunately for the law-abiding, without the SDLP, they can't block it.

Having grudgingly admitted that some concessions have been gained on the accountability front, Sinn Fein are now weighing up how they can use the issue to damage the SDLP without seeming irresponsible. Alex Attwood MLA put the boot in when he said: "The continuing freedom that fuel launderers have to create environmental damage and build their criminal assets is intolerable. The fact that the biggest illegal waste dump ever found on these islands netted £50m for organised crime is unacceptable." Are you listening, south Armagh?

I had also been encouraged that, along with other parties, they had had the temerity to fight aspects of the Welfare Bill.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments, it matters that the DUP and Sinn Fein shouldn't be allowed to do side-deals and remain unchallenged. Stormont will never operate properly until there is an opposition, so any advance on that front is welcome.

It matters, too, that, as Sinn Fein denounce austerity in the Republic, they have the embarrassment of being criticised at Stormont for implementing it. It's no wonder Gerry Adams is trying to distract attention by claiming he trampolines naked.

It's entertaining when the big boys are incredulous and outraged that the small fry make a fuss. Apart from anything else, it was fun to have such a prime example of a pot abusing a kettle as when a furious Martin McGuinness accused the SDLP of "hypocrisy", "sham politics", "political grandstanding" and being "dissidents".

And it was amusing when an angry Peter Robinson recommended Dolores Kelly, the SDLP deputy leader, to speed to "the confessional" when she denied the SDLP had reneged on a Stormont House secret deal.

However, the SDLP's lamentable behaviour on Newry and Mourne District Council has lost it more support with decent people than it had won in Stormont.

The SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell, had declared his opposition to naming a playground after Raymond McCreesh (who in addition to his other terrible crimes of sectarian violence may have been involved in the Kingsmills massacre), yet eight out of nine of his councillors failed to show up to stop Sinn Fein voting it through.

The group leader was at his golf club AGM and he explained that colleagues were kept away by illness, prearranged engagements and work commitments.

It's hard to disagree with Sammy Heenan, the ratepayer whose father was murdered by the IRA, when he said he was "utterly disappointed at the moral cowardice of the SDLP on the issue".

In fairness, though, one of the party's councillors doesn't come into that category. Kate Loughran, who describes herself as "a proud Armagh woman", has confirmed that she signed a petition in support.

"I would know the McCreesh family personally and they would actually be very good friends of mine - nothing political, or anything like that, but just a generally good family in the area." She was insistent, however, that she was "not a supporter of violence in any shape or form". So not moral cowardice then. Moral blindness.

If Dr McDonnell goes to Newry, denounces the shocking vote and expels any SDLP councillor who doesn't commit to trying to reverse it, he may recover some moral ground.

Otherwise, to those who care about integrity, it really won't matter what the SDLP do in Stormont.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards