The SDLP was factionalised, lacked unifying policies and was a party where senior figures appeared to rarely meet for detailed discussions, according to a declassified Northern Ireland Office assessment in 1990.
Files declassified at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20 Year Rule contain a blunt appraisal of the state of nationalism’s dominant party at a point where it was coming under increasing pressure from Sinn Fein.
In an analysis which has largely been borne out by the demise of the party since John Hume retired as leader in 2001, the authors concluded: “John Hume is the SDLP and vice versa. That would appear to be the scenario for some time to come”.
The confidential document was drawn up in September 1990 by the NIO’s Political Affairs Division.
It said: “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.”
It went on to describe the party’s policy thus: “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.”
Discussing key party figures, civil servants set out a fairly dysfunctional internal dynamic within the SDLP.
“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.”
However, it noted that “it is only rarely that private debate spills over into public acrimony”, with Mr Hume’s displeasure at any statement contrary to his views being “relayed through the grapevine”.
The authors were dismissive of the current Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone – then the party’s general secretary and a future deputy leader – as “fairly lightweight” and went on to say that there was “a remarkable dislike” of John Hume within the SDLP because “he is not a natural leader in an all-embracing way, tends not to commission papers and is almost always reactive”.
He said that “Hume’s ambitions lie beyond Ireland, thus it is unlikely that he would run for an Assembly here”.
Mr Mallon was described as “a difficult character to work with” who had “a deep antipathy to authority, can be deliberately awkward and will do things to spite others” while Eddie McGrady was “a hard-working pragmatic individual”.