A woman whose sister was killed by the IRA whilst leaving Mass has declared “decent, law-abiding nationalists” may well shun the SDLP if it cuts an electoral deal with Sinn Fein.
Ann Travers, who said she has backed the SDLP in the past, told the News Letter she is “sickened” by the notion of a pact with the paramilitary-connected party, and urged SDLP members to imagine what their original founders would make of the idea.
Meanwhile Ulster Unionist stalwart Lord Kilclooney said that the SDLP would simply be “destroying themselves” by joining with Sinn Fein.
They were speaking following the suggestion during the week by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood that he is interested in crafting together some kind of anti-Brexit axis ahead of the June 8 General Election.
He stressed that it would not be a “sectarian” pact among nationalists – but the biggest anti-Brexit party by far is Sinn Fein, and it signalled its interest during the week, whereas non-aligned anti-Brexit party Alliance has explicitly rejected joining a pact.
Last night the SDLP issued a statement stressing once more that its idea of a pact is based solely on a shared opposition to Brexit, adding that it also wants pro-EU unionists to join.
Ms Travers believes the SDLP can “forget” the idea of unionist voters offering transfer votes to the SDLP in the future following Mr Eastwood’s controversial plan.
Ms Travers, whose sister Mary was shot to death by the IRA in 1984, said: “I’d be really disappointed with the SDLP if they did enter into a pact with a political party that still justifies murders that the IRA committed.
“I’ve always seen the SDLP as having the moral high ground.
“It’s always deeply saddened me and I couldn’t understand why in the last election nationalists aren’t voting for the SDLP; I don’t know why they’re turning towards a party that still justifies murder.”
If the SDLP were now to go ahead and cut some kind of electoral deal with Sinn Fein, she said: “I think it certainly will undermine them. I don’t see how any decent, law-abiding nationalist could give them their vote.
“If the SDLP enter into a pact with Sinn Fein, I think it’s disgusting and I really would be quite horrified.”
Ms Travers, 47, has lived in the Republic for over a decade, though said she had previously been a supporter of the SDLP during her time in Northern Ireland.
However, she “absolutely could not support them ever again if they entered into anything like that – and I’d imagine that I wouldn’t be alone”.
SDLP ‘CAN SAY GOODBYE TO UNIONIST TRANSFERS’
The book ‘Lost Lives’ recounts that Ms Travers’ sister Mary (a 22-year-old Catholic schoolteacher) died on April 8, 1984, after being shot while leaving Mass in south Belfast.
Her father Tom Travers (a magistrate) was shot repeatedly but survived – and later said an attempt had also been made to shoot his wife too as she cradled Mary, but that the gun misfired.
Ms Travers came to prominence in 2011 when she spoke out publicly over the fact one of the murder gang – Mary McArdle – had been appointed as a highly-paid special advisor to Sinn Fein.
Ms Travers said she is still contacted daily by relatives of Troubles victims, who recount their own traumatic experiences to her.
When quizzed about the pact plans, SDLP members and Green Party leader Steven Agnew (whose party may also join) have told the News Letter that Sinn Fein have a democratic mandate in the Province and that they already deal with its members regularly at Stormont and elsewhere.
“That’s completely different,” said Ms Travers.
“Having to work with people because they’ve been elected and are in a ‘work colleague’ situation is completely different from entering into a pact with them so that they can get votes.
“There are unionist voters who would have given a second vote to the SDLP. But the SDLP might as well just forget about any of that now.
“And actually I’d ask them to look back at what their forefathers and people who started their political party would actually think of that.”
She contrasted that idea with the rejection of violence she said had characterised the emergence of the party during the civil rights era.
KILCLOONEY: SDLP IS DESTROYING ITSELF
Lord Kilclooney, former UUP deputy, had called for unionist voters to prioritise unionist parties on their ballots during the last election in March, as opposed to choosing the SDLP as their second preference (as leader Mike Nesbitt declared he would).
He said this SDLP idea of a pact “absolutely” underlines a need for unionist unity now.
Reacting to the SDLP’s suggestion, he said: “I’m shocked. I think the SDLP are destroying themselves by working together with supporters of the IRA.
“After all, Gerry Adams did say [in 1995]: ‘They haven’t gone away you know’. That’s what they’re linking up with.
“What will happen is that Sinn Fein will swallow them up. Sinn Fein is a much better-organised party, it has ample funds from whatever sources I don’t know, and the SDLP will go into further decline.”
SDLP grandee Seamus Mallon was asked about the idea of a pact, but said he was “not privy to any discussions”.
“I’m making no comment because I need to see what happens. I’m not going to anticipate or speculate,” he said.
Patsy McGlone, SDLP MLA for Mid Ulster, said whilst the SDLP has shown no enthusiasm for pacts before, “this one is a very exceptional case, in that Theresa May has publicly called the election as an endorsement of the Tory party stance on Brexit”.
It was “a very good idea to see if we can establish an anti-Brexit coalition”, he said.
He was asked how aiding an abstentionist party could boost any anti-Brexit voice.
He replied that “it may well be that such a deal cannot be worked out, but that’s the theory of it at the moment”.
He was asked about the moral question of joining up with Sinn Fein, given its links to violence, to which he said: “I’d take that on board, if such a pact were exclusively with Sinn Fein. But that’s not what we’re talking about.”
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS ON THE TABLE?
Details of the plan, first mooted on Wednesday, remain rather vague.
At that time, Mr Eastwood told reporters that whilst he is not interested in a pact along unionist/nationalist lines, he will “speak to anybody who wants to retain our membership of the EU and protect our citizens from a hard Brexit”.
Speaking on Radio Ulster on Thursday afternoon, he was pressed on what the electoral ramifications might be of such a pact.
He replied that details had to be worked out with other parties.
But at one point he was asked “whether those conversations could get to a point where there is a deal on parties standing aside in order to improve the chances of your candidates – that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?”
He replied: “Of course that’s what we’re talking about. It’s obviously what we’re talking about...
“What I’m saying is if we can get to the point where we have a broad base who want to make a very specific point about Brexit, then of course we’re going to get into those type of specifics about particular constituencies.”
It is not totally clear what the SDLP believes it may gain from such a pact – but its South Belfast seat hangs in the balance in the June 8 election, with the DUP just a couple of percentage points behind it.
If Sinn Fein and / or the Green Party agreed to drop out of the race, it would be a massive boost the SDLP’s prospects of keeping the seat.
Meanwhile, if the SDLP dropped out of the races in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, North Belfast, and possibly in Upper Bann, Sinn Fein would be in a notably stronger position to take these seats – all of which are now in unionist hands.
SDLP STATEMENT SEEKS TO CLARIFY SITUATION
After being contacted about Ann Travers’ and Lord Kilclooney’s comments, the SDLP last night issued a statement.
It tries to clarify the current situation around a pact, and reads in full: “SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has opened a discussion on how we can maximise the pro-Europe vote through an anti-Brexit axis.
“Following constructive engagement with Green Party leader Steven Agnew, the SDLP will reach out to the Alliance Party and pro-Europe unionists with a view to establishing a broad coalition to take the fight to the Tories.
“Some people are talking about narrow pacts to keep one community out.
“The SDLP will never take part in such a nakedly sectarian arrangement.
“Fighting sectarianism is in our political DNA. We have fought sectarianism for over 45 years and we will continue to do that.”
Asked to explain some aspects of this statement, an SDLP spokesman said that although it does not specifically mention Sinn Fein, the republican party remains a candidate for becoming involved in a pact.
He also said that even though the Alliance Party had explicitly rejected the idea of pact almost immediately, the SDLP will approach them anyway in the coming days to present its ideas for the “anti-Brexit axis”.
When it comes to the “anti-Brexit unionists” mentioned in the statement, it is understood to mean that the SDLP is likely to approach the Ulster Unionists, as well as independent unionists (such as Claire Sugden and Sylvia Hermon).