When Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, many years ago, that “The old order changeth yielding place to new” maybe he was foretelling what would happen to political parties on this island.
Sinn Féin has eclipsed the SDLP as the nationalist voice in Northern Ireland but what would have happened had not John Hume gone out on a limb and involved the Sinn Féin leadership in talks. A hundred years ago the same thing happened with the original Sinn Féin.
The Irish Parliamentary Party had fought valiantly for years to win Home Rule but in the General Election of 1918, they were swept aside in a Sinn Féin landslide. So much so that they were never heard of again in this state.
Following partition, those members of the Irish Parliamentary Party who had been elected in the new northern state became known as the Nationalist Party. Their members entered Stormont in 1924. It is difficult to call it a party as it was more a collection of like-minded members each of whom was totally independent in their own constituencies.
Encouraged by attempts at reform by Terence O’Neill they agreed, in 1965, to become the official opposition at Stormont but that was short lived. In 1968 one of their members, Austin Currie, staged a sit-in protest against the allocation of a house in Tyrone in what led to the start of the Civil Rights Movement.
The protesters were brutally evicted by the RUC and as a result the Nationalists withdrew from their role as opposition. Within a few short years the party was by-passed by the newly emerging SDLP and faded away. One of its most prominent members, and for years the voice of nationalists, was Derryman Eddie McAteer.
McAteer was born in Coatbridge in Scotland to Donegal parents but the family moved back to Derry in 1915. The family lived in poverty but they were educated by the Christian Brothers.
At 16 Eddie passed the entrance exams for the British Civil Service and began work as a tax official in Enniskillen. In the ’40s he trained as an accountant and opened his own practice and then decided to stand for election to Stormont where he opened his maiden speech in Irish.
He campaigned vigorously against religious discrimination and gerrymandering and was a strong supporter of the campaign to get a University for Derry. In his early years he veered slightly towards militancy but as the years went on, he always advocated moderation.
Nevertheless, he took part in a banned Civil Rights march in Derry and was subject to a baton attack by the RUC. He later said the banning of that march could prove to be the greatest mistake of the Stormont regime. With the denial of basic rights he feared where the protests would lead and is supposed to have asked that while it was easy to get the people onto the streets what would get them off again.
One thing the Civil Rights movement did lead to was the emergence of a group of young nationalist candidates. When Eddie McAteer lost his seat to one of them – John Hume – he gradually faded out of politics.
Eddie McAteer, last great leader of the Nationalist Party in Stormont died on March 25, 1986 – 27 years ago this week.