The funeral took place today of veteran Northern Irish politician Eddie McGrady (above), a founder of the Northern Ireland’s moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and a former MP for the party, who held the South Down seat from 1987 to 2010. During my time as an official at the Anglo Irish Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, I worked with McGrady’s office closely, during a period (pre ceasefire, and pre the current Stormont set-up) when Dublin worked closely with the constitutional SDLP, its ‘preferred partner’, on political and economic matters. I always found McGrady to be a quietly impressive, solid and decent man, true to his rural roots and not overly burdened by the ego and excitement of other politicians, including (and sometimes especially) Northern ones.

However, in 1994, a UK Boundary Commission proposal seriously threatened the ‘territorial integrity’ of McGrady’s South Down constituency. Or that was the way the Dublin Government and the SDLP saw it. The real story was that a revised and renamed constituency was to likely become more Unionist in population and hence the SDLP (and Dublin) would lose the seat. And so while protests were made, I was sent off to the National Library in Dublin to do historical research on the long-time ‘historical consistency’ of the South Down constituency etc. This research was then absorbed into material given to the SDLP and which the party submitted as part of an appeal against the proposed change – an appeal that the Government in Dublin then reacted to in public, with ‘surprise’ and then supported.

It was an episode of some intellectual subterfuge, but showed the depth and intimacy of involvement that the Irish Government had with the SDLP – a relationship and an era that has now ended, and been replaced with a much different and detached attitude to the political set up in the North, as had been envisaged and hoped for. The SDLP/Dublin relationship was also in complete contrast to the hands off approach taken to Sinn Fein, the IRA wing of which was still very much involved in violence. I wrote about the episode, in the extract below, in my book An Accidental Diplomat (2001).


On a day-to-day basis, however, the relationship was an intimate one. Many officers would talk to their SDLP contacts almost daily, gossiping about politics and backbiting about their respective masters. SDLP people thus became quite au fait with the workings of the Department. And with the workings of their own party. Often it was only by talking to DFA that SDLP members found out what their party leaders were up to. On practical matters, Anglo-Irish Division was a virtual constituency office for the SDLP and every day, bags of rushed-through Irish passports would come over from Molesworth Street to be forwarded to their Derry or Belfast offices. Some of their requests were bizarre. On one occasion I had to try and acquire a rescue boat for the River Foyle. A lot of people in Derry were committing suicide and were doing so by jumping off Craigavon Bridge. ‘Hume is upset,’ I was told, ‘especially since he built the thing. Also, the suicides are mostly middle class, so he could be losing voters.’

I dutifully made enquiries, but even the Departments of Marine and Defence were surprised by the request. ‘Can they not get a fucking boat in Derry?’ they asked, not unreasonably. Of course, usually when it’s the North, other Departments jump for Anglo-Irish, but by now it was wearing a bit thin. Also, as more and more Departments dealt directly with their Northern counterparts, the mystique of dealing with Northern Ireland was gradually being diminished. I called the SDLP and said I was ‘still looking into it’, but the boat had been overtaken by new and more immediate requests. Most critical amongst these was saving SDLP MP Eddie McGrady’s Westminster seat.

In a general review of Northern constituencies, the Boundary Commission had recommended abolishing McGrady’s South Down seat and replacing it with a smaller area. The SDLP were outraged, since the new seat would have a Unionist majority. My friends at the East Border Region Committee were particularly incensed, regarding South Down was part of their natural hinterland. ‘First, we have to stomach the Select Committee, then harassment, now this!’ Again all the issues were connected.


McGrady, with Margaret Ritchie (centre), his successor as SDLP MP for South Down

One of the big planks of the SDLP’s appeal was that South Down was ‘a historic constituency going back years’ and its abolition would be ‘a violation of tradition and geography, etc.’ A submission to the Boundary Commission and thus some clandestine historical research was required, so off I went to the National Library in Kildare Street to look up old books and Hansards. Of course, this being Dublin I bumped into people I knew. One fellow, doing a thesis on the Church of Ireland, was even able to point me towards the appropriate records. I said I was working on a ‘cross-border cultural project’, but given my suit and wide-eyed demeanour, I could see he was suspicious. (Ironically, he [Peter McDonagh} has since himself gone into Government, working with Fianna Fail as an adviser in Health and Education.)

Conveniently ignoring what historical detail didn’t suit the case, I drew up a passionate defence of the geographical and historical integrity of South Down, which, in fairness, had been a Westminster seat for a long time. Its long-standing balance of urban and rural was outlined, along with colourful Parnellite MPs. Once drafted, the submission now had to be ‘de-jargonised’ and cleaned of any DFA phrasing. A few local colloquialisms would make it look home-grown. Completed, it was passed onto the SDLP who presented it as their own. Asked about the controversy on TV, Spring would feign vagueness and say; ‘I understand the SDLP are making an appeal.’ The fiction of the SDLP’s independence — mirroring, they would argue, the fiction of an independent Boundary Commission — was illustrated by the fact that having written the document on their behalf in the first place, we then had to draft Spring’s response to this ‘interesting submission’.

McGrady later won the seat with 25,000 votes, the biggest SDLP majority in Northern Ireland. ‘He might at least have sent us a thank-you note’ my First Sec grumbled.

By contrast with SDLP, the IRA were still killing people and their political wing, Sinn Féin, were well out in the cold. As with New York, and Noraid, it was policy not to meet Sinn Féin (SF) or have contact with them. Even in context of the ‘Travellers’, this was quite consistently adhered to. (Of course, once ‘out of office’, it was somewhat different and, later, during the Peace Process, it was revealed that former Minister, Brian Lenihan, and former diplomat, Michael Lillis had separately met SF representatives.)


McGrady, with John Hume (left) in Belfast.