This year marks the 40th anniversary of the formation of the IIP whose Protestant leader, the ex-British Army officer John Turnley, was shot dead by the UDA near Larne in 1980.
Turnley had previously been a leading SDLP politician, but split with the then Gerry Fitt-led party because it wasn’t a republican party first.
The success of the IIP was that it was the first real effort by republicans to follow a purely constitutional and democratic route to achieving a united Ireland.
Unlike SF, it did not have the baggage of being the political apologist for a republican terror group.
Unfortunately for the IIP, it was the murder of Turnley, followed by the republican hunger strikes of ’80 and ’81 which effectively killed off the party.
Within two years of its formation, the IIP was starting to eat into the SDLP vote. Had Turnley lived, the IIP – like SF today – would have overtaken the more socialist-leaning SDLP as the leading voice for Northern nationalism.
Turnley may have been a religious Protestant, but he was also a committed constitutional republican and followed a long line of politicians from the Protestant community who believed in an all-island solution.
His Protestant background gave him a unique insight into the Unionist mentality – and what needed to be done to coax Unionists into a power-sharing Executive with republicans.
Maybe that was the primary reason why the UDA murdered the Larne councillor as he sat in his car with his wife in the picturesque east Antrim coastal village of Carnlough.
SF can honour Turnley’s memory by making the IIP the political model for the modern republican movement. The IIP would have become a movement even the most vehement of the DUP’s anti-Belfast Agreement faction could have done business with at Stormont. It poses the question – if the IIP had survived, would the peace process have been implemented a lot sooner than 1998?
The huge mistake which Unionism made in 1974 following the success of the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which collapsed the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive, was to have no alternative to put in the Executive’s place. Later, the London Establishment simply went back to the political drawing board having learned the lesson of how to outwit Unionism when the latter takes to the streets.
If what is left of the SDLP is to survive for another generation, it can only combat the dominance of SF by formally merging with Fianna Fail in the weeks – not months – after any deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP is reached over Stormont. Direct Rule will also condemn the SDLP to the political dustbin of history.
The last thing the SDLP needs is another Assembly poll as that would probably reduce the party to complete fringe status, with the potential embarrassment of coming back to Stormont with less seats than the Alliance Party.
Turnley’s long-term strategy was once he had eclipsed the SDLP, he too, would formally merge the IIP with FF to establish an all-island political movement.
But the real fundamental reason SF should re-design itself as a 2017 IIP is to encourage even more constitutional nationalist SDLP supporters to defect to the republican movement.
With the dissident republican movement constantly threatening to oppose SF candidates in many of the North’s constituencies, there is the real danger a split republican vote will allow Unionist candidates to win additional seats in traditionally republican strongholds.
The next poll, whether Assembly, Westminster or local government, will be unique in the history of the North. It will not be about power-sharing or policing, but will decide for the next decade at least who firmly speaks for Unionism and republicanism. If the last Commons poll is taken as a benchmark, it’s the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Both communities will have their backs to each other if there’s no deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP and the Assembly is suspended.
If middle class Northern Catholicism is to have a decisive voice in any future Stormont, it must send back a single nationalist party with a clear mandate.
A split republican vote will not mean the moderate SDLP will grab the seats. If dissident republican candidates standing on, for example an anti-PSNI platform, even pick up as many as 800 to 1,000 votes in each of the constituencies, it could potentially rob Sinn Fein of up to a dozen seats even at local government level.
The SDLP might pick up one or two at most, but the majority could swing to the DUP.
This will leave Unionism with a massive mandate, creating a future Stormont chamber more akin to the original Unionist Party majority rule government which ran the North from the 1920s to 1972.
Republicans have a lot of heavy thinking to do in the coming weeks. Their former war cry of ‘one man, one vote’ may have to become ‘one party, one vote.’
As for Sinn Fein, the real trouble could come if dissident republicans decide to take their electoral campaign south of the border for the next Dail elections.
If that’s the case, its ‘bye, bye’ to any Sinn Fein coalition with Fianna Fail in the next Leinster House government.
John Coulter is a unionist political writer.
Follow John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter