The late Maya Angelou’s once said “surviving is important, thriving is elegant.” With each year that passes the SDLP is living proof of the resonance of that acute observation.
They do, very much against the odds and the broader dynamic within the voting classes, rather inelegantly survive. Just enough to keep hope, now that almost everything else has fled, alive.
Despite the influx of some new blood in Fermanagh and Omagh, and the appointment of the first female nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast, the SDLP is probably ageing more visibly than any other of Northern Ireland’s political parties.
Being the Good Friday Agreement’s very best friend has not served them well. Quite the opposite in fact. In constantly fixing ‘other peoples’ problems’ the party disperses its limited energies in the service of people and causes who will never vote them.
On the doorstep, when Stormont comes up party canvassers find SDLP itself is swept into the broad criticism of ‘useless institutions’: this despite the fact that this arises directly from the stand-off in OFMdFM between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Since the media routinely ignore the causes of the trouble their voters blame them.
Paradoxically whilst Peter and Martin’s inability to work together enervates their base it is slowly switching off the SDLP’s voters There must be lesson here, if anyone is listening?
The most important lesson for them to internalise however is just how robust the institutions have proven.
No one ever resigns, unless you’re in the SDLP of course. Two weeks ago the deputy First Minister was mumbling about the ‘dark side’ of the police. Today an old RUC man is Chief Constable and yet the bunny has been put safely back in the box.
Peter Robinson’s fumbling mishandling of his Pastor’s flouting of his own ignorance of Islam would cause severe political embarrassment if not outright damage anywhere else. But here stability of the institutions is so priced in that no one seriously expects serious political consequences to arise from any such poor behaviour.
In such circumstances doing a good job in a ministerial post appears to create more damage than benefit for parties of the broad middle.
They might learn from three of their rivals:
- TUV: Opposition works but only if you can publicly connect what you do in the Assembly with the direct interests of your constituents.
- Sinn Fein: If you want to thrive in competitive democratic politics, do one thing well and consistently: wreck your opponents comfort and ease.
- UKIP: Spot the dramatic moment early, move to the centre and shamelessly narrate your own rather than your opponents story.
There’s no way they can do any of that and remain in the Executive. And there’s no point in leaving the executive with having a political reason for doing so. There’s even fewer Brownie points to be had for just being ‘not the government’ than there is for being in one.
To make any such a move viable they should pick three of their opponent’s most obvious weak points (Sinn Fein’s might be education, agriculture and cross border development) and then talk about nothing else, weaving in real stories of people suffering through the system.
The recent drift into populist discourse further debilitates citizens engagement with the institutions in turn creating fresh insecurities of its own.
On this showing, the alternative for the SDLP may be to remain in God’s waiting room and abide inelegantly for the end that never quite comes.
The last four of these post election profiles will follow next week for Sinn Fein, the DUP, a post mortem on the NI21 project and a look at just who the Independents in the south are along with the implications for the future.