In its editorial today the Irish Times gives its take on the SDLP’s conference message, SDLP offers alternative, and suggests the opportunity exists for the party to regain lost ground – This is the first occasion in many years when the SDLP has been in a position to offer a simple and uncomplicated message to the electorate.The Irish Times Editorial in full –
A political strategy designed to capture the high moral ground and to challenge Sinn Féin in the coming local government and Westminster elections in Northern Ireland was outlined by the SDLP leader, Mr Mark Durkan, at the party’s annual conference in Derry at the weekend.
The approach to the nationalist electorate will be simple and blunt: if they want law and order to operate in the North and an inclusive approach to a political settlement, they must vote for the SDLP.
There were few punches pulled as the party leadership rounded on Sinn Féin for failing to live up to its political commitments and to operate in a way consistent with the terms of the Belfast Agreement. The £26.5 million Northern Bank robbery was the catalyst for the new departure, but the continuing paramilitary and criminal activity of the IRA was the bedrock upon which the anger and frustration of delegates was built.
The debates pointed to a recovery in confidence as election candidates assessed their future prospects in the light of Sinn Féin’s failure to convince the IRA to go away. This was an opportunity, they felt, to regain the allegiance of those moderate nationalists who had switched votes in an attempt to encourage republicans to engage in democratic politics.
In simplifying its message, the party was careful to avoid any suggestion that it would be prepared to enter a Northern Ireland Executive from which Sinn Féin was excluded. As the chief architect of the Belfast Agreement – and the inclusive approach that it represents – the SDLP recognised the danger of allowing Sinn Féin to present itself as an injured, discriminated-against party within the nationalist community.
Attempts by the Sinn Féin leader, Mr Gerry Adams, to deflect attention from IRA activity by blaming the two governments and other parties for the breakdown in political trust, were rejected as self-serving and arrogant, requiring a punitive response from the electorate. As Mr Durkan and his senior colleagues argued: so long as republicans were allowed to believe they could operate outside of the law, the potential of the Belfast Agreement would remain unfulfilled.
In that regard, the SDLP leader was particularly critical of Sinn Féin for failing to negotiate in the national interest and for placing the interests of the party before all else. Sinn Féin had, he said, abandoned its earlier ambition for an Ireland of equals.
This is the first occasion in many years when the SDLP has been in a position to offer a simple and uncomplicated message to the electorate. Rather than reward Sinn Féin for failing to deliver on its promises, nationalists should place their trust in the SDLP which was working to create a peaceful, inclusive society. With cross party support from Dublin and a growing impatience amongst Northern nationalists, the message may help to turn the tide in the coming elections.