Malachi O’Doherty considers the qualitative difference between the two main nationalist parties after the SDLP’s (to some of us) surprise fightback. He asks which of them will take the decisive initiative in the next round of political contests. If it is Sinn Fein, he argues, it will need to move away from its traditional revolutionary position and, in effect, become an new SDLP Lite.By Malachi O’Doherty
Last week’s elections have corrected the trajectory of Sinn Fein. The party has failed to take Derry. This is not a small matter. Derry was the birthplace of the Troubles. If Sinn Fein cannot overtake the SDLP there, either for the Westminster seat or for the Council, then that says there is something fundamentally wrong with the Sinn Fein project and its appeal to the people it purports to represent.
It also shows that Belfast and Derry are very different cities. Belfast is the real spiritual home of Sinn Fein. Belfast is a dark city with an industrial past, horrifically divided. Belfast’s sectarianism is more blatant. Catholics in Derry feel no threat to their sense of being Irish.
When Northern Ireland was closest to civil war in 1972, it was Belfast which took the brunt of it. It is only Belfast which is still haunted by the fear of a future sectarian civil war.
But there are other reasons why Sinn Fein failed to take Derry.
The Westminster candidate, Mitchel McLaughlin is older than Mark Durkan. The people of Derry do not see talent behind McLaughlin. He appears to be all that Sinn Fein has to offer to oppose a candidate who is young and brilliant and who actually plans to take his seat.
When you think of it, it is disheartening that so many did vote for Mitchel McLaughlin; it would have been an act of self- abasement on the part of the city if the majority had preferred him.
And now the question arises: why did Martin McGuinness not stand in Derry?
There had been speculation that he would swap campaigns with McLaughlin and throw his weight against Durkan.
Today, he is either wishing he had done that or he is relieved that the SDLP’s survival in Derry was not at the expense of the more senior Republican.
One of the common arguments against the SDLP was that it did not have a clear policy distinguishing it from Sinn Fein. It had been fighting Sinn Fein by mimicking Sinn Fein. And it is determined not to go back into the executive unless accompanied by Sinn Fein.
That means two things.
By one reading, it means that there is little point in voting for the SDLP if Sinn Fein is the real thing.
By another, it means that Sinn Fein stands to gain long-term advantage from any vote given to the SDLP.
The nationalists who want Sinn Fein to do well can help that party by voting for the SDLP, so long as the SDLP is committed to keeping the door open for Republicans into the executive.
In their current deadlock, an homogenous nationalist community behind Sinn Fein would probably just deepen Unionist fears and make agreement even more difficult.
Sinn Fein, tarnished by the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, may still have a better chance of finding its way back into the executive with the aid of a mediator, as in the past.
But there is also now clear water between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. It is now plain that the SDLP stands for something which Sinn Fein does not. That something is participation in Westminster and on the policing board.
Had Sinn Fein succeeded in virtually eradicating the SDLP, it would be equipped to say today that nationalists in Northern Ireland have rejected the imperial parliament and rejected the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Its abstention from both would have been virtually uncontested within the nationalist political community.
The success of three SDLP candidates and the survival of the SDLP in Derry, as the majority party on the city council, denies Sinn Fein that prospect.
Now policing and participation will be at the heart of the debate about the future of nationalism.
Sinn Fein will seek to have its MPs admitted to the Dail and given voting rights there. This will be resisted, and an energetic campaign will follow. But now, Sinn Fein will have to deal with the SDLP’s willingness to participate.
Expect to see them pointing the finger at SDLP MPs and accusing them of undermining the national project.
But there is another danger for Sinn Fein. So far, it has led the nationalist community on issues short of the full claim for Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. To move further now, it must move on to the ground of the sovereignty question in a much more assertive way. How many nationalists will follow?
It may be that Sinn Fein has peaked. At the next Westminster election, it may take South Down but it is very likely to lose Fermanagh South Tyrone. By then, it will need to have established a new, more credible, candidate in Derry, to fight a Mark Durkan who will hopefully have distinguished himself in parliament by then and won the point that it is worth going there.
Of course, the SDLP will probably lose South Belfast in 2008.
And, much depends on whether the assembly will return. If it does, the DUP will probably insist on a new election to it, to finish off the Ulster Unionists’ chances of getting ministerial positions.
Since the return of the Assembly executive depends on Sinn Fein establishing its credibility with all other parties, and particularly with the DUP, the odds are massively against it.
Political reality will dictate that, for Sinn Fein to grow further politically, it will have to grow more like the SDLP, taking its seats in Westminster, taking its seats on the policing board, acknowledging that Northern MPs have no seats of right in Dublin, and impressing the electorate with its competence and sense of responsibility.
The question for the electorate then will be whether to settle for the real SDLP or to buy more of this new SDLP lite.