The fall and rise of the SDLP?

The SDLP is down on its uppers. It defied those who predicted complete meltdown under the hammer blows of Sinn Fein and retained three Westminster seats. It’s often overshadowed by Sinn Fein’s superior party machine which some say has a certain military discipline, better fundraising and high profile visits to Downing Street as well as often criticised side deals to keep the party in the limelight.

Yet there is a feeling that Sinn Fein have overplayed their hand and could start to pay an electoral price for perceived arrogance, that Mark Durkan has begun to make his .. mark as leader and that voters who were “borrowed” by Sinn Fein to boost the so-called doves against the hawks could come home.

That was certainly and not surprisingly the feeling of many at an unusual event the other night at the Commons. The SDLP launched a London support group and packed a room for a reception with its leaders and friends. It was the first time I have seen the SDLP do such an event in my near 20 years in the Commons.

The party has always been too shy about networking and fund-raising. John Hume may have commanded presidential attention for decades in DC but the party never got a decent fund-raising system in place. It was long a mainstay of internal debate at party conferences.

The launch shows that the party may have its back to the wall but is starting to fight back. One friend, John McFall – a former Northern Ireland minister –opined that it’s 25 years too late but better late than never.

An organiser slightly baulked at my suggestion that the SDLP’s day may come again – cannot think why. But they have a few tricks to learn. Glossy little cards were handed out on the SDLP’s “better way to a better Ireland” but no web site and no encouragement to hand over dosh. If the SDLP is to come back as the party of vision, as it sees itself, and rebuild the moderate centre with the Ulster Unionists it must sharpen itself up. But there’s still some life left in the old dog yet.

Gary Kent is a graduate of international relations. After spells in management in British Rail and the Co-Op he began work in parliament in 1987 where he was active for two decades on Anglo-Irish peace activity against terrorism and now as secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, which he has visited 27 times since 2006. He used to be a columnist for Fortnight Magazine and writes a regular column for the Kurdish Rudaw outlet and many other publications.