SDLP: strengths and weaknesses made public…

I had a heads up on this story last week, but by the time I looked it had been swamped by Daily Ireland’s notoriously unnavigable archiving system. But it’s a fascinating read and an excellent piece of journalism. It seems they’ve got a hold of a confidential consultant’s report suggesting to the SDLP that it was increasingly becoming an irrelevance to the Nationalist community, and that the only way it might recover ground would be in linking Sinn Fein to criminality.According to Daily Ireland, New Imprint, New Impetus: Political and Marketing Initiatives was issued last February. It’s SWOT analysis reports that the party is perceived as:

The main weaknesses found were “poor organisation”, “perception of being weak, irrelevant, old”, “whingeing”, “not on the ground”, “apparent lack of representative talent”, “lack of charisma”, “culture of indiscipline”. The main strength was identified as “John Hume”.

Major opportunities identified were “middle-class Protestant voters” and “create a system of punishment and reward”. The report acknowledged that the SDLP urgently needed new faces. “More young people,” it said. “More women. More people rooted in the community, working for the community.”

It called for a stronger role for the leadership:

It recommended that party leader Mark Durkan and his deputy Alasdair McDonnell put their imprint on the party, “rather than continuing with an inherited spirit of decline”.

The report added: “In order to do this, a new energy will need to be generated if the party is in any way to get close to the discipline, intelligence and enthusiasm of rivals.” The marketing strategy implicitly criticised the party on its narrow publicity strategy of favouring a single newspaper and recommended thinking “about how to extend it appropriately for each campaign”.

There is even a hard snap of reality, in that it highlights to the party faithful that as many as eight of the seats it currently holds (18), could be in danger in the next Assembly election.

Here, we may find one of the reasons Eddie Espie jumped ship earlier this year:

“In 1969, the main opposition party in the North was the Nationalist Party,” Mr Espie said. “Two years later, it was gone. A precedent was set back then, proving when the critical mass of electoral support drifts away from a party and reaches a certain point, the end becomes unstoppable.”

Espie’s allusion to the old nationalist party is an interesting benchmark. Arguably it was a combination of the Nationalist Party’s rank amateurism and ineffectiveness at Stormont that blew it away in the tumult of 68/70 – it only established headquarters and a staff in the sixties. Few would argue that that amateurism still exists within the SDLP (check out that hideous website), but in recent years it has scored a number of very palpable hits on its old tormentors in the Republican movement, despite regular predictions of its imminent demise.

One of the things that has marked the decline of both the UUP and the SDLP has been complacency: the sense that our ‘decent’ voters will always prefer us to the ‘extremes’. It may well be a sign of recovery when internal documents begin to reflect internally what’s being said outside the confines of the party’s inner sanctum. Like Sinn Fein’s Guladuff paper, this has afforded us a closer look at the thinking inside a major political party.

Northern Ireland’s politicians can afford to be more open about their plans, hopes, weaknesses and strengths. It would make them more interesting, initiate debate on their terms and (perhaps the reason they generally don’t do it) allow the rest of us would have something tangible to read against final delivery.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty