On the SDLP and ‘the government’…

Peter Robinson spent a fair amount of time on attacking the SDLP’s Assembly party for voting against the Programme for Government yesterday, suggesting as a party that was inside the Executive, it was “politics devoid of principle”. Although he also announced the formation of a Performance and Delivery Unit to police the performance of each Minister… There is also to be an Advisory Panel to bring in expert help, presumably from outside the Government to develop best practice across government.But are any of the parties in the Executive? Conspicuously, two party leaders have chosen not to join the Executive: Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein; and Mark Durkan for SDLP. No doubt, Durkan will have more to say in response to Robinson’s attack. But, setting the inevitable party political badinage to one side for a moment, there are some questions that might usefully be asked:

– are the parties as a body within the Assembly, actually obliged to endorse decisions made within the Executive?

– if yes, then we return to the question of whether the Assembly is genuinely a legislative Assembly, of a populous rubber stamping device for a four party politburo?

The least that can be said, is that the SDLP appears to have resiled to the only safe ground left them. Had Margaret Ritchie broken ranks on the budget, the Executive could have excluded her. The party in the Assembly is under no such obligation. And in order to carry a consistent opposition to elements of the budget, they are obliged, they may argue, to vote against it.

The party may hit some rough weather in the initial reaction to it, but it could give it the opportunity to stand back and criticise ‘the Government’, even as it technically sets them against their own Minister.

The joys of ‘Manditory Coalition’!!

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

  • J Kelly

    Mick you say that the SDLP went to safe ground and if Margaret Ritchie had broken ranks she could have been excluded. No true, the best option for them should have been for Minister Ritchie to vote no at the executive table and register her and her party’s views. Vote yes in the assembly and complained about being handcuffed which would have allowed the SDLP party a free hand in the assembly. Consistent position and no exclusion. Now we have a mess the SDLP and Margaret Ritchie looking foolish or stupid. Again I believe that this comes down to very poor leadership and Mark Durkan’s inability to read a situation and come to a common sense decision.

  • Mark Fartlighter

    Frankly, in the longer term I think it will be Sinn Féin who will struggle the most with mandatory coalition.

    The SDLP do not poise themselves as radicals, therefore their supporters will not be a disallusioned with the government.

    Sinn Féin have to try and sell themselves as revolutionaires to their base whilst at the same time their ministers are in government changing nothing frankly. (11 not withstanding).

    For example, the red wing of the party can only be disatisfied with water charges, the class room assistant debacle etc.

    Another group now extremely disappointed by the government are Irish speakers. Even M. Ó Muilleoir seems to be becoming critical of SF, the newspaper Lá has become hostile also. The loss of the broadcasting fund and SF silence on the issue is a problem, the lack of progress towards bilingual road signage is another. It remains to be seen if the Irish lobby is strong enough in any area to electorally affect Sinn Féin’s thinking.

    Is it possible to support SF and not the government?

  • Insider

    J Kelly

    Have to agree. Can’t understand why Ritchie did not vote against this at the Executive. There is nothing to stop her and it could have been used to political advantage.

    I also have to say that – not just on this – the Durkan leadership has been a disaster for the SDLP.

    Everything that Hume worked for has been wasted in cheap one liners and short termism driven by an attempt to get into the media.

    Much better to go back and start working on the ground. That is how the SDLP started and grew – because people knew they could trust the leadership. Sadly the same cannot be said of Durkan.

  • Hogan

    Why were Peter and Gregory (and whoever else joined the roundabout)not excluded under the first executive? Surely they didn’t vote for the budget the first time around did they?

    Not exactly sure why the SDLP did what they did on this occasion?

    Judgement reserved.

  • Matt


    The rules where changed at St. Andrew’s meaning, under the previous executive a minister could vote no (as the DUP did) and still remain in office.

    With the rule changes a minister can no longer vote no and stay in office.

    Personally I think this has been a masterstroke for the SDLP and Durkan leadership.

    Margaret Ritchie is in charge of DSD. Social housing and neighbourhood renewal being the priority. She fought a good fight and basically gave the shinners a slap on the face when she secured more money. The shinners kept telling her to dry her eyes, that she has enough.

    This fight was extensive with the entire homeless and housing lobby behind the SDLP to get the right thing done.

    Back to yesterday and today.

    Margaret Ritchie and the SDLP have a mandate – their mandate now consists of DSD issues and they are proving very competent and able at that. She voted yes to continue that and fulfil the SDLP mandate.

    The party however are under no obligation to vote yes for something that cuts the children’s fund (DUP), is destroying and making education uncertain (SF) that makes health stand still (UUP/DUP.

    Basically they are fulfilling their pledge, which consists of DSD issues and doing it brilliantly and opposing the unimaginative, uninspiring and weak PfG, ISNI and Budget.

    So when Ritchie – undoubtedly the best minister in the Executive- delivers on her mandate and the others fail due to this PfG and inadequate Budget, SDLP win. They deliver for the people on what they are mandated to do and oppose the wasteful and shameful policies of the PfG.

    Masterstroke and great leadership.

  • nineteensixtyseven

    I think the charge of being ‘devoid of principle’ should not be levelled at the SDLP but at the parties who voted for a programme for government that was not in keeping with their manifesto promises. When people realise what their MLAs have passed maybe then they’ll remember the parties that took a stand against it.

  • Mick Fealty


    I know some SDLP are still struggling to understand what this move means, but it looks like the party may have bought itself future independence in the only way it can. If the Minister can be excluded for not buying into the wider implications of the budget, politically they had little choice but to buckle down and behave themselves. It remains to be seen whether that was folly or a genuinely disruptive move.

    But from a citizen’s point of view, there are enough ‘well behaved witnesses’ (http://tinyurl.com/3dm4hg) without having them in parliament as well. An Assembly’s job is to scrutinise government not just toe the Government line. Strictly from that point of view, it’s a win win surely?

  • big bird

    So when Ritchie – undoubtedly the best minister in the Executive- delivers on her mandate and the others fail due to this PfG and inadequate Budget, SDLP win. They deliver for the people on what they are mandated to do and oppose the wasteful and shameful policies of the PfG.

    Masterstroke and great leadership.

    Posted by Matt on Jan 29, 2008 @ 04:11 PM


    Your colleagues in SDLP youth and those that you represent on lisburn council, need to ask Minister Ritchie, what has she done in the last 8 months?, with regards to the promises she made. The people of the vilalge and other areas that have urgent housing needs are being promised “everything”, according to one resident, and have had nothing delivered. The budget has been announced and she has additional resources for social housing (voted against by your party), so lets see what she delivers. More empty promises??

  • Twinbrook

    the sdlp, now theres a blast from the past. There where buffalos roaming the Belfast hills the last time we saw them here!!!
    As to the sdlp being radical and having supporters……thanks for the laugh.

  • interested

    Can’t you just smell the smugness of the SDLP here. Lots of mutual backslapping as they believe they’ve pulled some masterstroke.

    But why do you vote SDLP these days? Who are their core support? The assumed wisdom is usually that its nationalists who don’t like the harder edge of Sinn Fein.

    But what has this little stunt delivered. Well the SDLP get a bit of short-term publicity for their rantings. However, it simply helps to paint SF in the more “responsible party of Government” light which they clearly want. Frankly it would seem that SF are willing to sacrifice quite a few of their principles in an attempt to re-start their southern project – with no guarantee of success of course.

    So as moderate nationalists who’ve been told for years that we all need to work together and all that scratch their heads and wonder why they’d bother supporting any of those dangerous radicals in the SDLP anymore and simply go for the people who’ll help keep the Executive going and give us Government.

    Seems about as good a long-term judgment as the other issue we obviously can’t talk about because its before the Courts at the minute.

    Not that the SDLP could ever be accused of being short-termist these days of course……

  • Mick Fealty

    I reckon that’s a useful and perceptive line. My own feeling is that if the party were able to organise itself sufficiently well, it could exercise enough disruption to make it worth their while.

    It’s the absence of evidence that such party wide organisation (or the necessary aggression) exists that should worry party activists.

  • A party is either a member of and behind the Executive or it isn’t. The SDLP can’t and shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways. “The Durkster” perhaps wanted to look bold and daring but have ended up looking like indecisive chumps. It is telling however how many Ministers wheren’t even there on Monday to vote yay or nay to the PFG.

  • J Kelly

    Mick a few years back you wrote about how the SDLP woke up Culmore to secure the Foyle seat. How will this play with them I can’t see it playing too well. These people will understand procedures and processes and will wonder as I have been why did Margaret Ritchie vote yes at the executive. The SDLP core vote want stability and assurance that they can get on with their lives and they also want it from their politicians. The SDLP don’t have the ability to organise and be active in the working class areas as the once had so their ability to damage Sinn Fein on the streets is practically invisible. The key word in the media in reporting this event is stunt and if that sticks it will damage the steady perception voers have of the SDLP.

  • Leaving aside the party issues for the moment, I think it would be useful if we could beging to strengthen the separation of powers – between executive and legislative. In that sense I would have no problem with a minister voting one way in the executive and her back bench colleagues voting a different way in the assembly. The current way thinks operate in Westminster, Dail and NIAssembly tends to mean that in reality there is no real separation of powers at all. At least in the US the powers are clearly separate with separate elections and proper ongoing tensions between the President and the Congress.

  • interested

    Why exactly is it in the SDLP’s interests to disrupt things? Who in their electorate really wants disruption? Where was there anything in their last couple of election campaigns to suggest that? They spent the months and years prior to St Andrews complaining that parties wouldn’t get into Government – now it just seems they’re p*ssed off that the electorate has decided their own party doesn’t have as big a say in that Government as they’d like.

    Their case would be much stronger were there any evidence to show that the SDLP had been engaged in some campaign within the Executive to make all the changes which they were demanding in the Assembly. Clearly the Assembly has the right to demand changes – but the Ministers in the Executive are nominated there by the parties represented in the Assembly so it does beg the question where the lines of communication between Durkan and Ritchie were during the process of agreeing the Budget and Programme for Government.

    Every party in the Assembly raised issues within those documents which they weren’t absolutely satisfied with – but that’s probably the nature of coalition Government (mandatory or not) given that the negotiations between parties to get an agreed Programme will mean some level of compromise.

    We now have the SDLP attempting to say that “their mandate” is now simply around DSD issues. Unfortunately that isnt how it works. Maggie Ritchie signed up to the entire Budget and Programme for Government. Whether Durkan likes it or not, the person he nominated to represent the SDLP on the Executive gave her consent to the entirety of those documents. I think most SDLP voters, and most people generally are intelligent enough to get their heads around that.

    It all comes back to how the average SDLP voter will sum it up. Frankly when you hear Durkan trying to justify it by saying “well its what the DUP did the last time” is hardly going to have many street parties being thrown after Mass in the Maiden City….. Painting themselves as the “new DUP” is probably about as intelligent a strategy as putting Ian Paisley and Ian Jnr on their election posters. Oh wait……..

  • warrenpoint

    Up until now, being from South Down, I have watched with interest the performances of Ruane and Ritchie in the Government. Until now I would have put Margaret Ritchie well ahead as I have been disappointed with the Caitriona’s performance in education – i don’t see any real vision coming out of the decision to scrap the 11+. However this SDLP moves amazes me. You can’t be a little dead. My understanding of Government was collective responsibility – coalition governments have fallen on budgetary disagreements before.
    Is the SDLP really disagreed with this budget then surely Margaret Ritchie should have voted against it at Cabinet table and assembly vote and SDLP could have before opposition party. They could still have claimed credit for extra funding for DSD. What they have done is just a fudge.

  • Foyle (not Culmore Road)

    This voter from Foyle is perfectly comfortable with the SDLP’s approach to this. Some of the budget they agree with, some they don’t. The vote aginst wasn’t going to stop the budget going through and a token ‘no’ vote wasn’t worth Ritchie giving up her seat.

    And don’t give me high moral ground from other parties and their supporters. Are their no gaps between their election manifestoes and what they voted through or is that the sound of coaches and (high) horses I hear?

    What about the assembly members from SF, DUP and UU who voiced concerns, sometimes grave concerns, then went through the “Aye” lobby?

  • J Kelly

    Foyle no one has any difficulty with all parties having difficulty with aspects of the budget all I continue to ask is, why did Margaret vote yes at the executive table?. Before you get on your high horse about culmore the reference refers to a piece Mick wrote subsequent to the Westminster election in 2005.

  • interested

    You have indeed raised an interesting dilemma.

    Bad as Margaret Ritchie may or may not be – the fact that she’s up against Ruane could be her saving grace. Ruane might have signed up to the PfG and Budget but she’s still a rubbish Minister who releases plans which have zilch chance of getting past and who refuses to meet elected representatives or even respond to letters.