Did the SDLP wipe Gerry’s eye, or not?

The SDLP get a double whammy from Peter and Iris Robinson for the refusal of the Assembly party to back to the budget and the Programme for Govenment. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are painting the party as ‘absolutely and totally confused’. And, as commenter J Kelly points out, the often SDLP supporting Derry Journal has a stiff piece of editorial saying that the SDLP, “has to make up its mind if it wants to be a party of government or if they want to be a party of opposition”. The singular exception seems to be Liam Clarke, who notes that they may have had good teachers:

In politics it pays to be awkward unless you are in control; that has always been the DUP and Sinn Féin’s tactics. A DUP friend once told me that the best philosophy when dealing with Direct Rule ministers was “the crying child is soonest lifted”. It pays to complain loudly and put a high price on your support.

Of course, every market sets its own price. Clarke considers the background:

After the most recent elections everyone wrote off the SDLP and UUP as yesterday’s parties. Margaret Ritchie was dismissed as a minister by most commentators. The general belief was that Catriona Ruane would win the South Down seat in the next Westminster election if Ritchie stood against her.

Things have changed now. Ruane has tried to be awkward about education but hasn’t performed well. Ritchie on the other hand has shown her elbows; she has been a real political operator who has managed to stay on the right side of public opinion even if she strained the rules at times.

She will get the credit for the greatly increased funding which was conceded to her department. Yet her party has positioned itself to escape the blame for any problems on other fronts.

Is it ethical? Not entirely reckons Clarke. But he believes that the precedent is clear enough:

It can be argued that the honourable thing would be to go into opposition, but they would be fools to do that when they can run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. That’s what the DUP and Sinn Féin did in the Trimble/Mallon led administration. That’s one of the reasons they grew to their present size. More recently they left the St Andrews negotiations without signing up to anything and they don’t feel bound to implement everything which was agreed by the two governments.

The question remains: do they have the tenacity and the self will to make it work? FBut for now, Clarke reckons they are ahead:

Everyone knows that a mandatory coalition with all the parties isn’t going to be a permanent form of government and everyone knows there will be elections to Europe and probably Westminster next year. In these circumstances everyone is trying to get the best for themselves, their voters and their constituents out of the present arrangements. When Gerry Adams was wheeled out of semi retirement to hold a press conference specifically to condemn SDLP tactics you could tell the smaller party was ahead on points. They had just wiped his eye.

The thing is, Clarke is as yet on his own in this analysis. For signs that the party’s strategy is working, they’ll need to make a few more converts amongst Northern Ireland’s commentariat. For now, even if the party thinks it knows what it’s doing, the commentators appear confused. And perceptions matter in this game.

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