SDLP way forward

I have periodically tried to look at the political positions of other political parties and I decided it would be interesting to look at the SDLP. I do not pretend to be an expert on them but I thought it would be an interesting intellectual exercise to analyse their position (from my very biased viewpoint). In many ways the collapse in their support has mirrored that of the UUP’s and although they have held onto more Westminster seats their political marginalisation has at times seemed even more complete.
Part of the blame for the current political woes of the SDLP must be John Hume’s leadership. Hume undoubtedly became a fairly well recognised figure on the international stage (though one must always remember just how breath takingly unimportant NI politicians actually are internationally, outside a few ginger groups). From a nationalist analysis: Hume by repeatedly refusing to drop his assorted “Hume-Adams” negotiations etc. laid the foundations for the current process and indeed for “peace.” From a specifically unionist analysis, however, Hume cynically utilised the promise of a possible end to IRA violence to out manoeuvre unionism and defeat the inconvenient reality of there being a pro union majority in Northern Ireland. In that he used the same single transferable speech for years. Either way, by bringing Adams in from the cold he helped make it socially acceptable (at least to nationalists) to vote for SF. When his own party then demonstrated relative incompetence in the assorted ongoing negotiations, they lost out to SF. That is a brutally negative analysis of the SDLP’s position and I would not pretend it is entirely fair or as simple as that but the truth remains that the “respectable-istaion” of SF has had a major negative effect on the SDLP’s fortunes and at least in part that respectable-isation has been due to Hume.

The next problem the SDLP seem to face is the vanishing of many of the leadership cadre from the time of the agreement: Brid Rodgers, Sean Farren (not that I ever rated him that highly) and most of all to my mind Seamus Mallon, a man who appeared not to be very fond of unionists and had difficulty mentioning the words Northern Ireland but was a tough effective politician and was also opposed to political violence: as such unionists may not have liked him much but he was respected.

Many of the new leaders of the SDLP, however seem to be individually pretty effective politicians and some of the old leaders are still there: Alasdair McDonnell and Alban Maginness both spring to mind as effective politicians; Durkan himself is often much more convincing on television or radio than many of his SF opponents. They just seem to have a lower media profile than one might reasonably expect. Of course the one with the best media profile is Ritchie; she is also the supreme example of a competent SDLP politician and I will come back to her later.

A problem which this roll call of names illustrates is, however, that Ritchie and Durkan are career politicians; the others are a doctor and a lawyer (the School teachers, Doctors and Lawyers Party strikes again). The jobs are all a bit too middle class; it may even be that school teachers are not middle class enough any more to get senior leadership roles within the SDLP.

The next problem is that the SDLP has largely lost support to SF but I suspect that they would also rather like, at least intellectually, to remain in a position of attracting some unionist transfers. As such a move to the “left” does have significant difficulties (though I would suggest it is their best option). John Dallat (a teacher) for example has a very hard line stance with such good tub thumping issues such as denouncing Northern Ireland Railways for sectarianly using the dread prefix “London” when describing the destination of the Derry train. Despite his good hard line position, he was only just able to stay ahead of Billy Leonard in the 2005 Westminster elections and did much less well than Francie Brolly in the 2007 assembly elections. I suspect he attracts very few unionist transfers (though I, and I am sure some others, would give him a preference if they thought it would keep Brolly out).

Of course others such as Alasdair McDonnell and Mark Durkan need to attract considerable support from the Protestant community if they are to hold their Westminster seats. In their cases a more liberal position is clearly necessary and may be seen to have been more effective: the constituencies are, however, extremely different and as such comparisons are almost completely invalid. Keeping to a pretty hard line nationalist position is, I would submit, the key to SDLP survival and progress. Some will probably suggest that the prospect of the UUP joining up with the Conservatives might result in left wing (in real politics) unionists voting SDLP. This would be a politicos idea, would result in the gain of almost no votes and the loss of the votes which actually matter to the SDLP (the ones which have gone to SF). As such it must be resisted.

If the SDLP are, however, to advance I would suggest that they need to be radical. They must focus on issues of interest to nationalists and push them even if it alienates some unionists; the highlighting of a proposed Irish Language Bill is an excellent example. In addition bashing SF when it is in a non unionist fashion is useful. For example attacking Ruane for incompetence is sensible whereas they should remain quiet about the Maze “shrine.” A highly important issue is the possibility of a pact with Fianna Fail. This may have receded but should be revived. Despite the recent fall in support for FF south of the border, I suspect the prospect of voting for a party capable of being the RoI government would appeal to some nationalists. It advances out of South Down and Londonderry and would also allow the sharing of election workers from the border counties – a practical benefit and a good symbol. It could be presented as real progress towards a united Ireland and might have resonance in the border areas.

The one SDLP politician who might be able to be fairly hard line yet attract considerable Protestant support is of course Margaret Ritchie. She is surely one of the more popular politicians in Northern Ireland, not least for trying to take monies off the loyalist paramilitaries. She has also managed to appear highly competent and when her department has not been able to achieve things she has fairly effectively managed to pass the blame to others. I had thought that Ritchie’s recent remarks unfavourably comparing the Orange Order with the GAA were a mistake. However, thinking about it more detail I suspect it was actually a pretty clever move. After all Ritchie had been the star turn at last year’s “Save Reg Day” (aka the UUP conference). Becoming too popular with Prods is little use if one looses all one’s nationalist support. Instead a bit of harmless OO baiting and support for the GAA will probably enhance her position with nationalists. The Prods may be a bit annoyed but if SF have the decency to run Catriona Ruane in South Down, many will vote for Ritchie simply to keep Ruane out and hence, Ritchie’s victory must be highly likely. Even without Prod votes Ritchie must surely be the favourite simply for not being Ruane.

My final suggestion keeps me with Ritchie: I would suggest that Ritchie should replace Durkan as leader and should also remain as Social Development minister. She is a more effective performer than Durkan, has a better media profile, is popular with a greater range of voters. In addition she is relatively young and a woman: she would be the first female leader of a major NI party. Finally due to her independent stance within the executive she could be seen as a somewhat anti establishment figure at a time when the Northern Irish electorate are becoming somewhat disenchanted with their political leaders. For all these reasons, I would suggest that Durkan should stand aside and support Ritchie. It would result in considerable media attention and could help energise the party. Obviously I know far too little about SDLP internal politics to be able to assess whether this is feasible and what level of internal support Ritchie has. However, to an outsider it would look like a good move.

Just like the UUP, the SDLP have suffered in the recent past. However, unlike the UUP, they have leaders who are actually capable of turning the situation around and in terms of ministerial competence and popularity they are ahead of their opponents in SF. The question is whether or not those school teachers, doctors and lawyers (usually by nature a pretty conservative bunch) are prepared to be radical. Their conference is just over a month away. As I said at the start I have no right to any view on the SDLP so please feel free to denounce everything I have just written.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.