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.

  • Plastic Paddy

    I think the simple first step is one that you mentioned and one that it appeared that they might take several months ago: to look south (most likely with Fianna Fáil as an ally) and become a 32 county party.

    The UUP (whose own collapse “closely mirrored the SDLP”, as you correctly wrote) is “walking the walk” so to speak by taking steps towards normalisation in becoming a British party (by cooperating with the Conservatives) instead of a Northern Ireland party. I strongly oppose what they stand for, but fair play to them in practicing what they preach.

    The SDLP needs to do the same and become an Irish party, instead of a Northern Ireland party. Sinn Féin are currently the only legitimate claimants to being an all Ireland party with significant electoral support.

    From this side of the Atlantic, it appeared that Ahern was ready to take some bold action on the North, but BIFFO has “chickened out.”

    I recall reading that the official justification was that Fianna Fáil could not reasonably expect to viewed as a neutral arbitrator in Northern affairs, were it actively contesting elections in the North.

    Excuse me? Would any sober unionist ever see them as a neutral party anyways? The real issue was a lack of moral courage and a partitionist, Free State mindset, if you ask me. Pathetic.

    Here’s the other interesting question, as I see it: What effect, if any, would a FF-SDLP merger have on SF’s policy of abstentionism in Westminster, or would FF-SDLP be an abstentionist party?

  • Nomad

    while your thoughtful and honest analysis is appreciated, Turgan, I am a little disturbed by your encouragement of a more sectarian SDLP.

    While there may be truth in what you say about it helping gain votes it doesn’t seem to do much for Northern Ireland as a whole.

    I think the better alternate approach is to maintain or take a centrist attitude. It’s been a while since a big election and I predict that with the relative quiet in northern Irish politics the middle parties will pick up a lot of support.

  • Turgon

    A fair point and although many will not believe me, I would be pleased if you are correct about NI politics.

    I guess I am a bit conservative in that I suspect the way to gain votes in NI has almost always been to appeal to the more hard line elements within one’s own constituency. That may have changed but I am unsure.

    I also tend to the view that the best way to do well is to start out at the hard line and then when one has the position of power, one can drift inwards. Trimble, Paisley etc and even the nationalists / republicans seem to have tended to manage affairs this way.

    As I said I sort of hope that all you lot who think that the way forward is with the more moderate parties are correct, even though that would firstly make me wrong and secondly end the prospects of my favoured political party. I could just become a grumpy garden centre prod.

  • frustrated democrat


    ‘I could just become a grumpy garden centre prod’.

    That would make you an Ulster Unionist then

  • Damien Okado-Gough


    I would mirror Nomad’s view about the dangers of the SDLP using sectarianism for electoral gain. What is needed is for the middle-ground to continue to fight the good fight and draw the extremes onto their ground, as has been happening for the last decade or more.

    The DUP and SF have moved considerably towards the UUP and SDLP’s positions and will continue to do so if the SDLP and UUP keep pushing middle ground politics. That said, the UUP and SDLP are in different positions now within their own ethnic hemispheres. The SDLP is not the mirror image of the UUP. Far from it. The UUP had decades to make NI work, but they botched it and haven’t learned a thing from their mistakes. The SDLP have promise at their core, if only they could see it.

    Regarding the SDLP, their argument of unity by persuasion has won and alienating Protestants just doesn’t make sense, unless you’re trying to win votes, just as SF has been doing (so much for the sophisticated Nationalist electorate). The SDLP have been taking the intellectual lead for decades, yet they’re playing electoral catch-up with SF. They have to ask themselves why.

    Certainly, moving onto SF’s sectarian ground will only be the nail in their coffin as they will show themselves to be intellectually bereft as well as being weak electorally. The SDLP’s strongest ground is their core political doctrine of unity by consent and persuasion. Hume’s argument of uniting people first, territory next is the best way, and in reality the only way, to end the conflict in Ireland by all of our people building a new nation together on the island. Sectarianism has absolutely no place in such a project and, in fact, is the enemy of it.
    The SDLP should not only keep faith in this core principle of theirs, but they should be zealous in their advocacy of it.

  • picador

    Well argued, Damian.


    I found your piece thoughtful but Damian has picked out the flaw in you argument. Cynically exploiting sectarianism is an age-old unionist tactic.


    From the News Letter (and nuzhound)

    THE SDLP has said the DUP and Sinn Fein are “in a team” which it has no wish to be part of.
    Derry City councillor Colum Eastwood has responded to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’s attack on Margaret Ritchie and her party earlier this week.

    Mr McGuinness said the SDLP was not working on a consensus or team basis within the Executive.

    This was after the SDLP criticised this week’s re-distribution of Executive finances, claiming it plundered Ms Ritchie’s social housing fund.

    But SDLP councillor Mr Eastwood said: “Martin McGuinness is right in a way when he claims the SDLP are not part of a team.

    “We are not part of a DUP team – while Sinn Fein are fully-paid members.”

    Anyone know more about the plunder of the social housing fund?

  • Comrade Stalin

    I need to ponder Turgon’s article further to understand all the nuances therein.

    Plastic Paddy, the people who advocate the SDLP having an all-Ireland linkup are, to me, very similar to the people who think that the UUP’s Tory hookup will translate directly into support for their party. People outside of NI don’t empathize with or understand our politics here well. They see it as alien. And it works in the other direction as well. There has never been any inclination shown here to vote for people based on the standard or class of their links with the outside world.

    I cannot see where the SDLP should go. The politics here – a politics that they nurtured and encouraged – is one where there are two extreme parties which control what goes on, and where there is an invisible glass wall between our communities. There are plenty of talented politicians in the SDLP and I have found their contributions in the assembly – usually opposing the DUP/SF axis – to be constructive and informed. However their weddedness to the sectarian consensus is what will lead them to disaster.

  • New Yorker

    SDLP should, as some above said, stay close to their core values; the Irish democratic values that go back to Daniel O’Connell, especially non-violence in every area of life. They should continue to be progressive whilst safeguarding Irish social and moral values. They should continue to be pro Europe. They should emphasize bringing people together and put the issue of United Ireland on the back burner; UI is not a real life issue, its for die-hards and small minds.

    They need new leadership. Margaret Ritchie would make a good legislative and ‘public face’ leader. But they also need strong and competent ‘inside’ executive leadership.

    I think the majority of lost votes are people staying at home rather than crossing over to SF. They need to be more effective at getting their message out and getting their voters out. And better leadership, public and executive, would make a big improvement in vote results.

    SDLP has the right values, brainpower and good friends in and outside Ireland who wish them well. They are not going away but they do need some long overdue housekeeping.

  • Jimmy Sands

    These arguments tend to assume that the parties have the power to alter the electorate. The sectarian extreme are in the ascendant because that is what their constituencies want. The SDLP and UUP have a stark choice. They can compete for the tribal vote, but it is inevitably a doomed struggle, as they will surely be out-tubthumped. If they are serious about occupying the centre, then they must face up to the fact that it is a small space.

    Hooh ups with London or Dublin based parties are of little assistance given the lack of either an all-Ireland or all-UK political narrative in which to insinuate themselves. NI is different and likely to remain so. One imaginative step that the two parties could take would be a Westminster electoral pact. It would certainly show a genuine commitment to the centre ground.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Never gonna happen though, is it?

  • Turgon

    Thank you all for above.

    I do hope that picador etc are all correct. I am afraid, however, I tend to side with Jimmy Sands that the nationalist electorate has moved to SF (in part in my view thanks to Hume).

    There is also the problem that if the other side move to a more hard line party there is the fear that unless “we” (whoever we are) do the same then the governments will give more concessions to the other lot.

    As such the electorate has moved and although the SDLP will continue to attract some more moderate nationalist votes, it they want to get back to their position of being the largest nationalist party, they need to attract back those SF votes. I think they have more scope for this than the UUP have in the unionist community but I do think the SDLP need to move a bit to the “left.” Their superior competence can then be brought into the equation and they might be able to defeat SF.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Getting back into the frame electorally must involve being seen to compete with Sinn Fein on the type of issues which the SDLP have failed to raise their voices over due to a failure to properly understand their own electorate, which they arrogantly believed wouldn’t abandon them in the post-GFA era. Arrogance, compounded by a spectacularly naive policy shift to post-nationalism (now denied)and shockingly poor party structure has bedevilled the party.

    One of the party’s more intelligent moves recently was the Irish language act proposals by Bradley, which was a clever effort to put flesh on the bones of what has been a rather unsatisfactorily vague campaign by nationalists to date.

    The SDLP needs the type of all-Ireland credibility a Fianna Fail link-up would provide to simply begin to make up for its failings to promote the nationalist agenda which its electorate instinctively looks for in its political leadership.

    I don’t buy the political extremes criticism either- promoting policies consistent with either a nationalist or unionist agenda need not necessarily be the preserve of the ‘political extremes.’

    The problem for the SDLP is that, having flirted with Fianna Fail and even hinted for the past year about a joint Euro candidate, they have been seen to fail once again by having to plump for a veteran party figure who simply doesn’t inspire confidence.

  • Damien Okado-Gough


    [i]its failings to promote the nationalist agenda[/i]

    This is the very sectarian attitude which is holding back real progress towards an end to union with Britain. When republicans of all hues and any begin to promote an agenda which is not [i]nationalist[/i], but demonstrably and undeniably geared towards the best interests of all of the people on the island of Ireland then there might be a real chance of realising the national project.
    Furthermore, the very serious difficulty for the SDLP in getting their teeth into issues like the Irish language is that SF have made sectarian issues out of them and the SDLP really doesn’t want to be seen to be engaging in sectarian politics and rightly so.
    Where I agree with you, however, is in your analysis of the party’s weak structure and failure to stand firm on their core principles. They really were a rabbit stuck in the headlights of the SF electoral juggernaut and that disarray gave rise to the utterly reprehensible ‘beat the two Ians’ campaign. It exposed a complete failure to fully understand the anti-sectarian principle at the party’s core and made a lie of their claim to be the party of nonviolence.

  • jimmy

    A change of leader is a must for the SDLP as Mark Durkan has become a parody of himself, cheap satire and coining phrases are all he is known for now. The idea of Margaret Ritchie taking over the reigns of the SDLP would be a fatal move for the party, Ritchie reminds me too much like a teacher chastising students and comes across poorly on camera. Shifting blame to John Hume for electoral failure is much too easy an excuse for the condition the party is currently in. Mark Durkan became leader in 2001 and Hume was semi retired as leader from 1999. Rather than face up to a few harsh realities the party has spat the dummy since then. In its current state the SDLP is much too middle class in leadership, membership and attitude. As a result they are out of touch with the majority of voters. The SDLP are not visilbe on the ground and have not been for at least a decade. The SDLP could learn a few lessons from Sinn Fein on this and knock doors, be prepared to have doors slammed at as well as welcomed on the doorstep… its simple customer service… and not the call centre politics currently employed by them. The SDLP leadership seem to be listening too much to former high profile party members turned PR GURU’S and columnists.
    With regards to media attention I feel the SDLP still get quite favourable air time. In my constituency (Mid Ulster) there is certainly no lack of media attention given SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone by Mid 106 the local radio station or by the weekly papers in the area. Some days we are fortunate enough to hear Patsy speaking on every news bulletin. Currently the SDLP are still employing schizophrenic politics of trying to out green the shinners, be post nationalist, pro unity, partiitionist, nationalist, socialist, pro business and whatever they are hoping will happen with Fianna Fail whilst still keeping ties with the labour party in the south. Its time the SDLP released a new mission statement.

  • frustrated democrat

    What a depressing set of posts based on historic division and tribal thinking. They work on that basis that everyone here is sectarian, are eternally fixed in that mindset, and are some how different from everyone else in the world.

    I do not accept any of those precepts I think the vast majority of the people here are better than that and that we are basically the same across all these Islands nevermind the rest of the EU and the world.

    The political leadership offered in NI is of an truly low standard and has always seemed to hark back to zero sum politics with real politics comming a distant second. If we could have some leaders who are prepared to set aside their aspirations for the long term and work on shorter term goals their electorates might just follow their lead.

    The truth is that a series of leaders, on both sides, across the last 100 years has brought us to where we are and that until we change them and their divisionist policies we will never be togther – neither in the UK nor in a UI.

    The sad thing is that most of the supposed intelligentsia and potential opinion formers here seem to be insistent on perpetuating those ideas and narrow party policies to the detriment of the people, we can all do better.

  • Turgon

    If the SDLP’s future is to be as sectarian as Sinn Fein then we are all doomed.

    My belief is that there is a growing demand for positive issues based politics in both communities here. The SDLP is never going to stop being a deeply Irish political party. The question is whether it can move politics here beyond the simple question of idenity and deliver real change for ordinary people.

  • runciter

    If the SDLP’s future is to be as sectarian as Sinn Fein then we are all doomed.

    Despite all the partitionist propaganda being mindlessly repeated here, there is nothing intrinsically sectarian about Irish nationalism.

    The question is whether it can move politics here beyond the simple question of idenity and deliver real change for ordinary people.

    It will not be possible to deliver ‘real change’ while we are governed from Westminster.

    Quite a few people on Slugger seem to think that the constitutional problem can be wished away. They are mistaken.

    Sovereignty is not merely a symbolic issue, as our history clearly shows.

  • West Belfast

    This is typical of internet forums. The Sdlp don`t exist in the majority of Nationalist working class areas, live exclusively outside these areas,are not involved in issues on the ground and are continually lambasting the Nationalist electorate for not voting for them.

    The majority of new first time youth voters are opting for a party, rightly or wrongly who they see active EVERYDAY in their areas, SF, see the sdlp as a middle class party of old foggies completely out of touch and date and no amount of sdlp glorifying on an internet forum will change anything.

    Just look at Mcdermot shooting himself and his party in the foot over the St Colms remarks, the community there Know all about Sands and whether the sdlp or this forum agrees are fully supportive of what he stood for.

    The sdlp have nothing to offer and thats why they will eventually implode, split and the sdlp become the realms of small pockets of support across the north.

  • The SDLP philosophy is non-violent, and we believe that idealism – as espoused by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John Hume – will change things, not blind rage. We are also part of the Irish tradition founded by Daniel O’Connell in the 1820’s which advocated change through peaceful means. All these inspirational leaders took their own inspiration from Jesus Christ in large part. The SDLP is thus a New Testament party and it rejects the eye-for-an-eye dogma of the IRA and Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, its main competitor for Nationalist/Catholic votes. The SDLP therefore may be said to have a New Testament value system.

    The most outstanding of its politicians was John Hume has achieved a greatness on the international stage that none of the others quite managed. Indeed he has achieved a greatness that no other Northern Irish, possibly even Irish, politician has managed.

    He has won the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won along with David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, the Martin Luther King Junior Peace Prize, and the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize all in the last few years. These prizes are a worthy recognition of John Hume’s work for peace in the North of Ireland. There have been many tributes to John Hume’s work:

    “In St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (14:19), he admonishes us to ‘follow after the things which make for peace.’ John Hume, whom I am privileged to call a friend, has done just that all his life. And he has done so with a grace, and gentleness, and bravery, and doggedness scarcely imaginable. Last year, the Irish Times wrote that Ireland ‘owes no greater debt than to the man who insisted that living for Ireland is better than dying for it; that it is more challenging of the human spirit to learn to live with one’s adversaries than to subdue them,’ and concluded, ‘John Hume has wrought the very basis of Ireland’s future.’ Truer words have not been written.”

    Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    Thus, coincidentally, there is a choice for Nationalists between New Testament and Old Testament values, between good and evil, and between Christ and Antichrist.

  • jimmy


    “Their superior competence can then be brought into the equation and they might be able to defeat SF.”

    This is the type of statement that has allowed the SDLP to decline as a political force, much like the US auto industry rather than confront the problems facing them procastination and memories of the glory days seem to be the order of the day.

  • Turgon

    I find myself wishing that some of you could be correct but finding it difficult to believe that NI has changed very much.

    This is a very specifically unionist analysis but maybe it is worth making. Post nationalism was a good idea in the context in which it was conceived. After the cease fires and the Belfast agreement there was the perception that unionism was losing, would continue to lose and a united Ireland was around the corner. Trimble’s pathetic surrender to one republican demand after another made that obvious: certainly unionists were very down hearted. In such a scenario a United Ireland seemed likely and moving to “post nationalism” could garner unionist votes for the SDLP. Also with victory around the corner (and provided by the SDLP) nationalists would continue to vote SDLP in large numbers. As such a new political force in the new Ireland could be created.

    The error was to forget that unionists, far from cowed by first the IRA’s campaign, then the peace process and willing to accept what they were told to do, were very angry at the endless sell outs by Trimble. Then came the 2001 Westminster election; had Trimble won no doubt the concessions would have continued. However, although it was missed by nationalists, the British government and Trimble, unionists were very, very angry and prepared to jump ship to the DUP in very large numbers; whereupon at least most of the concessions stopped. Clearly I would argue that there continue to be too many concessions and compromises but the overwhelming sense of unionist defeat has gone.

    In the above context post nationalism is a pipe dream: unionists are undefeated, so nationalism needs people who will fight for them politically and not kindly lead unionists by the hand into a united Ireland. Hence, the SDLP plan so carefully crafted by Hume has been exposed as fallacious. Yet again nationalist politicians have under estimated us: we are remarkably stubborn and really do believe in the union.

    I am sorry that is a specifically unionist analysis (and typed in haste as I am going out) but I think that post nationalism was an excellent idea if a united Ireland was about to happen. In its absence and in the absence of a unionist surrender, it was a flawed idea.

  • runciter

    The SDLP is thus a New Testament party

    In terms of its negative effect on the forum this stuff is no different from commercial spam.

    I don’t understand why Mick has not yet banned your ip.

  • runciter

    Yet again nationalist politicians have under estimated us: we are remarkably stubborn and really do believe in the union.

    Very true. Complacency among nationalist politicians has been a major problem in recent years.

  • Damien Okado-Gough


    [i]Yet again nationalist politicians have under estimated us: we are remarkably stubborn and really do believe in the union. [/i]

    People really do believe in the Union because they were born to. It’s brought about by ethnic determinism, not by a rational economic, political, social and cultural policy analysis, but purely because they’re scared what would happen to them if the other side got their hands on power.

    But that makes the most sense when the ethnic conflict has resulted in bombings and shooting which have slaughtered many from your ethnic group. It makes perfect sense actually. Yet, if no-one wanted to cause you any harm and we were able to look at the economic and political arguments for building a new nation on the island of Ireland free from the fear of physical, economic, social or cultural violence, then people might begin to think differently.

    Republicans (and I use the term in its broadest sense) need to make political republicans out of ethnic Unionists. That is certainly not going to happen whilst militant Republicans were murdering Protestants. Hardly a confidence building mechanism that, eh? But with the PIRA’s campaign over, the possiblity of being able to make the arguments in an environment in which it might be listened to has increased significantly.

    The economic argument for an all-island nation is truly compelling. Firstly because NI inside the UK is a basket-case economy, its people on the collective dole from Britain. Some are doing very well out of it, but a great many are certainly not. NI is linked to a fiscal policy mindset which prioritises the south east of England and always will.
    Secondly, it is also true to say that until the people of the north east of Ireland have the fiscal autonomy from Britain then they will never know real democracy. Divvying out the dole allowance from Britain doesn’t amount to much power in reality. Being able to set your own tax rates does and NI will never have that within the UK. In the words of Billie Holiday, God bless the child who has his own.

    Republicans also need to abandon the traditional view of a United Ireland, which cherishes the Irish Tricolour, the Easter Proclaimation and all of that. NI being merged with the Republic as a political entity is not a goer. Republicans should be offering the opportunity of building a completely new nation on the island. A negotiated nation to which Protestants would feel happy to give their allegiance. A new constitution, political system, flag, anthem, ethos.

    The constitutional question is far from parked. This new dispensation is merely creating the environment in which rational politics can begin to make the running. Republicans of all types must make absolutely sure that sectarianism against Protestants is seen for what it is, the single biggest hurdle to realising the national project. Hume was absolutely right, unite the people and the land will follow.

  • Dave

    Turgon, you might find that Hume is less ‘post-nationalist’ that you think. In regard to the EU, his position was supra-nationalist (citizenship is still linked to nationality with the EU). And in regard to Ireland, he defined two traditions but not two nations. Ergo, his position is classical liberal nationalism of the one-nation state. Nothing in Hume’s politics forbids the creation of that one-nation state as a possible outworking of the political processes that he supported. I would see that process and specifically its outworking as one that was never within the control of either nationalist party. They remain as motley assortment of pitiful dupes, ideological contortionists, self-serving pragmatists and willing puppets.

  • Feartide

    @Damien Okado-Gough

    The problem is that if a united Ireland is not based on ethnic nationalism then there is no point in it. There was no point in the south splitting from the UK without ethnic nationalism. Economic tides ebb and flow. Swapping one subvention teat for another (probably with less money) is no argument for a united Ireland. The difference between republican and constitutional monarchist government is so ivory tower as to be a non-issue.

  • Plastic Paddy

    I would counter that the point of a united Ireland is not ethnic nationalism and that there is still a point in it.

    The point basic constitutional republicanism, in the classical sense of the word (without the IRA connotations, think of republicans like George Washington, Thomas Paine et cetera).

    John Adams, the second US President, said that a republic is “a government of laws, not of men.”

    As it stands now, Irish people in a part of Ireland are beholden to a set of de facto foreign aristocrats and royalty, who maintain a system of government that expressly forbids a Roman Catholic from becoming the head of state – and that forces prime ministers to wait until they leave office to publicly acknowledge their Catholicism. This is the year 2008 in a supposedly modern western democracy.

    Ethnic nationalism, of course, plays a role. But it is not the point. Irish republicans are republicans who are Irish.

    To call this an Ivory Tower distinction is to say that the people of NI are too daft to understand the simple truth that Britain will always regard NI as a troublesome backwater, except when it needs cannon fodder or to pick up a few seats in the Commons.

  • runciter

    Lighten up, brother or sister.

    Much of what goes for comment in all these threads could be described as spam.

  • Comrade Stalin


    Spam is ceaseless, untargetted advertising, and there’s only one name that springs to mind when it comes to posting it here.

  • CS

    We get the same old tired comments from republican and unionist sources here on these threads. Why should I be bothered to be creative when I have a similarly tired old website full of quotes that outwit even the best blogger on the thread.

  • slug


    I believe that Northern Ireland is changing much more than you allow. I think that there is a growing secularism and a decline in tribal mentality. I believe that the UUP’s strategy recognises this, and the Alliance and Green parties occupy a part of politics that is growing. I believe that the SDLP vote will suffer if the SDLP do not broaden rather than narrow their base. I may be wrong, the next 5 years will show, but signs include the increasing mixed marriage, integrated education, secularisation, migration, and cultural diversity.

  • IJP


    Put simply, during the rise of the harder-line parties, the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance have all had to answer a pretty basic question: “What are they for?”

    Alliance’s reversal in fortunes was due to its ability to define its raison-d’etre, in opposing ongoing segregation and referencing quality public services as a reason for doing so. The Ulster Unionists are also making some interesting moves in that direction – not just as a “Conservative” party, but also as an “Ulster British” (as opposed, in their narrative, to the DUP’s “Ulster Nationalist”).

    But what is the SDLP for?

  • Chris Donnelly


    You are wrong to fall into the lazy trap of labelling a nationalist agenda as ‘sectarian.’ If a party espouses a political vision- be it socialist, liberal, conservative, nationalist and/ or unionist, then surely it is only being true to itself by pursuing that specific agenda?

    Part of the problem faced by the SDLP has been that, in its arrogance, it has often pretended to be above the nationalist/ unionist politics.

    Look where that got them.

    Your comments with regard to the Irish language are a case in point.

    It is utter rubbish to blame republicans for the sectarian, bigoted manner in which many unionist political leaders have treated the language.

    If they are to make a recovery, then being honest about their politics would be a good start- and, as I indicated earlier, the party would to well to continue along the line Bradley is pursuing of challenging Sinn Fein over proving who can be more effective in actually delivering on changes sought by their largely shared core constituency.

    Of course, none of this excludes promoting a non-constitutional question agenda (with regard to education, economy, health and social issues etc.) which will be central to broadening an electoral base beyond the traditional support bases for all major parties here.

    But trying to wish away the constitutional question will only ensure the party remains at the margins, whining about being bullied (and exactly how does a party so openly conceding its weakness expect to gain the confidence of the voters….)

  • JD

    “Currently the SDLP are still employing schizophrenic politics of trying to out green the shinners, be post nationalist, pro unity, partiitionist, nationalist, socialist, pro business and whatever they are hoping will happen with Fianna Fail whilst still keeping ties with the labour party in the south. Its time the SDLP released a new mission statement.”

    Best description of the SDLP’s paralysis I’ve seen. To simplify it to three groupings there is the:

    • Nationalist Party Mark II wing of the SDLP
    • Social Democratic wing of the SDLP
    • Fianna Fail NI wing of the SDLP

    The Social Democratic wing is largely in Belfast. The Fianna Fail wing is largely in South Down and Armagh while the Nationalist Party Mark II would be in Derry and the remaining rural areas. By enlarge the SDLP organisation can be broken up along regional lines. One criticism of the SDLP is that it never really was one party, but a series if fiefdoms.

    Fianna Fail always made clear that they would not contest Westminster elections. This means they would always by necessity need a “strategic partner” in the North. The SDLP on the other hand could not allow Fianna Fail to poach their “Green” wing without coming to an accommodation with Fianna Fail. The SDLP can live with half a dozen of their MLA’s going over to Fianna Fail as long as they can count on Fianna Fail’s support at Westminster elections and for the purposes of getting a Minister allocated to them at Stormont.

    Alternatively there is the “Unionist Labour” group alienated by the UUP/Tory alliance. I am not suggesting for a minute that the SDLP can absorb these voters, but if a few UUP reps did defect to the British Labour Party (and there is an embryonic Labour organisation in Belfast), they could have an electoral pact with Labour for Westminster elections – Labour candidates in some constituencies, SDLP in other constituencies. The SDLP’s Westminster presence would be secured at the expense of its nationalist flank in the council’s and Stormont.

    Can the SDLP negotiate a way between being aligned with Fianna Fail in some constituencies and Labour in others? – I doubt it. However an alliance with a larger partner needs to be considered in view of its inability to grow and continually stagnate over the past decade. A new dynamic needs to be injected as the six county “Nationalist Party Mark II + Social Democratic + Fianna Fail NI” formula is doomed to be drained of energy as it tries be all things to everyone.

  • Damien Okado-Gough


    [i]You are wrong to fall into the lazy trap of labelling a nationalist agenda as ‘sectarian.’[/i]

    SF have used issues like the Irish language, parades and flags and emblems to open up ethnic interfaces with Unionists and then put themselves on the front line as the defenders of Catholic Nationlists and have done this for electoral gain, knowing that it is territory on which the SDLP feels particuarly uncomfortable. SF’s nationalist agenda is a sectarian one. It is in the interests of one section of the NI community over the other.

    And I know this to be the case Chris. I once spoke to a prominant SF member in the north west, for whom I have a great deal of respect as a man, and I asked him about a SF policy pattern I reckoned I had identified. In the three council areas I covered as a journalist, Limavady, Derry and Strabane, I noticed an increase in ethnically emotive motions being put forward by SF in the run-up to elections, one of the most high profile and regular being the Derry/Londonderry namechange issue, which was brought up usually within a couple of months prior to an election. But there was a whole raft of issues kicked up, usually around flags and emblems, Irish language and the likes. ‘Equality agenda’ issues. Pretty emotive stuff on an ethnic level, but only an articulate rung or two above trypical Bebo banter. I asked the SF member had there been instructions from higher up in the party to present such motions to council in the run-up to elections and to his credit he told me that there had been.

    [i]It is utter rubbish to blame republicans for the sectarian, bigoted manner in which many unionist political leaders have treated the language.[/i]

    I don’t blame Republicans (I’m one myself), but I blame SF for stoking the sectarian fire and using the Irish language a poker with which to do it. It’s no co-incidence that the are more peace-walls in Belfast now than from before the ceasefires. It’s no coincidence that there are reports for a much higher level of sectarian tension, giving rise to higher levels of segregation, than before the ceasefires. SF decided the way to beat the SDLP into pole position electorally was to be seen to be defending the Catholic/Nationalist community against attempts by Unionists to dominate and sideline them.

    The parades issue was another strategy used by SF to put themselves on the front line in defense of Nationalists and the ethnic tensions stoked by that were horrendous. All we heard from Unionists was that they were under attack, politically and culturally. Hardly what we need when trying to persuade them that it is in their best interests to join the rest of us on the island of Ireland in building a new nation together. It certainly made a joke of their Unionist engagement strategy.


    [i]Swapping one subvention teat for another (probably with less money) is no argument for a united Ireland.[/i]

    The point about fiscal independence from Britain is that local politicians can design and implement economic policies which will generate enough wealth locally that we can stand on our own two feet and not need hand-outs from anyone. In simple terms, an all-island economy would mean an end to the need for subvention. Something any self-respecting individual would welcome.

  • picador


    Sounds to me like you are advocating a policy of croppies lie down. Hasn’t worked for the SDLP and I don’t suppose it will.

  • Silver Line

    SDLP need to do several things,they need to be seen to oppose SF not prop them up and follow like lap dogs, they need to copy the UUP and do something radical mearge with FG or FF become an all Ireland party? look at electoral pacts with the UUP in places such at Newry Armagh they can dislodge the SF MPS making SF loose thus becoming unimportant? They need to be seen as diffferent oppose SF on Education this would attract middle class Catholic voters who are unhappy with the direction of SF. The point being the SDLP need to do something radical that will get them noticed.

  • DC

    Very interesting analysis JD, it would have been good to see the SDLP split so as the lefties could work on the challenges of creating better economic and social circumstances for the people of NI, with a little more fluidity than the uber-Nationalist credentials that are bandied about by the SDLP.

    While my instinct would be Alliance, my experience would be more socialist in terms of the challenges facing us all in a globalised world, and take a social democratic view as that of one reconnecting society with democracy to pit itself against globalisation and get the best from all its works, as it appears to be the only concept that has helped alleviate suffering not advance it. So, I would very much be New Labour supporting (save that of Iraq and the heavy handedness of some of Blair’s more right wing criminal justice stances or would be supportive more so if he worked up better intervention in conjuction with detention).

    I suppose I would be centrist with a left tilting axis, but would not rule out voting for the SDLP/Alliance/PUP. Strange concoction, but arguably, the problem after the GFA 98 is that no party suits my tastes and they remain to be defined in a post-98 way that has some sort of way forward, a way forward that is reflective of wider society and has the right balance to implement appropriate policy regionally. We still remain hanging separately, not together.

    For example, I would prefer the SDLP to be more social democratic and less neon-green cultured. I do not support your views Turgon about the Irish language bill, its definition is too green that it will preclude assembly members from talking to each other in the assembly other than through interpreters, this isn’t really reflective of life in NI as people do go to work and talk to each other when doing things to effect change, Stormont should not be different. Therefore, the SDLP has not defined appropriately the level of Irish speaking and has completely overplayed its hand to placate SF-leaning voters to the detriment of unionists. I too would prefer Alliance to have more culture and ditch its silly yellow colour scheme of the liberals and become more localised and fight some of the more dirtier sectarian squabbles; the PUP I think needs to remain engaged and should be considered for support as they too do take a non-conservative view to abortion and such likes and the PUP is more in tune with how to shape public services to those that need them in a non-conventional way; the PUP is also tasked with a heavy burden of renewing loyalist communities via democracy, for that reason as per a little bit of my socialist sympathy for them I would consider them if shown to be working for change in hotspot areas that are disadvantaged.

    As for the DUP-SF. No, never.

  • Chris Donnelly

    picador and Damian

    No disrespect to you, Damian, but I find your comments to be indicative of a mindset which simply can’t appreciate that issues like parades, flags/emblems and the name of Derry city are rather important to people, and raising them is precisely the job of the political leaders of a community as divided as this one. It is that form of denial which has gotten the SDLP into its current mess.

    The idea that Sinn Fein only bring these matters up before an election is factually incorrect; and I should know, because I’ve played a role in supporting councillors across many council districts in dealing with these matters. And, as I often relish pointing out to similarly misguided souls, nationalist opposition to loyalist parades through catholic districts predates the formation of Sinn Fein by a long, long time (as indeed does disputes regarding the name of Derry.)

    It isn’t being sectarian to seek official recognition of the Irish nationalist identity alongside that of the unionist identity in the Six Counties.

    Far from being sectarian, the resolution of such matters- through the implementation of progressive policies like Sinn Fein’s ‘Equality or Neutrality’ platform (which has seen the party retain a Union flag in Belfast alongside the Irish Triclour in the Mayor’s parlour) is the key to moving politics forward beyond these low level- yet important- disputes.

    Simply wishing them away- as the SDLP fatally have done for many years- is a non-starter for the nationalist community.

    That is a lesson the SDLP must learn to have any chance of re-emerging as one of the two major parties in the north.

    Bradley’s proposals are a good start; perhaps they should consider similarly progressive and detailed proposals for implementing equality with regard to flags and emblems on the councils where they have the largest representation. The party may indeed find itself onto a winner were it to deal effectively with such issues where it is in a position to so do.

  • DC

    “Bradley’s proposals are a good start”

    You do realise Chris that if Dominic’s proposals were to be run in full that there could be a situation causing Sinn Fein MLAs and SDLP MLAs to don headsets so as to listen to interpreters translate the Irish being spoken by either SF or SDLP members who can speak Irish to the Assembly. This being done to commit to the full those Irish-speaking rights that Bradley is after in the Assembly, as per the SDLP proposed bill.

    The instinct is to say bang-on, just right. But can you imagine those in SF having to put on a headset whenever, in a somewhat empty chamber, an SDLP MLA speaks in best-to-fluent Irish to those in SF and other unionists who do not.

    I have to admit I am making the assumption that not all SF speak fluent Irish, and on the flip side I know that not all in the SDLP speak fluent Irish, so it could transpire that SF Irish speakers could force the cultural hand by talking to the SDLP in Irish causing an embarrassing situation for those in the SDLP to put on headsets whenever that happens.

    A situation of being culturally outbid.

    I must say there is a certain poverty of expectation with your above post. I mean, really, is that it, is that the advice for the SDLP, symbols and nameplates and signs. Is there not anything else there to coexist with all of that, if not Ireland is in big economic trouble, particularly the North!!

  • borderline

    Damien is on the ball, I feel.

    Uncomfortable Fact #1

    The North is different.

    If anyone thinks that replicating FF cumainn in the North, i.e. creating groups of old grey men with a penchant for pulling planning permission strings will hasten a UI, then dream on.
    A forum (coiste gan cuachta) is the way to go.

    Uncomfortable Fact #2

    The North is changing and the people are more moderate than the politicians.

    So the SDLP has to go lighter green. It has to appeal to the mixed marriers and the increasingly liberal prods who are British and irish. The Alliance have had this market to themselves – it’s a bigger market than is thought, especially in peacetimes.

    The SDLP has to become the Live and Let Live Party. “If you want to see what Irish Unity looks like, go to IKEA.”