Some questions for Margaret

Taking her claim that the SDLP is “ brimming with ideas” at face value, may I put some questions about what might be thought distinctive about Margaret Ritchie’s SDLP leadership bid?. Thanks to Conall for the text. Unless the party can work up something to broaden the agenda and woo voters with a USP or few, her thoughts will stay what Margaret says they are – personal visions. I’m suprised she has nothing to say on how the SDLP would exercise justice and policing lawmaking powers, especially when the party is furious about being sidelined…

“We want more economic independence from Britain – and ultimately our own taxation and welfare regimes. Northern Ireland needs to be able to retain the gains made through better economic management. We believe in devolution so we want more of it. Broadcasting and Telecoms too.”

Before we get to the further future, what are Margaret’s tough choices for public spending cuts? Or will she stick with funking them as long as possible like the other parties until the Treasury imposes them? (Funking them might be quite a good idea if she knows how to make the case). What are her ideas for a local taxation regime?. 10p in £ plus a local stamp duty such as Calman proposes for Scotland with a proportionate reduction from Whitehall? How would she spend revenue differently from at present? A separate tax regime is not thought to be a good idea for NI foreseeably. How could NI fund the pensions black hole more self sufficiently than now? What would be the benefit of devolved welfare? More, or less, welfare to work? Is she asking the Assembly CAL committee to appoint an NI member each to Ofcom and the BBC Trust? What differences would that make?

“At the same time we want to deepen our North/South economic integration. And get serious about the green economy as a source of competitive advantage. As a first step we will campaign for an all-island independent Environmental Protection Agency and a single all-island Regulator for Energy.”

There is at least an outline shape for this already. A common energy market is key to north-south economic integration. NI energy prices are too high under a dubious contract regime. How would it develop in a way that would attract hard-pressed consumers?

“I will engage meaningfully with the unionist community. Look them in the eye and tell them they can trust the SDLP and they can trust me. Our engagement will not be the patronising ‘outreach’ favoured by others who do not ultimately believe in sharing. Equal but separate is what satisfies others. It will never satisfy the SDLP. We want a Shared Future that is actually Shared. We have plenty to do. Not in drips and drabs but full steam ahead towards reconciliation and a truly shared society. “

It would be a great achievement to put momentum into the moribund Shared Future agenda. But is this anything more than striking a different pose from Sinn Fein? The references to “outreach” and “equal and separate” are tilts at Sinn Fein. How precisely would she set about winning the necessary cross community support to put flesh on the bones of A Shared Future, beyond small integrated housing programmes and shared spaces?

I will take our unique ideas for achieving unity to the very heart of decision-making in Dublin. I will campaign hard for the establishment of a new all-party Commission with a clear remit to agree a modern, inclusive vision for a United Ireland. I will press every party in the South to sign up to the SDLP’s radical thinking on unity.

What are these “unique ” and ” radical ideas” on Unity? I must have missed them, even though the SDLP have had many years to work them up. Is this the time for either side of the border. but particularly the parties to the Republic with all its troubles, to take part in a meaningful commission?

Perhaps the difficult political question is this: how does Margaret propose to avoid a clash between a Shared Future in which the SDLP is “trusted ” by unionists, and her “unambiguous” support for Unity? In the event of clashes, which would she chose? There is a paradox about public opinion. While declining numbers of voters still polarise between unionist and nationalist groups on the national question, repeated very extensive Life and Times Surveys show that opinion on both sides is soft on both the Union and Unity. As turnout declines, is this not a gap to exploit? Amazingly, nothing here specifically for women in what is still a sexist society. What about supporting abortion guidance? Or confessional equality for teacher recruitment? ( sorry, I’m freewheeling here)…

  • Peter

    Great to see that Margaret has started a debate with her speech – 3 full posts dedicated to her vision!

    Go Margaret!

  • Drumlins Rock

    big Als launch didnt get the same attentino, he has launched hasnt he?

  • Chris Donnelly

    Far be it for me to assume the unnatural position of standing up for an SDLP representative, but I think the questions you ask would find a similarly unimpressive response from the leaders of all the parties here.

    That said, a party, like the SDLP, struggling to occupy a position of relevance within the political arena, would clearly be advised to carve out a unique stance to capture the attention of the electorate.

    I would take issue with the query about how the SDLP (and, by extension, Irish nationalists) could square a ‘shared future’ strategy with pursuit of Irish unity.

    Nationalists are fully entitled to expect a mature unionism accepts the legitimacy of the Irish nationalist tradition, including the fact that the GFA was clearly viewed as a democratic framework within which the battle for ideas and support for continued union with Britain or a future within an all-Ireland framework would take place.

    Part of the reason the SDLP has floundered since the mid-1990s was because they left the ground of assertively articulating the Irish nationalist vision- and standing up to the aggressive posturing of political unionism- to Sinn Fein.

    However, even were the party to regain some ground with regard to their credibility as proponents of the Irish nationalist vision, they remain severely weakened by the failure to address the accusation of being a six county party.

    The idea that asking all nationalist parties to take part in a rerun of the Forum some 25 years later is a sign of desperation. Whilst Sinn Fein may have received a setback at the last Dail elections, they remain a visibly all-Ireland party, always one election away from a potential place in coalition government.

    They key to progress for the SDLP is to be found in wooing Fianna Fail- or perhaps another southern party- into the type of arrangement Reg Empey has secured with the Tories.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath on that happening any time soon.

  • Coll Ciotach

    SDLP wooing FF? what is in it for FF? Even if the SDLP want to they are doomed to be spurned, sorry but nobody loves them any more

  • Chris Donnelly


    You may be right; but until Fianna Fail prove they’re serious about entering the political/ electoral scene in the north, it’ll remain a scenario many will revisit.

    btw any news on that front???

  • John East Belfast

    Northern Nationalists using economics as a reason for Irish unity is akin to a dog chasing its own tail.

    It is pointless and a complete waste of energy, time and intellectual thought processes.

    Anyone with any wit will realise that the argument for taking NI out of the UK is based on the heart and not the head.

    Taking responsibility for our own tax and welfare would mean more tax and less welfare.

    It is just daft.

    What SDLP needs to do is recognise the reality of where we are – and where the ROI is economically – and start developing realistic and practical policies that exploit Northern Ireland’s place within the UK – instead of chaing after shadows

  • Vulture

    Ritchie: ” I will press every party in the South to sign up to the SDLP’s radical thinking on unity.”

    Hahhaha, I cant see FF or republican minded Labour people signing up to her view of a United Ireland, she and McGrady epitomise the kind of “soft nationalism” that will kill off the SDLP. Ritchie stands up and comdemns SF for not sitting in Westminster, any FFe I know will not sign up to her vision of a la carte Republicanism.

  • Brian Walker

    Chris, You’re right, similar questions could be put to all other parties. But this is Margaret’s manifesto and I’d just like to know what she’d put under the headings. I’m not assuming these questions are incapable of answer but they should get a move on. All parties tend to prefer politics to policy-making as the default position. Perhaps under the surface of the present clamour, confidence is slowly building, but it needs the explicit encouragement of cross community politics. The centre ground which it was thought would remain at the fulcrum of politics badly needs rebuilding. This also involves the Ulster Unionists and any others who are willing. I should have thought this was the priority. It seems obvious that it requires soft-pedalling on endgames without being asked to abandon them, particularly as there is little prospect of early fulfilment. Suggestions otherwise deceive the voters and could in time rebound on the party who makes them. There is no perfect union and no perfect unity. Big gains have been made. Let’s hear a few speeches that acknowledge that. From the unionists, more enthusiasm for north-south, the language etc. Anything to change the atmosphere of grim sectarian deadlock. Is this all this vote losing stuff, despised as Alliance party middle class, English talk? Well, the centre parties aren’t doing so well at the narrow communal stuff. They’re teetering over a new approach; they should jump in. You may not agree, but there’s evidence that on both sides of the divide, opinion is fairly soft on both national identities, despite the fact that the political system is defined by them. A “non-sectarian” political movement can only be a catalyst. The main initiatives have to come from within the present parties. There are risks in moving out of the silos but I don’t see what the SDLP have to lose. They did it before. The Ulster Unionists should do likewise, not as a cute tactic to confound the DUP but as a developing strategy to change the direction of politics. There’s plenty of room to develop all kinds of Irishness, progress is far too slow. The trouble with a simple call for unity is that it tends to become the big ticket item, and colours everything else. The SDLP need to explain how this won’t happen. Assuring unionists of equal treatment in a putative united Ireland is part of it, but so is acceptance of and full participation in what is already a new Northern Ireland. The stress I suggest should be on the latter in the interests of all.

  • Harry

    Margaret has dug herself into a hole regarding gaining unionist support. She’s already trying to reach out to Alliance supporters whilst holding onto their dwindling nationalist supporters. It ain’t going to happen IMO. Alliance supporters are mainly unionist, and largely Protestant. You can tell this by the fact that their MLAs are all from very unionist areas e.g. E Belfast, North Down, S Antrim, Lagan Valley, Strangford. Also, in the Assembly elections, Alliance’s vote went up much as a result of UUP decline and not due to SDLP decline. (SDLP decline was because of SF gain, whilst the DUP gain was not as much as UUP decline). Thus a large chunk, certainly a majority of Alliance voters are unionist, or at least pro-union. Thus whilst they may be appealed by the SDLP’s “shared future” – they will be turned off by the fact this future is in a united Ireland. Frankly the SDLP have to drop a united Ireland as a priority policy, that’s what SF are there for. The SDLP are slowly being wiped off the map, and whilst the UUP seem to have found something to hang onto to stop their descent, SDLP seemingly are headed for the bottom of the ocean.

  • Brian Walker

    The great pity of it is that so much of politics continues on exactly the same lines as if the Troubles hadn’t ended and as if nothing had changed over the past 70 years since partition. New structures have been created with the agreeement of local politicians – though not created by them – which specifically encourage new relationships. Yet things haven’t turned out as hoped so far.

    In 1998-9 it was thought that the UUP-SDLP centre would dominate and drag the others towards acceptance and a disarmed peace. By 2006, hopes were pinned on a deal between the two opposite poles that could not be outflanked on the right. That too has had to be qualified. The internal contradictions are producing deadlock if not breakdown. The system may survive but to what point? Disillusion is growing and with it, the viability of renewed ” struggle.” It would be a tragic misreading if in response the main parties were to lapse back into knee-jerk nationalist fundamentalism of either variety and merely continue the war by political means. There are huge opportunities for win:win here that so far politicians are largely missing. There’s plenty of evidence in society that people welcome more constructive politics, if only the parties would give a better lead.

    For a start, the snapping ill will, raging and petty point scoring that we read so often is poor stuff. A new civility is not the least quality we badly need.

  • eric

    “Ritchie stands up and comdemns SF for not sitting in Westminster, any FFe I know will not sign up to her vision of a la carte Republicanism. ”

    Fianna Fail are very good at a la carte Republicanism. Their on/off relationship with the SDLP over the past 40 years is proof of that.

    There is space for a nationalist pro business party and a more full blooded Labour option. The SDLP should cut free their Labour wing, rebrand and join Fianna Fail and the Alliance Party in the centrist Liberal Group (economically if not socially). They have a mountain to climb, but they are not going to go anywhere without a clear narrative and something to whip them into line organisationally.

    Fianna Fail are happy to support sitting Westminster MPs like Alisdair as long as they don’t have a Fianna Fail membership card.

    The SDLP need to get out of their time warp trying to re-live past glories. As someone else described it “the rest of the nationalist political spectrum does not owe them a living” (or words to that effect)

  • LabourNIman

    I’ve a question for her – when can people with internet join her party via the website?!