The SDLP – too much fashionable pessimism

As noted in comment yesterday, Fionnuala gives the authentic account of the rise and fall of the SDLP, ending with a threnody of prevailing pessimism about its future. Like her and many others of our generation, I knew all the old gang pretty well but have met only a handful of today’s lot, Maginnes, the Attwoods, Hanna, Dallat, Ritchie, McGrady, McDonnell and yes the “hapless”- (unkind and overstated) – Durkan.

They don’t strike me as inferior to a round up of random Sinn Feiners. The difference is that the pioneering generation of the SDLP has long departed, while the old commanders of republicanism are still hanging on and playing out a role. Succession planning in a still largely Stalinist organisation is much, much better compared to the chaotic baronial principle of the old SDLP.

And yet… How are the rising Catholic bourgeoisie voting? Are they like their Protestant equivalents of yesteryear, staying out of the vulgar fray? Many nationalists recoiled viscerally from the physical force tradition in the style of Eddie McGrady for instance. Has that sentiment become entirely irrelevant and has Sinn Fein become just another nationalist party? I still believe that with a 108 member Assembly with those designations – (dubious though they be) – and STV voting which undermines monoliths, the opportunities for an SDLP revival are going a-begging.

But if you’re a rising star in any party you can forget about hob-nobbing with presidents and prime ministers. The job these days is more humdrum, thank God – but still surely worthwhile. Or do you have to be working class to find the slimmed down pay and conditions attractive?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London