SDLP: O’Loan breaks ranks and then is pulled sharply back in…

Well, that didn’t last long. Within hours of suggesting the unthinkable, North Antrim MLA has pulled out of his bold statement earlier in which he noted:

I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party.

The values of the SDLP and its ability to command respect and at least second preference votes across the whole community are not something that should be lost. In the interests of achieving Irish unity, that respect is vital.

The election was marked by a high level of tactical voting within the nationalist electorate, and indeed between nationalism and unionism. Many nationalist voters are willing to exercise their votes interchangeably between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Equally it is clear that there remains solid support for what the SDLP stands for and that support is not going to change.”

His retraction is terse, unconditional and does not even hint at why he made the statement in the first place, or why he was now pulling it, other than it is not official party policy:

The statement which I issued earlier today entitled ‘O’Loan calls for formation of single Nationalist Party’ does not represent established party policy and I now wish to withdraw it. I do not wish to make any further comment on the matter.

It may not be party policy, but it was clearly an honest view from O’Loan. It suggests there is little shared understanding of the party’s position going forward, and indicative of the absence of a healthy internal debate within the party following the election of Margaret Ritchie.

And remember O’Loan publicly declared his support for her, rather than fellow North Antrim man Alisdair McDonnell. I suspect this was not an attempt at an internal coup. But it is an indication of the kind of drift the party has been suffering ever since John Hume stepped down from the leadership.

As Mark’s charts clearly indicate this kind of intellectual and political drift is something the moderate nationalist party shares with its unionist counterpart, the UUP. It is long not short term. It also indicates, perhaps, that no one in a leadership position could have prevented it.

Robert Putnam’s long term study (which we referenced in A Long Peace? back in 2003) of the introduction of regional democracy in Italy suggests a pattern of former ‘extreme’ parties doing rather better at government than former ‘moderates’. Put simply, their innate radicalism allows them to bring much more focus and energy to the job.

Perhaps Mr O’Loan has simply glimpsed the future and is keen to sue for terms, whilst his party retains some strength and political capital. That a Ritchie loyalist has spoken so far out of turn means is party is unlikely to follow suit in the short term.

Yet at a more mundane level it also suggests that the state of the party’s internal democracy is not everything it might be, when such a respected party has had to be closed down so quickly, and frankly disastrously.

In the meantime, we will continue to watch this space with considerable interest…

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