Sinn Fein’s open goal presents the SDLP with a golden shot

Does the SDLP have a future? The question is often asked but rarely examined properly. Now the historian Cillian McGrattan has had a modest go at it in Fortnight. On bread and butter policies there’s little or no difference with Sinn Fein: spend, spend, spend. It might be very different if they were obliged to tax as well as spend.

Looking back on the Troubles, McGrattan is right to stress radically different legacies. It’s true that the SDLP found it easier to criticise “Crown forces” than the IRA. They kept strictly private the odd muttering that if only unionists had the sense to do a deal with them they would make the Cosgrave government look like a tea party. Whether that’s to be taken literally or not, the fact was that although the IRA were bastards, they were our bastards and they would still be around after the army had left – eventually. So tactical prudence got the better part of political valour. In addition, there was the considerable point to holding the State to its own professed standards while the IRA despised any such nonsense applying to them.

The starkest difference is that the IRA held up reform for generations while the SDLP would have done much to bring it about. But these days, when the gap between ” constitutional ” politics and the physical force kind has all but disappeared the distinction has lost much of its force. Nevertheless, which tradition would you rather defend at St Peter’s gates? Now Gerard, tell me again, exactly what freedom was it you won?

I suppose what still frightens the SDLP is the question, which one is the greener. Yet today it seems less profitable than ever. They can’t play it down too much for fear of gifting SF with an opportunist if empty victory.

The SDLP have probably noticed but it’s worth pointing out that almost everywhere except NI, political parties have abandoned the ancient nostrums of the left. Only SF sticks half heartedly to the last century’s agitprop to fill in the gaps between Wolf Tone commemorations. Forced to cover the divergent economies of the two states of Ireland, they lack the intellectual muscle to deal with one.

Waiting for SF fully to divest its revolutionary canon  presents the SDLP with an open goal.  A growing Middle NI exists unchecked by recession. It’s not yet a swing vote and may never become so  but it is undoubtedly growing, politically unrevolutionary,  and there to be captured by  fresh energy and ideas.  The party might also take note that the Catholic middle class are as keen on grammar schools as the Prods. The embourgeoisement of nationalist politics is happening slowly.

With the “one last heave” school of unity in the doldrums, it would seem more profitable to carve out a distinction between the SDLP’s shared future ambitions and Sinn Fein’s separate but equal (or “benign apartheid” call it what you will) – a distinction reinforced by FMFDM’s Cohesion Strategy paper.

But you may ask, where is the political gain to be won in that, when the communities are so ghettoised? Important I’d say, as a sign of ambition for good government, marginally politically worth it in places like south Belfast, and better at any rate than living only on dreams.

After a shaky start Margaret Ritchie is making headway. The SDLP now needs to spell out just how that future is to be shared in the practical workings of a genuine coalition. Genuine partnership involving give and take  is essential.  Specific policies aside, the way the UK coalition put together a programme for government offers a model.   Engagement with consenting unionists and the “others” could be transforming.  It may be along haul but the SDLP have nothing to lose.

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